Be "Ugly" in 2019

How paying attention to ugliness paves a path to new resolutions.

Posted Jan 10, 2019

Pexels/Bruce Mars
Paying attention to ugliness paves a path to new resolutions
Source: Pexels/Bruce Mars

“This year,” she murmurs, “This will be the year I finally become…”

Fitter. Funnier. Richer. Better coiffed. Less slovenly.

More worthy.

Like needles from an old Christmas tree, the pages of the calendar fall decidedly away. January morphs into May, May becomes December and, suddenly, 8,760 hours have passed. How can it be that we travel across so many moments and remain so unchanged in the most essential ways? Angry about things that have always made us angry; sad about things that have always made us sad; afraid of things that have always made us afraid.

If you’re in the market for a new type of New Year’s resolution, then I have just the thing for you: Start talking about how ugly you are.

Go on. Do it. Show your ugly.

As a neuropsychologist, I have watched patient after patient come into treatment. To our mental health advisers, we pour out our secret selves. With hushed tones, in the anonymous offices of people whose last names we can’t quite pronounce, we let out a roaring darkness that we think belongs to us alone. Like clockwork, I watch as each new patient struggles to breathe against what he believes is his singular humiliation and aloneness.

There is basic math to this process. People come to treatment to talk about this thing and that thing. About this job and that person. About this failing and that regret. These are the known variables, but I'm less interested in those. Instead, I’m most interested in solving for X, where X is always some core belief about their own ugliness.

It's ironic that shame would be so brutally isolating when the dark comedy is that everyone's hiding some ugly goat in their closet. To varying degrees and for various reasons, we think my thing—my childhood, my divorce, my singledom, my infertility, my lack of success—is so intensely ugly that it must be hidden from the rest of the tribe. And yet there we all are, united in the Universal Ugly.

These beliefs about “ugliness” are frightening. A fundamental way of coping is to avoid things that frighten us. Oftentimes, avoidance can be protective. It keeps us out of dark allies and burning houses. However, when avoidance becomes as perennial as the spring, it can stifle healthy change that sticks. Avoidance is a powerful beacon across our lives. It is its own type of guide, providing us with a route to unexamined parts of ourselves. It is only in going to the places that we have never been that we can see the things we never saw.   

I have found that, at the core of our fear, anxiety, and anguish, is avoidance. Avoidance is a difficult behavior to change because we are wired, most fundamentally, to stay away from what we perceive to be dangerous. But thinking well about avoidance and, subsequently, figuring out how to safely approach things we have historically avoided can deliver profound changes to our lives. Therefore, in the next article in this series, I will describe more about the relationship between pain and avoidance. Specifically, I’ll address the brain-behavior-avoidance relationship. Finally, I’ll describe what you can do about it—in other words, how you can turn your avoidance behaviors into approach behaviors to change your life in meaningful and sustainable ways.