My last column addressed how to cope with physical characteristics that are impossible to change, and how not dealing with that can get in the way of your health and happiness. You may now be motivated to work at letting go of such a preoccupation.
A good place to start is by choosing one or two instances where your preoccupation seems to rear its ugly head most frequently. Two common ones: looking at yourself in a mirror and looking at pictures of yourself. Many people with body image distortions or irrational preoccupations with their bodies or body parts have particular distress with mirrors and pictures.
Jenna, for example, agonized every time her picture was going to be taken. When she viewed the actual image she felt distressed. You’d think that something that upsetting would cause a person to want to stay away from it and not think about it. Not so with Jenna, who would become preoccupied with the most recent picture of herself, repeatedly scrutinizing it for faults, focusing on perceived faults and beating herself up mercilessly about them. All the while, Jenna’s expectation was that she must have a perfect body and that every picture must look perfect, a no-win situation, of course.
Marilyn had a thing about mirrors. She already felt fat and ugly, a distortion from anyone else’s perspective, but she was compelled to examine herself every time she came across a mirror. “Ugh! I look so fat! My arms are huge! My stomach sticks out to forever! Gross!” she would conclude every time a mirror crossed her path. The same thing happened when she spotted her reflection in a store window. With so many mirrors and windows around, Marilyn could count on feeling miserable much of the time.
It may be hard to imagine, but both of these women were able to conquer their distortions and obsessions with their bodies as well as their mirror and picture troubles.
Jenna learned several things that helped her let go of her picture preoccupation:
• Why do we take pictures? To capture moments and people in our lives that we want to remember and treasure. We also take pictures so that others can remember us fondly through time. Think of people you care about a great deal. Do you like having pictures of them? Why? Do you care if those pictures show them aging, gaining weight or having a bad hair day? Why not? Wouldn’t it be sad if you had no visual memories of your grandparents or your best friend in high school?
• How people appear in pictures depends on a lot of variables. Lighting, how the person is posed, the type of lens used, how tired or tense the person was when the photo was taken — these can all change how a person looks from one picture to the next. There’s no way to look the same in every picture.
• In this day and age, pictures of models and celebrities are touched up to such an extent that they are far removed from what exists in the real world. If you think you should look just like those photos, you’re headed for nothing but frustration, low self-esteem and misery.
After these lessons, Jenna decided to jump in by enthusiastically allowing her picture to be taken. She focused on the story of the picture rather than how she looked.
Here’s what Marilyn learned about how to handle her mirror images:
• Mirrors are utilitarian tools to help us manage certain things in everyday life (applying makeup, combing hair, getting dressed). They certainly help us look our best, but they are not for judging who we are or self-worth.
• If mirrors are used as they are meant to be used, you don’t need to look in them repeatedly throughout the day. You might use them to start off your day, to prepare to go out for an event and to apply products to your face, but rarely more than that. Again, mirrors are tools, not judges.
• There’s always a certain amount of distortion with mirrors. You’ll never see yourself exactly as others see you. And, just as with pictures, lighting, tiredness and pose have an effect on the image you see.
Marilyn decided she would not allow herself to look in a mirror other than for utilitarian reasons. She also began to remind herself of the self-inflicted misery she was causing when she became judgmental after seeing her reflection.
Keeping a rational perspective on things such as picture and mirror images can have a significant impact on overall happiness.
Previously published in the Tampa Bay Times