How To Have A Positive Body Image When You're Feeling Down, According To Experts
If you have ever stood in front of a mirror and said unkind things to yourself about how you look, or sat on your bed in tears because of the way your clothes are fitting, you know how hard it can be to take a pause from the mental spiral. While it's so difficult to practice self-compassion when it is most needed, there are little ways to improve your body-image in the midst of a bad moment.
"It seems to be ingrained in our society and culture that self-criticism will motivate us to change or to be and do better," clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist Dr. Haica Rosenfeld, Psy.D., CEDS-S, who is based in Florida, tells Bustle. "It makes sense that most of us have developed a critical inner voice. This is a well-integrated pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others. It can affect every aspect of our lives, including our body image."
Rosenfeld says that in reality, this approach often backfires, as shame and self-criticism don’t lead to positive change. "In fact, they most likely lead to more shame and self-criticism and a downward spiral of shame, driving you into a cycle of pain." Shifting that internal dialogue is a process of small changes.
Again, the practice of shifting how we feel in those challenging moments is just that — a practice. Look below for some in-the-moment tips on how to begin easing out of painful spirals.
1. Observe The Language You Use
Pay attention and become aware of the language you are using to address yourself, Rosenfeld says. "Sometimes our critical voice is automatic and we may not even be aware of the words and tone we use to speak to ourselves."
Begin to observe how you talk to yourself. Even if you aren't immediately able or willing to change it, noticing is the first step.
"It is crucial to notice the type of language you use when talking to yourself and change that inner dialogue to a more gentle, kind, and caring message," Rosenfeld says. Think about speaking to yourself as you would to a beloved friend.
2. Turn "Shoulds" Into "Coulds"
When in the midst of a body-shaming spiral, it's not uncommon to be telling ourselves about all the things we should be doing for our bodies that we aren't, or how we should look or feel. Shifting the word "should" to "could" can begin to make a real difference in perspective.
"The word 'should' implies a heavy, moral connotation," counselor Dea Dean LPC, who works with women around issues of identity, anxiety, depression, shame, and grief, tells Bustle. "If you aren’t doing something you tell yourself you should be doing, your brain also has a tendency to tell you that you're bad or wrong."
However, Dean says that if you aren’t doing something you could be doing, your brain provides you with options that you can weigh and sort through. This could mean that you feel like you should be dressing or acting differently in certain situations or circumstances, or could be
"The underlying shame that accompanies the word 'should' is actually more of a deterrent to you meeting your goals," Dean says. "Shame bogs us down and keeps us stuck."
The simple shift from should to could can allow for us to create a little hope and internal momentum.
3. Respond Back To Each Negative Thought With A Kind One
Take a pause when the negative thought comes, and bat back at it with a kind one. You may think "I look disgusting." You can respond with "But I sure am funny." Whatever it is, acknowledge good things about who you are and the efforts you're making and try to speak to yourself kindly, psychotherapist and author Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, MBA, who practices out of Florida, tells Bustle.
"Develop this caring voice within yourself for support and consolation whenever you’re down on yourself," Englander says. Whether it’s related to your body or not.
4. Practice Thanking Yourself And Your Body
Even if it's through gritted teeth, take a moment to thank yourself for all the good things you do, Englander says. Just try. It can help you take a step back from being critical of your body.
This could mean anything from being grateful for your commitment to your studies, or how well you keep in touch with friends, or how organized you keep your room. Anything!
A moment of practicing gratitude, even if it feels totally disingenuous at first, can create space to alleviate some of the intensity of a negative mental spiral.
5. Do Little Things To Care For Your Body In The Moment
If you are feeling literally and figuratively stuck in a place of negativity, you can do a little something for your body, Englander says. Drink some water. Take a walk around the block. Have a snack and sit down and enjoy it.
They are small actions that show your body appreciation and care, and help to change your current negative thought patterns.
6. Use A Self-Compassion Mantra
"A mantra is a set of memorized phrases that you can repeat silently whenever you want to give yourself compassion," Rosenfeld says.
Whenever you notice having negative thoughts and feelings about your body that lead to shame and self-criticism, it helps to have a mantra ready to help you tap into self-compassion when you need it the most, Rosenfeld says.
You can pick statements that really resonate with you and use your mantra whenever you are struggling. You can write them down on pieces of paper and stick them in your wallet, or tape one to the mirror.
"Every time you use your self-compassion mantra, you are reinforcing new neural-pathways that will make self-compassion readily available when you need it most," Rosenfeld says.
While it might seem pointless in the moment, experiment with what happens if you say it every time you spiral for a month.
7. Cultivate A Writing Practice
Write it out. When the thoughts come up, when you feel stuck, grab that journal and just start spilling.
"Keep a journal in which you process the mean or upsetting thoughts you are having about your body, especially when the voice in your head is loud and relentless," Rosenfeld says. Just really clear it out and don't hold back.
Then begin to write the opposite thoughts. Free write on what it might look like to appreciate and enjoy your body for what it is right now. List one or two things that make you feel OK about your body, even if its a freckle or how cool you look in your favorite shirt.
Now, none of this is meant to make negative spirals seem like an easy fix. But little incremental changes help.
If you are feeling like having a positive body image is a real challenge to deal with, you aren't alone. Reaching out for help and support from a professional is also a great step towards healing and personal growth.