"I have struggled with how I feel about my body for years."
"I feel ashamed about my body."
"I am critical about my body."
These are common stories I hear from the women I work with. Truth: It's the same story I used to tell myself every day too.
No matter what stage of life we are in, the "I wants" and the "I wishes" never seem to go away. When we're young, it's:
- I want to be the most popular girl in school.
- I wish my chest weren't so flat (or so big so soon!)
- I want clear skin.
- I wish my hair weren't so frizzy.
- I want the boy I like to like me too.
And as we grow older, our wants and wishes take on a new, no less unhealthy, form:
- I want to be in the best shape of my life.
- I wish I didn't have to color the gray out of my hair.
- I want clothes that fit me better.
- I wish that I were thin again.
- I want to maintain a youthful appearance.
Why are we never good enough for ourselves? Why do we hold onto these negative feelings?
These old stories and habits do more than just make you feel bad. If you hold onto an old story that "I am fat and look funny in workout clothes," it's easier to make excuses, making it easy to procrastinate and let yourself off the hook. "If I don't get into those workout clothes not only do I avoid feeling physically uncomfortable, but I get to avoid the discomfort of people looking at me, judging me, not liking me because of how I look."
Did you know that when you respond emotionally and behaviorally the same way, over and over again to the same situations, that your brain is actually wired to automatically create those responses -- good or bad?
The brain contains billions of tiny cells that are called neurons, and they are wired together in various configurations called "neural networks." These neural networks are constantly changing, wiring together our various memories with other networks of neurons in the brain that connect with our emotions and with our logical decision making part of the brain.
You may have heard of the saying, "cells that fire together wire together?" Well what that essentially means is that whenever you consistently fire off various neurons in your brain, they literally wire together a neural network. Thus forming a habit.
A 2006 study by Daniel S. Levine, Department of Psychology, University of Texas, called "Neural Network Modeling of Emotion" found that neural networks are responsible for individual decision making -- fear conditioning as well as positive effects.
Studies also show that the human brain continues to develop and form new neural networks through the course of your entire life. One such study, by researchers Catherine Lebel, Ph.D. and Christian Beaulieu, Ph.D. of the University of Alberta, shows how new life experiences can actually re-wire our brains.
So, every time you look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself on old story about your appearance, and then FEEL those icky feelings that you always feel in such a moment, and then go eat a gallon of ice cream, you are literally embedding that emotional response into your body and that disempowering behavior into a habit.
So how do you manage the negative emotional space, and let go of the old stories?
It all begins with emotional awareness: the skill of noticing how you feel and what triggers it.
You must be mindful to do this.
Process your feelings in appropriate and empowering ways, like venting to a friend, journaling or talking it out with someone you trust. As you start releasing the negative emotions this way, remember that you are not your feelings and you are powerful enough to let go of them. Trust yourself to feel and release the steam! Listen closely to the important messages trapped inside those negative feelings. "Positive stories" like, "I need to eat better!" or "It's time to make a change," or "It's time to slow down a bit."
Then you can begin to build up some emotional endurance: the ability to feel the fear and do it anyway.
The more you engage in uncomfortable experiences and get through them with positive feelings, your brain literally gets rewired to experience that situation differently the next time. A skill to develop is the ability to "feel the fear and do it anyway," as author Susan Jeffers put it. Visualize yourself doing what you want to do, yet doing it in a way that feels good, comfortable... then actually doing it... creating THAT vision and enjoying yourself as you do.
Although it may stretch you to begin writing a new story of self-image, the more you practice, the easier it will become. And, as you do, you will discover how easy it is to enjoy a healthy lifestyle and all the positive benefits that go along with that.
What is your body image perception? How can you rewrite that story into a positive one?
Follow Susan Liddy, M.A., P.C.C., C.P.C.C. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SusanLiddy