Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Look at Your Body as Your Paintbrush, Not Your Canvas

Paint your best self into the world.

If you have ever woken up in the morning, looked at yourself in the mirror, and thought, “I just can’t go outside looking like this,” you’re certainly not alone. Most of us have grown up with a double message—on the one hand, we are told we are more than our physical looks, but on the other hand, we learn that people often look at how we look and how we present ourselves before they get to know us. So if you are not comfortable with your appearance, you may communicate something like “stay away” or “don’t even try to talk to me," even if what you really mean is “I’m afraid you’re going to reject me” or “I know I look funny (bad, fat, ugly, or whatever it is that bothers you about your looks), so you can’t possibly want to talk to me.”

I often hear from clients that they will look for a new, more interesting job, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or consider going back to school or making new friends when they lose weight and “feel better” about themselves. I also hear that people are so much more responsive when you’re thinner and that you have to love yourself in order to be loved by someone else. But these statements and the beliefs behind them can just keep you stuck in your rut, not help you feel more self-confident and more self-loving.

In a recent post on The Huffington Post, Glennon Melton writes that instead of assuming that you have to change your body, you should look for ways to make your body represent something you love about yourself. She says:

“Stop spending all day obsessing, cursing, perfecting your body like it's all you've got to offer the world. Your body is not your art, it's your paintbrush. Whether your paintbrush is a tall paintbrush or a thin paintbrush or a stocky paintbrush or a scratched up paintbrush is completely irrelevant. What is relevant is that YOU HAVE A PAINTBRUSH which can be used to transfer your insides onto the canvas of your life—where others can see it and be inspired and comforted by it.”

What does she mean? And how can you act on these incredibly wise words?

Try this: Instead of focusing on all of the things you hate and wish you could change about your body, pay attention to something you really like about yourself. Maybe it’s your sharp intelligence, your ability to do complex math in your head, or your great sense of humor. Maybe you are a kind and caring friend, or a loving daughter or son. Perhaps you are a terrific librarian or have a great sense of color or really understand psychodynamics.

Obviously, the only thing on this list that you can actually translate into something you wear is a sense of color. But as you focus on these things that you value, you will very likely present yourself to the world in a different way. It may be a subtle change, but you may be surprised at the difference it makes. When clients and friends lose weight, they tell me that they are suddenly getting different responses from people on the street. I know that we live in a world where physical appearance is judged non-stop. But I have always wondered how much this different response is related to their newly discovered good feelings about themselves, since I have also known many people who got different responses when they changed a tiny thing about the way they moved through their days, without losing a single ounce.

For instance, one woman told me that no one ever looked at her. When I asked her to talk more about the experience, she admitted that she always kept her eyes down when she walked down the street. I suggested she try an experiment—to walk down a block where she felt comfortable and safe and make eye contact with as many people as she could. Suddenly, people were looking at her!

This experiment highlights one of the complexities of how we judge ourselves. In many places, we don’t make eye contact with strangers because we’ve learned that it’s not always a great idea. It communicates a willingness to make contact that we may not want or that might not be safe. But without realizing it, we often carry that self-protective behavior into areas where it is not necessary and is not useful. Then when people seem to respond to the message we give—to stay away—we think they don’t like us or are not interested in us.

Marsha Linehan, who developed Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), suggests that tiny changes in our approach to others can change the ways they respond to us, which can lead to amazing alterations in how we feel about ourselves. You can try one of her exercises for yourself. For fifteen minutes, walk around with a “half-smile” on your face. Notice how people react to you. Has anything changed? Now notice how you’re feeling after the 15 minutes. Try it again once or twice a day for a few days. You, like many of my clients, may be surprised at the difference it makes in how you feel about yourself!

Finally, Glennon Melton suggests that we thank our bodies for everything they do for us. I love this idea, which is also one that you hear in many yoga classes. How often do you think to thank your body for digesting the food that keeps you alive? For getting you to work today? (Okay, maybe you wish it had let you stay in bed, but still…) For appreciating the scents and tastes of a delicious meal or for being able to read the words on this page? Try it today. Instead of criticizing your body for all of its flaws, thank it for all of its strengths and brilliant capacities! You may be very surprised to find how much better that body seems to make you feel. And how much more comfortably you present the self you like to the world you live in.

Teaser image: Happy Painters - iStock Photo: 43999024

Readings:

Glennon Melton:Your Body Is Not Your Masterpiece http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glennon-melton/your-body-is-not-you...

Glennon Melton: Momastery    http://momastery.com/blog/about-glennon/

Body Image Your Body My Story Eating Disorders GLAM4GOOD

Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York: The Guilford Press 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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