by Jenn Krebs, N.D.
There are very few things in this world that I can say I know are certain. One thing I can say, without a moment of hesitation, is that spending much of my adolescence and early adulthood in front of a mirror, in tights and a leotard no less, was not a great foundation for a healthy self–image.
The dancer’s plight aside, most people do not grow up with the mirror as their constant companion. And yet since starting to write about this topic, I have become very aware of the reflections we all face on a daily basis. The most obvious reflection being our image in the multitude of mirrors we come into contact with every day. I am not just talking about the mirrors in our public and private bathrooms or our closets and bedrooms, but I am talking about the mirrors strategically placed in every retail clothing store, hotel lobby, restaurant, bar, elevator, office building … I could go on and on. Even if we have no intention or interest in looking at our reflection in a mirror, it is not a decision over which we have much control.
When we look in the mirror, we do a number of things quite automatically. We may use it to tell us if our hair is combed, if our clothes fit properly and if we have food on our face or in our teeth. But for many of us, if we are being honest, we use the mirror to tell us how we feel about ourselves at any given moment during the day. If our reflection pleases us in that moment, then all is okay. If what we see upsets us, it can send us into a funk for an undetermined period of time. I will never forget a friend of mine looking at herself in the mirror one day and being genuinely surprised and pleased at her reflection; she said, “I have walked around feeling awful all day because I thought I looked awful in the mirror this morning. What a waste of a day!”
It’s not just our reflection in the mirror that we use to gauge how we feel about ourselves. On a daily basis, I am struck by the emphasis and the importance that is given to looking outside ourselves for information regarding ourselves. How often are we gently, or maybe not so gently, encouraged to look outside ourselves to magazines, the internet, social media, and Hollywood (to name a few) for guidance on what to believe, what to buy or wear, or how to act and behave?
Even if we are not looking for information about ourselves, it may be offered up anyway. Often a friend’s comment or a stranger’s observation will dictate how we feel about ourselves for an entire day or more. I can remember a perfect stranger in the grocery store telling me when I was five months pregnant with my daughter that I should “get ready for my twins to arrive any day now.” Hormonal or not, the tears started immediately as I got back into my car; I felt angry, hurt and as if there was something terribly wrong with me and my unborn child. A harmless, or perhaps thoughtless, comment from a stranger or friend can send us reeling into feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing.
I want to make clear that my intention in writing these words is not to reprimand us for occasionally looking outside ourselves for answers, approval, appreciation or validation. That is part of being human and being real and being honest. I am in no way trying to make us feel bad for being human. Rather what I am really interested in and curious about is how is it that we can nurture and grow the parts of ourselves that will look inward for appreciation, approval and validation. I am more interested in finding what offers us strength and confidence than the things that bring us down.
What is it that is going on with us on the days where the comments, the reflections and the magazine covers just roll of our backs? We all have those days – days where we are so confident and centered that our need for outside validation is completely unnecessary. And while some may say that on those days we are just too busy or too distracted to care, I would argue that on those days we are a little more grounded or rooted in ourselves and a bit more relaxed and at peace with ourselves.
For many years now, I have had a strong interest in self-image and body-image. Much of the work that I do with patients revolves around establishing and nurturing a relationship with our bodies and heightening and expanding a sense of our physical self. While I do not believe that the emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual parts of the self exist and act independently of one another, I do use the term “physical self” in my work as it helps me to define and describe one part of who we are – the moving, feeling, and expressive physical body.
When we talk about the physical self, we quite rightly and appropriately talk about the importance of fitness, exercise and nutrition. I spent a weekend very recently with three of my oldest and closest friends, who are all extraordinary athletes in their own right. I was inspired by their stories of how their experiences as athletes (including setting and achieving physical goals, feeling supported and nurtured by a coach or mentor, and feeling a part of a team or community) had been so incredibly meaningful to their sense of identity and self-esteem.
Moving our bodies daily as well as making healthy choices as to how we live our lives and what foods we eat are all integral to creating a healthy physical self; and yet, there is another aspect of our physical self that we don’t talk as much about in our culture but that I feel is equally important – the act of being mindful of and present to the physical experiences and physical sensations that we have within our bodies every second and every minute of the day. Much like we have emotions, feelings and thoughts every second, every minute, we have physical feelings that can be either subtle or very noticeable. We talk readily about the thoughts and ideas we have and, to a lesser degree, our emotions and feelings. What we don’t talk much about, unless we are part of the small community interested in body-centered therapies, are the moment to moment physical experiences we have in our bodies.
I want to take a moment to explain what I mean by moment to moment experiences in our bodies. In any given moment, we may feel any number of things. We may feel a warmth in our heart, a tightness in our chest, a release of tension in our jaw, our belly expand with a deep breath, a chill up our spine, warmth in our cheeks, racing of our heart, numbness in our feet and a smile on our lips. We may notice our breath quickening or our breath slowing, our neck muscles relaxing or our fist tensing, our low back aching or our shoulders letting go of tension. We might feel our belly grumbling, our leg cramping, our face blushing, our palms sweating, our nose itching … and I could go on and on. Because we do not talk about or place much importance on our minute to minute physical sensations, we tend not to notice or feel them very much on any given moment on any given day.
One of the disadvantages of not really noticing our bodies is that over time we tend to only listen to or pay attention to our bodies when they are sick or in pain. And if we only listen to our bodies when we are sick or in pain, we tend to get the message that if we feel something in our bodies then “something must be wrong.” This feeling of alarm encourages a disconnect with the body and feeds a sense of fear surrounding “feeling” our bodies.
I am not saying that physical symptoms should be ignored and not addressed; rather I am saying that physical experiences and sensations that occur during periods of emotional pain and during times of stress and anxiety can be perfectly normal. They may feel uncomfortable, but experiences like sweaty palms, a nervous stomach, a racing or pounding heart, and breath quickening can be normal temporary, transient states that are actually adaptive mechanisms from when our ancestors needed to run away from their stress – stress like being chased by a large hungry animal. When these physical sensations occur in a modern world, we don’t know what to do with them; for the most part we either numb them out and don’t feel them or treat them as pathological symptoms – “something is wrong.”
A great example of this is my own personal experience with panic. Before exploring a more connected and mindful relationship with my body, I struggled with periodic panic attacks. In times of extreme stress, I would feel the physical symptoms of my anxiety coming on and the physical experience would feel so foreign and frightening to me that I believed there was something terribly wrong with me. For me, this fear could escalate to a full-blown panic attack. It wasn’t until I became familiar with the physical “symptoms” of my anxiety that I was able to label them and then feel and tolerate the physical discomfort. I began to get to know my body in both relaxed and stressful times, and eventually I was able to trust that my physical sensations of anxiety were “my normal” and that they would be temporary and transient.
Certainly not all panic attacks can be cured by body-centered mindfulness, but I do think that the concepts are paramount to its treatment. Medical evaluation may be necessary in these circumstances to rule out deeper pathology, but if we can become familiar with our normal and adaptive physical responses to stress, we may not be as disconnected and fearful of our bodies. Taking this even one step further, I believe that if we get in touch with how our bodies feel both in relaxed, peaceful times as well as stressful and emotionally charged times, we become more perceptive to when something is really wrong in our bodies.
Coming back to our topic of self-image … when we see the physical self through a mind-body lens, we can make the following connections regarding why we look outside ourselves so much for information regarding ourselves:
- If we only listen to our bodies when we are feeling sick or in pain, we get the message that if we feel or hear something in our bodies then “something must be wrong.”
- If we only listen to our bodies when we are sick or in pain, we miss out on the wonderful physical experiences of joy, happiness, love and pleasure (to name a few).
- When we stop feeling or listening to our bodies, we create a chronic disconnect within – this disconnect leaves us feeling numb to our bodies as well as to our sensations and contributes to a sense of emptiness within.
- This disconnect, emptiness and numbness sends us looking outward for a sense of ourselves, and contributes greatly to our struggles with self-image.
So how do we nurture a stronger physical sense of ourselves? Much of the work I do with patients is aimed at either establishing or re-establishing a relationship with our bodies. Through bodywork, meditation, guided imagery, visualization, breath awareness and biofeedback, the process of reconnecting with the body can be immensely rewarding and meaningful. However for the purposes of creating a healthy foundation for self-image, I would propose that we start a dialogue with our bodies before we get to the stage of imbalance, high stress, anxiety, and panic, which is the stage where I meet most of my patients. If we could make talking about “how our bodies feel” an everyday, common place occurrence, it would make us much more conscious and aware of both our physical and emotional selves. If we introduced body-centered awareness in schools or early childhood programs, we could instill the idea of mindfulness at a very critical and important stage in development. And if we encouraged talking about the joyful and pleasurable experiences in our body and not just the “painful” or “sick” symptoms, we might create a new way of talking about and defining health and wellness. If we found a place for some form of mindfulness or meditation in our schools and our workplace, it may nurture an important ability to occasionally “stop” the quick pace of our lives, quiet the busy and racing mind, and feel ourselves – our bodies.
It is both my work and my hope that we continue advocating for and growing a stronger dialogue with our bodies and that we can have joyful and meaningful relationships with our bodies that go way beyond looking at our reflection for assurance, approval and validation. If we are open to our physical experiences both positive and negative, we are more open to ourselves and more grounded in who we are … because we actually “feel” who we are. Who knows, maybe mirrors become obsolete.