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I’ve spent most of my life hating my body in one way or another. My sense of self has changed a lot – I’m generally a lot more positive about it – but it’s taken years of work.
Throughout my teens, I fixated on my (in hindsight, totally fine) imperfections: braces, glasses, acne, shaggy hair. I had all the classic awkward-in-the-body-ness (and undiagnosed depression, which probably didn’t help) plus a little bonus: I loathed how skinny I was. How weedy.
A vascular environment
See, I grew up around men who were 6-foot-something and jacked. One uncle was a bodybuilder, another was a semi-pro Aussie-rules football player. My mum was tall and athletic (and constantly lamented how she wasn’t as cut as she used to be, as if her then current state of “super-fit netball player” wasn’t enough).
Meanwhile, I was a gangly young dude – one of my uncles even offered to buy steroids for me (on multiple occasions). When I decided I wanted tattoos, both my mum and dad told me my arms were too skinny.
To be a man, as far as I was concerned, was to be tall and buff. It didn’t matter that I was tall, or played competitive basketball for years.
As far as I was concerned, my neck was weirdly slender and long, my shoulders were nonexistent, my chest was like under-kneaded dough.
Every now and then, reality would peek through the clouds of my mind and I’d think “I look fine, actually”. But I’d immediately undercut that thought, reminding myself of all the ways I didn’t measure up.
I believed that negativity was honest. That it was an accurate reflection of reality.
It took years to learn it wasn’t.
People learn to think negativity is honest
Believing that negativity is more realistic or honest than positivity is an easy trap to fall into.
It’s almost a cultural pastime: from unrelentingly negative news to online platforms based around attacking people, from politicians sowing distrust for personal gain to the knee-jerk impulse to dismiss optimistic people as naïve or foolish.
And there’s negative self-talk. This is when your inner critic runs rampant, tearing you down and undermining your faith in your own skills, judgment and worth.
When you’re caught in a pattern of negativity, it’s easy to feel as though it’s natural. As though it’s honest and real. But it’s not.
It’s a learned behaviour. Which means you can change it.
Understanding the problem
In her fantastic book All about love, bell hooks captures the negativity trap well:
There is a voice inside that is constantly judging, first ourselves and then others. That voice enjoys the indulgence of an endless negative critique. Because we have learned to believe negativity is realistic, it appears more real than any positive voice.
Undoing this pattern is hard but hooks found help in an unexpected place: positive affirmations.
She had always thought affirmations were “corny” and, honestly, I used to agree. But hooks gave them a shot:
I wrote affirmations relevant to my daily life and began to repeat them in the morning as part of my daily meditations. At the top of my list was the declaration: “I’m breaking with old patterns and moving forward with my life.” I not only found them to be a tremendous energy boost – a way to kick off the day by my accentuating the positive – I also found it useful to repeat them during the day. Affirmations helped restore my emotional equilibrium.
Affirming affirmations? Affirmative.
Positive affirmations act as deliberate counter to negative self-talk. Negative self-talk can become a kind of background noise that, nonetheless, shape our sense of sense (and thus our lives).
Deciding to recite affirmations is one way to add a different voice to the mix. It was critical for me.
In my mid-ish 20s, I decided to start working out consistently. I had just gone through a break-up, I read about high-intensity interval training, and I found out about seven-minute workout apps. It was a perfect confluence of three things for me:
- A general feeling of “it’s time for change”
- An extremely uncomfortable workout I could do at home in under 10 minutes (the dream)
- iPhone apps and gadgets
I downloaded the Johnson & Johnson 7 Minute Workout app and gave it a shot.
I loved it. It was my exact jam: no gear required and I could do it in a hallway. Perfect.
My first run through was tough and I got real sweaty. It turns out that I’m just a gross, sweaty dude when I exercise but I didn’t know that then. So I had a shower and, as the water was heating up, I looked in the mirror and said this to myself:
“This is my body. There are some parts I can change and some I can’t. I’m going to focus on the parts I can.”
No idea why, honestly. Maybe it’s because I was in a generally reflective state of mind, maybe I was delirious from exertion. But it stuck. I said it to myself after every workout. And, ten years later, I still say it to myself now and then.
Over time, I came to truly believe it. I came to accept that this was my body. Then, soon after that, I learned to appreciate that my body is me. It is as it is. And that’s fantastic.
Now, all the exercise I do is because I sincerely love it. It’s a treat. Occasionally, the negative self-talk comes back: my shoulders are vanishing, my butt sags. (I’m totally fine with my neck now.)
But I can remind myself: this is my body. There are some parts I can change and some I can’t. I’m going to focus on the parts I can.
It’s a process. It never ends. It just changes.
Since then, I’ve added a lot of little affirmations that I recite as I need them. They come and go. Recently, one of my cats had a major health scare. I started reciting a little affirmation about impermanence, taken from a Buddhist meditation.
It helped. Something that felt overwhelmingly negative shifted to something that, while still sad, was part of life. And that helped me accept what was happening.
Working through the negative to embrace the positive
None of this is easy. It takes time, self-reflection and care.
But step one is accepting a simple truth: that, despite how honest my negativity may feel, it’s not.
Sure, negativity is occasionally justified, but it’s not the default state of reality.
Here’s hooks again:
Once we begin to replace negative thinking with positive thinking, it becomes utterly clear that, far from being realistic, negative thinking is absolutely disenabling. When we are positive we not only accept and affirm ourselves, we are able to affirm and accept others.
That’s worth working for.
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