Sante77777/Shutterstock
Source: Sante77777/Shutterstock

Sally discovered sensual dance as a way to have fun and feel more confident. It turned out to be a great way to attract men too. Called “The Man Magnet” by her women friends, Sally had a way of amplifying her feminine sexual energy and transmitting out to the social world. Men were drawn in by her irresistible power and Sally thoroughly enjoyed all the attention.

Eventually, she drew Steve into her orbit. After few months into their hot love affair, they decided to move in together—and that’s when everything changed. Steve fell in love with Sally’s sexy sensual self—and hadn’t yet seen the other sides of her, like when she had a cold, or felt fat, or was cranky because she hadn’t slept well. He hadn’t really noticed how hard Sally worked behind the scenes to make her very successful career look easy. He hadn’t seen her anxious moments, or bouts of insecurity as she dealt with people and problems that came up in her everyday life.  Actually, Steve didn’t want to see those parts of her—he wanted to see a sexy girlfriend who effortlessly kept her successful business going and was always in a playful, generous mood.

So when Sally was upset or not feeling as attractive as usual, he tried not to notice —hoping the moment would pass and his fun sexy girlfriend would come back.  Sally knew that Steve wasn’t paying much attention when she was in a bad mood. If she tried to tell him about something on her mind that was troubling her, he’d change the subject to something light, sexy, and fun. He read in psychology books that you’re supposed to reward behaviors you like in others and not reward those you find unpleasant. So he paid attention and smiled when Sally was in her sexy goddess mode, and ignored her when she was feeling upset or just focused on her work. Steve wasn’t a bad guy; he just didn’t realize that Sally had many facets to her.

Steve’s behavior triggered feelings of anxiety and shame in Sally—she started to believe that she wasn’t just a person in a bad mood—but that she was a bad person for letting her partner down, and being such a downer. She started to judge herself as “selfish” when she wanted to just chill in her yoga pants and eat ice cream instead of putting on her sexy goddess routine for Steve. Like Sally, many of us have an “if you really knew me” script in our minds that gets activated when we become more intimate and reveal more of ourselves to someone special. We have the often erroneous belief that if others saw who we really are, they’d reject us. So we feel especially vulnerable showing the less flattering aspects of ourselves and our partner’s reaction can have a huge impact.

This process starts early in life as we learn who we are and how we feel through face to face contact with our caregivers. By reflecting back how we feel, they help us develop a sense of ourselves. Our capacity for empathy grows through these early reflections. And, our ability to manage our own emotions develops from being reflected and responded to in appropriate ways. When we’re not reflected or responded to in ways that validate our feelings and who we are, we can start to feel anxious, and think something's wrong with us. So it’s easy to understand why Sally became even more anxious when Steve ignored her feeling upset and vulnerable.

Interestingly, a hallmark of anxiety disorders is the inability to recognize one’s own emotions. People might be feeling a little uneasy and not be sure what it is. Psychologists have used mirrors and video technology to help people recognize their own emotions. By looking at themselves, they become more aware of their feelings, and can then learn be more accepting and self-compassionate.  Researchers have successfully taught people how to use self-mirroring to soothe themselves when they’re feeling anxious and others aren’t around to offer reflection and support (Vinai, et al, 2015; Well, et.al. 2016).

So what happened to Sally? She became a participant in my research mirror meditation, in which she practiced looking her own reflection in the mirror for an extended period of time and reported on her thoughts and feelings as she did it. When Sally first looked at her own reflection, she felt the urge to flirt with herself and put on her sexy goddess routine. She thought it’d be amusing to bump and grind on the mirror like a stripper. I encouraged her to just simply look at herself in the mirror moving her body gently with her breath—even if it seemed a little boring at first. It was hard for her to resist the urge to exaggerate her movements or facial expressions when she confronted her own image.  When she finally settled into really looking at herself, she began to cry.  She realized that she’d been putting on a show to get attention and ignoring how she was really feeling at the same time.  She felt sad that she’d been ignoring herself for so long—in much the same way that Steve had been ignoring her.  

She started to do ten minutes of mirror meditation as a daily practice in which she simply sat and looked at herself in the mirror with no agenda—just being with herself and giving her full attention to simply being, not doing anything. The regular ten-minute practice created a container for her to explore her feelings that she typically hid from others for fear that she’d be rejected for being unattractive or too emotional or negative. She started to look forward to the practice: she did it without makeup on, she allowed herself to look fat and ugly, to be angry, afraid and sad—and she even practiced just looking at herself with no expression on her face at all. By allowing herself to see every aspect in the mirror, she developed a sense of ease and acceptance with how she looked and felt over time. Her feelings balanced out: she felt sadness, anger and worry; she also felt joy, gratitude and delight.

When she began looking for another man, she enjoyed turning on her sexy self to attract possible partners and then as she got to know them, she made sure to show other sides of herself too. She was still aware of how men reacted to her, but she made a point to really see them too. Instead of manipulating them with her sexiness to get them to react to her in the way she wanted, she got curious about who they really were and how they genuinely felt. It became obvious if they weren’t open to seeing her authentic self. If he only wanted to see a caricature of a sexy goddess, she stopped dating him and moved on. She eventually found Phil—a man she could totally be herself with. He appreciated her complexity—he saw the different facets of her and loved and accepted them all.  

Seeing yourself and allowing yourself to be seen by others takes practice. When we allow ourselves to be seen, we give others the freedom to reveal themselves to us too.

Copyright 2018 Tara Well.

Note: Sally is a composite of several research participants, the details of the characters have been changed to preserve anonymity. 

References

Borba, M. (2016). Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Touchstone.

Bowlby, J. (1971). Attachment and Loss, Vol 1. Penguin.

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  Hazelden.

Vinai, et al. (2015). The Clinical Implications and Neurophysiological Background of Using Self-Mirroring Technique to Enhance the Identification of Emotional Experiences. Journal of Rational-Emotive Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 33: 115–133.

Well, T., et al. (2016). The Benefits of Mirror Meditation. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Convention in Denver, CO.

Well, T. (2017). Why more women are happily going without makeup. Psychology Today.

You are reading

The Clarity

Falling in Love With Your Authentic Self

Do you have an “If you really knew me” script?

Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself

Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein, M.D., tells all in his fascinating new book.

The Courage to Show Up

Highlights from a conversation between Brene Brown and DeRay Mckesson.