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Body image, self-esteem and mental health

Many of us look in the mirror and automatically remind ourselves about our flaws (or what we perceive to be flaws): “I don’t like my nose”, “my ears are too big”, “my teeth are not the right colour”. We constantly wish to be thinner, younger or taller… sound familiar?

The inner critic can be very ruthless in its comments. Having such a ‘friend’ in our heads will likely leave our day a murky shade of grey. When this inner critic takes holds, all our days can be clouded with negativity.

Why we criticise ourselves

We are so critical of our looks mainly due to habit of mind; we’re used to making judgements about both ourselves and others, in the hope of matching a societal standard.

Being part of the crowd is our strong instinct to survive. Our ancestors lived in groups, since the life of an outcast would mean certain death. Therefore, a desire to stick to a group, being liked and being accepted is deeply imprinted in our genes and shows up when we think we are too different or ‘not enough’.

The ability to judge is closely related to the same instinct. It was developed as part of a survival mechanism to avoid danger and prevent harm. Judgements help us to scan the environment and take action if needed. It can serve us well in particular situations. The danger comes when threat is not real and we judge ourselves too negatively too often, until it becomes a habit and seriously affects our physical and mental health.

Reasons not to do it

These constant mental rehearsals of negative judgements about how we look straighten connections between neurons in our brain until the thoughts become a habit. The more you feed those thoughts, the worse you feel. It manifests itself as body tension, anxiety and self-doubt. But do we solve anything by thinking badly about ourselves? Of course not. Best case scenario: we just waste our mental energy that we could have put into something better. In the worst case, well, let’s not go there…

At the end of the day, our bodies are a part of nature. They are diverse, colourful and exist to be enjoyed. Why do we want to unnaturally standardise a beauty of the human body? Ram Dass, an American spiritual teacher, was so insightful when talking about it:

“…when you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree”

By excessively wanting your body to be different, you take away your uniqueness, your story.

What to do instead

Firstly, don’t punish yourself. Critical mind is not your fault, but rather a gift of human evolution. Give yourself love and compassion for something that was initially out of your control.

Secondly, congratulate yourself that you are already moving towards a positive change. When you can recognise the patterns of your negative thoughts, you are not them. That’s where meditation comes as a very useful tool. It helps us to recognise harmful thoughts and detach from them. When you no longer think you are your thoughts, you can just watch them with non-judgemental awareness, with curiosity and compassion. The more you practice it, the less pain those thoughts cause. And eventually they will just fade away.

Thirdly, shift your attention from critics towards gratitude. It is important to remind ourselves that our bodies work very hard to keep us alive. They also fill our lives with touches, smells, tastes and emotions, bringing wonderful experiences that are worth living for. Say to yourself what you like about your body and how grateful you are to have it – in any unique shape or form.

Where attention goes, energy flows

Remember, where you put your attention, you put your energy. Our thoughts can make us feel ugly but also beautiful and happy in whatever bodies we are in. There is no need to chase the ever-changing beauty standards when you can have the inner beauty of love and acceptance towards what you already are. Like in the story of two wolves, it is up to you to choose which one you would like to feed.

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