We’ve all been self-conscious about our appearance, and have at one point or another worried about what other people think of us. Whether it’s how we dress, speak, act, or even weigh, that concern can at times be overwhelming. While it’s important to take in others’ opinions (this gives us a reflection of ourselves and how we are perceived), over-valuing what others think or may think, while under-valuing our own ideas can damage our self-respect. If you’d like to spend less time concerned about others’ opinions and more time embodying your own values, I’ve put together a few strategies that will help you in this area.
Tuning in requires focusing on your internal voice and turning up the volume so that it is louder than the opinions around you. When you find yourself in a situation where you feel over-worried about what someone else may think of you, ask yourself, “What, in my deepest values, do I believe about this situation?” You may also ask yourself how you would respond to a friend who was in your shoes. Would you shame and browbeat her or tell her that you understand where she is coming from and she did not do anything to be embarrassed? The strategies of asking how you feel, what you believe and to what standard you would hold someone you care about, gives you valuable feedback about whether you want to correct your behavior or if the problem is not your behavior but worry thoughts and shame entering your mind and body.
Your Values, Thoughts, and Emotions
When you have discovered that you have behaved, dressed, spoken, etc., in line with your values but are still plagued by embarrassment and worries about what others think of you, the first step is DON’T CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR. If you change your behavior when your behavior is not the problem, you are sending yourself a confusing message and shame is likely to build.
For example, Marla (pseudonym) found herself concerned that she was not “thin enough” and felt embarrassed about her appearance in certain social situations. As a result of this embarrassment, Marla would tug on her clothes, check herself often in the mirror, avoid being in pictures, and plan her outfit days in advance in response to excruciating worry thoughts. When Marla asked herself about her values, she realized that she would never ever treat a friend the way she was treating herself. She would never judge a friend based on her weight or fit of her clothes and would not want to associate herself with anyone who would judge in this way. Yet, she had been behaving as though she should be ashamed.
Marla’s strategy became clear: Treat her body as perfectly fine and refuse to apologize for how she looks. This means that Marla resisted urges to tug on her clothes, plan the perfect outfit in advance, and even volunteered to be front-and-center in photos. Initially, her self-critical and worry-thoughts increased, and she felt embarrassment wash over her when seeing a full-body picture posted on Facebook. Marla was determined, though, and she persisted.
Over time, her mind and body understood the consistent message that Marla was sending. The message was, “I will not apologize for how my body looks because there is no reason to apologize.” Her self-hating thoughts and worries about what others thought of her began to quiet and feelings of embarrassment lessened over time. Now, when Marla feels a surge of her old urge to apologize for her appearance rear its ugly head, she knows what to do and prioritizes her mental health and self-respect.
As my wise Zen teacher says, “You cannot force yourself to be different. All you can do is practice every day until one day, you become what you have practiced.”
Your Breath and Sensations
If you find it difficult to tune into your values and priorities, start with your breath. Any of my past or present patients will tell you that at least once per therapy session, I will ask them to stop and notice three inhalations and exhalations. This offers an opportunity to notice what the breath is doing in the body. Stop and try it now – place your awareness on your breath for three inhales and exhales. Notice: Where in your physical body does your attention go as you are placing your awareness on your breathing? Your breath is a readily available sensation that can help you start to tune into your body and then your wisdom.
After noticing how your breath feels in your physical body, you can also start to pay attention to sensations. Start to ask yourself questions, such as, “How does my body feel when I am having fun, trusting myself, following what feels right?” Are you relaxed in some areas, tense in others? Do you notice changes in your posture? How about temperature or a feeling of moving energy in various parts of your body? The more you tune into how your body feels, you will begin to get clear messages from your wisdom and be able to sharply access your values and priorities in different situations.
The more you practice paying attention to your breath, listening to your body and feelings, identifying your values and behaving as though they matter, the easier it will become. With any new behavior practice, practice and then more practice is needed to help the new habit stick. As my wise Zen teacher says, “You cannot force yourself to be different. All you can do is practice every day until one day, you become what you have practiced.”
Identify a step from this article that you can put into practice today and practice doing this every day until it becomes easy for you. Then, identify and take a next step. If you are a person who has loud self-critical thoughts, it will take a while for them to calm down and for value-driven thoughts to take up your mind space. Give yourself the time you need and devote yourself to one small practice every day.
If you want additional help learning how to truly experience and enjoy your life, contact Dr. Bando today for an online consultation and start shifting from surviving to thriving!