Video: Body Image and Self-value

I was interviewed by Kat Borrowdale, performer and director of Edinburgh-based social enterprise Think Circus, for their 2021 film, Imagined Bodies, which was supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland.

We talked about body shame and improving self-talk and self-understanding:

“Your body is political. You don’t feel bad about it because there’s something wrong with you. You feel bad about it because the powers that be have decided it’s in their interests for you to feel bad about it”.

Have a watch of our interview (30 minute video):

From the Think Circus website: “Imagined Bodies presents short duets exploring the negative thoughts that one third of adults in the UK experience in relation to their physical bodies.

“Responding to months of social isolation during the lockdowns of 2020, and increased focus on body image, the work is based around the insidious, everyday negative thoughts people experience in relation to their physical bodies.

Imagined Bodies explores the opposing forces of body appearance verses body capability. It exposes tensions between expectation and self-esteem, self discipline and compassion”.

Photo by Keenan Constance on Unsplash

Inner Critic vs Self-Compassion

One of the biggest barriers to moving forward in our lives is our inner critic.

It’s the voice that says:

you’re not good enough

you’re not smart enough

you could never do that

you should…

you’re so stupid/incompetent/arrogant

It’s the voice of doubt and fear, determined to keep you down. It’s also every external voice that ever said or implied, you are inadequate and you need to be better than you are, all now internalised in you.

Why would we give such mean voices so much air time though? The first reason is because they’ve become so embedded we barely hear them; we just ‘feel’ ill at ease, powerless or even guilty.

The second reason is because we’ve come to accept them. But if we stopped long enough to question them, we’d realise how irrational and untrue they can be.

Learning to notice the critical messages is an incredibly powerful first step, as once you face your enemy, you can get the size of them and work out how to disarm them.

When you consider the criticism in the cold light of day, you can see all the ways in which you are good enough, smart enough, capable enough, and deserving enough to do what it is you want to do.

For every criticism, try writing a counter-argument in your journal. Or make a list or collage that represents your strengths and successes and keep it on the wall. If you reach an impasse with your inner critic, walk away and instead do something you enjoy. You’ll generate positive emotions, and the inner critic will quieten down.

These are proven techniques to help overcome our negative self-talk, but it’s not always a cure. That’s because there’s a third reason we talk s*^t to ourselves…

Dr Kristin Neff’s research into self-criticism has found that we don’t want to stop because we believe it keeps us motivated. We believe that if we didn’t ride our own backs, we’d never get anywhere in the world.

What she’s also found is that this is entirely untrue.

Imagine a child gets a bad test mark and he comes home and tells his dad. How would the child feel if dad raged against him, calling him an idiot and telling him he’ll never get anywhere in life?

Pretty bloody awful.

You might be thinking, yeah, horrible dad, but I bet it gets the kid to knuckle down and up his grades.

Well the research shows it doesn’t. When he’s feeling so horrific about himself, he goes on to perform badly. Simple.

What if the boy comes home and his dad says, I’m so sorry, you must be feeling pretty disappointed about it. Don’t worry! This is just one test! Maybe I can help you get your head around the algebra. You’ll be fine.

I imagine you feel it too: relieved, supported, safe, loved, capable.

You might wholeheartedly believe that you must be hard on yourself to achieve anything, but the fact is you get better results – and feel so much better in the process – when you’re kind to yourself, when you practise self-compassion.

Kristin Neff offers eight self-compassion activities and seven self-compassion meditations you can try at home on her website.

To hear more about the science of self-compassion, check out Neff’s TEDx talk here:

Self-esteem – it’s not really about you at all

I was very surprised when a friend recently told me I have the highest self-esteem of anyone she’s ever met.

We get on, so I reckon she means well. But it’s not always a compliment, is it?

We aspire to raise our self-esteem and lament our lack of it. Many hours of therapy are devoted to exploring it – where it went, why, how to nurture it.

So when it’s there, worn on our sleeve for the world to see, why can it make the lip curl?

There’s a cultural component here. Known as ‘tall poppy syndrome’ (and, in Japan, as ‘the nail that sticks out’), there is a strong distaste for the one who stands out. We criticise them as braggarts or show-offs. The tall poppy must be cut down to size.

But just why is it so terrible to stand up and be heard?

There are a lot of people who know what it’s like to be silent and silenced. Women, those in poverty, BAME people, trans folk, the global south… People have given a lot for their voices to be heard.

To speak your truth is to have power.

The nail that stands proud ‘needs to be hammered down’ because the haves need the have nots to conform.

The worst part is we have internalised the message that we are undeserving of power, and so we police each other, cutting down to size anyone who ‘gets above their station’.

When someone outright owns their strengths and talents, we think them arrogant. We disavow their proclamation of self-worth.

What my friend may not realise about me is that I have all the usual self-doubts (this morning, I was in a teary rage for generally not being good enough). But when my ego gives me a break (for that is what such self-judgements are; in its role as mediator between who you really are and what you think the world wants of you, the ego dishes out a lot of abuse), I make a point of celebrating all that I have.

I’m acutely aware that every moment of life is a miracle. It’s also tragically short. I’ve spent years tussling with low mood, heart-racing worry and excruciating loss, so whenever there’s a window of blue sky, I’m out there vocalising my thanks for what I’ve got, what I’ve experienced, and who I am.

They call that self-esteem. I call it recognition of what you’re being briefly loaned from the universe.

It’s not really about you at all.