In the age of selfies and social media, we hear a lot about the rise of narcissism in modern society. Yet, with this increased importance placed on appearance, we need equally worry about the epidemic of poor body image. A survey by Glamour Magazine found that 97 percent of women questioned had an “I hate my body” thought on an average day. Other studies have shown that young men are increasingly experiencing similar critical attitudes and pressures regarding their looks. People of all ages are struggling daily with mean, self-shaming thoughts about their appearance, but according to psychologists like Dr. Lisa Firestone, co-author of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, “People’s views of their bodies are not only cruel but inaccurate.”
We all harbor an inner critic that makes us its primary subject of attack. It’s that nagging voice that whispers in our ear when we’re getting dressed, “You’re too fat to wear that. Just cover up.” It’s also that loud scream that shouts, “You’re hideous. No one will ever be attracted to you!” In order to overcome these destructive attitudes and live in peaceful harmony with our bodies, we have to do two things: 1. Evict that “critical inner voice” that takes over our perceptions and 2. Practice self-compassion.
In order to start to understand and overcome this negative thought process referred to by Dr. Firestone as the “critical inner voice,” it’s helpful to understand where it comes from and how it operates.
Where Critical Thoughts About Our Bodies Come From
Society certainly sends us messages about how we are supposed to look. One study of girls as young as 5-8 years old found that “girls appear to already live in a culture in which peers and the media transmit the thin ideal in a way that negatively influences the development of body image and self-esteem.” These cultural messages can injure our self-esteem, but it’s what we do with these messages in our own minds that creates a cycle of self-shaming thoughts or even behaviors. It’s also this very pattern of thinking that we can challenge by taking on our critical inner voice.
In addition to societal messages, negative early familial experiences greatly shape our self-perception In fact, it’s these early events that originally form our critical inner voice. “Early experiences that we never imagined would have impacted our way of seeing ourselves remain the sources for inaccurate self-criticism throughout our lives,” said Dr. Firestone. “People who face issues of low self-esteem can trace them to feelings of humiliation, rejection, or disappointment they suffered in childhood. When young children search for the reasons and explanations for these feelings, they often look within themselves rather than finding fault with an adult whom they are dependent on. One of the easiest places for them to lay the blame is on their physical appearance.”
Children form a sense of self not only based on ways they were viewed or treated but on ways parents or other influential figures viewed themselves. Many parents aren’t aware of how their own low self-esteem can be passed on to their kids. They don’t even think their child is paying attention when they look in the mirror and say “Ugh I look so fat/ ugly/ old/ saggy/ puny/out of shape.” Kids often internalize these negative messages, which passes this low self-esteem from generation to generation.
How the Critical Inner Voice Operates
It’s important to recognize how our critical inner voice works in order to catch on to when it’s sneaking into our thoughts and causing our self-esteem to plummet. The critical inner voice tends to be triggered at certain times or based on certain events. If someone looks away when we make eye contact, it may say, “You see? You’re not attractive. He/ She won’t even look at you.” The voice may even pop up after we’ve received recognition or gotten closer to a goal. After being asked on a date at the beach, for example, we may go to bed with our head full of thoughts like, “You can’t let him/her see you in a bathing suit. You’ll humiliate yourself.” After a particularly hard work out, the voice may chime in, “All this work, and you still don’t look any better. You’ll never have the body you want.”
It’s important to get ahold of when your voice is creeping in and what it’s telling you. Think about the specific messages. What emotions do they stir up? Do they remind you of any event or person from your past? Where might they may come from originally?
How to Challenge Your Conquer Your Inner Critic
As we come to know what our “I hate my body” voices specifically sound like and start make connections about where they may come from, we can take some important steps to challenge this destructive, internal enemy. You can learn more about these steps, which were developed by Dr. Firestone and her father Dr. Robert Firestone, here.
One of the most helpful exercises they created involves writing down our specific “voices” as “you” statements. This changes the perspective of the voice from being something we believe to be true about ourselves (i.e. “I have such a thick waist.”) to something someone else is saying to us (i.e. “You have such a thick waist.”) This helps us see the critical inner voice as an external enemy as opposed to our real point of view. It also can help us make connections about where this voice may originally have come from. Maybe it sounds like something our mother said about herself. Maybe it’s something we were critical of in our father that we now worry is true of us.
After writing down our voices in the second person, we should write a compassionate, realistic response based on our real, kinder point of view. We should aim to reply to these statements the way we would to a friend saying these things about themselves, except making sure to respond using the first person (“I” statements). For example, we may write “There’s nothing wrong with my waist. I take care of my body and am shapely and attractive.”
Another important step is to NOT indulge in the actions our voices presses us to take that are in sync with its attacks. If it tells us, “Don’t go to the party. You look terrible,” we should make ourselves go and do our best to tune out our inner critic when we do. If it shouts at us, “Don’t bother exercising. You’ll never get the results you want,” then we should absolutely take the action, as it will make us feel stronger and more confident.
Remember, the critical inner voice is tricky. It can sound self-soothing, luring us into self-limiting, indulgent or harmful behavior, then punishing us for giving in. For example, it may say, “Have that second piece of cake. You’ve eaten so healthy all week.” Or it will tell us, “You’ve had a hard day. Just rest on the couch. You don’t have to go outside and be active.” Then, as soon as we’ve listened to its seductive advice, it shouts at us, “I can’t believe you messed up again. What a fat loser! You’re so lazy. You just sit around and don’t do anything!” The critical inner voice is great at getting us to engage in behaviors that further feed into our voices, creating a vicious cycle.
As we stand up to these critical thoughts, we can expect a rebuttal. At first the thoughts may get stronger or come up more often, but if we persevere and refuse to believe or indulge in them, they will eventually fade into the background, and we will become much stronger and more sure of ourselves.
As we take on our inner critic, it’s important to maintain what mindfulness expert Dr. Daniel Siegel calls a COAL attitude, in which we are curious, open, accepting and loving toward ourselves. We can all find ways to foster more self-compassion. Dr. Kristen Neff is a lead researcher on self-compassion, and she’s found that it has many benefits that are actually preferable to self-esteem. Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion doesn’t focus on evaluation, but rather self-acceptance. Self-compassion is not correlated with narcissism and focuses on having the kind attitude toward ourselves that we’d have toward a friend. Dr. Neff describes three elements of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness over self-judgment – Being kind to ourselves rather than evaluating ourselves.
- Common humanity versus isolation – Recognizing that we are not alone in our struggles.
- Mindfulness versus Over-identification – Taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions.
Studies show, when we practice self-compassion, we’re actually more likely to change and achieve our goals. When we adopt this attitude toward our physical selves, we become more grateful and accepting of our bodies. We can grow more and more comfortable in our own skin.
Learn more about self-compassion.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
If you are experiencing a strong preoccupation with your appearance and believe that there is something wrong with your appearance that takes up your attention and/or if you’re engaging in compulsive, repetitive behaviors that focus on the way you look, these may be signs of body dysmorphic disorder. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to seek help. Learn more BDD and how you can get the help you need. Learn more
If you’re experiencing thoughts about your body that are causing you to engage in behaviors such as restricting food intake, binging, purging, persistent behavior to prevent weight gain, rumination about your weight or similar symptoms, it’s important to learn more and find help if you’re struggling. Learn more about the symptoms of eating disorders here and where you can find help here.