New Year, New View: How you don’t have to change anything except maybe how you see yourself
The New Year has become a time when we review the past year and dream about the year coming up- celebrating what has gone and what is to come. But somehow this long-standing tradition has become inextricable from body shame, self-deprecation, and insecurity. It has become a time when we are reminded that we have violated the rules we keep or those that are imposed on us, particularly when it came to our Christmas eating habits and supposed overindulgences that show up in a tighter waistband of our jeans. And while it is actually an incredible thing to take care of our bodies, to treat ourselves well and get exercise, somehow the new year has become a way to remind ourselves that we once again are off the mark, not quite where we are “supposed to be”. This has been co-opted by the diet industry in particular – just think of how many fitness memberships are sold and diets began the beginning of January. And so we set resolutions: to do better, to be better, to lose weight, to exercise more, to read more books, to practice… fill in the blank here with whatever the resolutions were that you heard from others or dreamed up for yourself. And, to what end? Why is it that we make these resolutions or promises to change things on the outside? Do we hope that we will feel better, happier, more responsible, or more satisfied with our lives?
Hear me out, it’s not wrong to want to get better at something, to be a better version of ourselves. But, the problem lies in our attempts to change things on the outside that doesn’t really help us feel better on the inside. What is the point in losing the weight if we still keep feeling like our worth is still tied up in how we look? What use is it adding to the list something else that we will beat ourselves up for failing at in a month or two? And, why do we keep doing things that are impressive to others, but end up leaving us feeling exhausted, and somehow still not enough on the inside?
What I’m suggesting is that instead of finding something to the list of all the things you do to feel ‘ok’ or like your life is good enough on the outside, that you use this time of year to pay attention to the things on the inside. Instead of changing things on the outside, we learn to love what already is and to treasure all the beauty that exists here and now. This might seem hard to believe, and trust me it is not something that happens overnight, but you don’t have to change things on the outside to feel better, sometimes you can just change how you feel about them.
When it comes to helping people love themselves from the inside out, here are some things we know from empirical research about mental health and well-being that actually helps us change how we see ourselves:
Begin a gratitude practice.
Instead of focusing on what is not, and what could be, try to turn your mind towards what is, and what is good about what is. You might find it helpful to keep a list on your phone, or a notebook beside your bed, and try and come up with at least three things every day that you are grateful for. Research has shown us that if we pick three things a day, every day for at least two weeks, there is a measurable impact on our neurochemistry: you can actually feel happier. And the best part is – its free, you can do it in your PJs. You are training your brain to become more focused on the beauty and good all around you.
Start doing mindfulness.
One of my favorite things about mindfulness is the non-judgmental stance you learn to take towards yourself. Like a researcher just observing the natural world, there is nothing good or bad, just observation. Like learning to run a marathon, you start small and work up to it. If you’re new to this, try setting your timer for a minute, and in that minute just allow your body to settle, and focus on your breath. When you get distracted, just notice that you’re thinking and then return your focus to the breath. The best part of this is that its part of the model of mindfulness to get distracted. And when you do, just return to your breath. Then, when you can do this for a minute try two. Neuroscience has shown us that the best effects show up in people’s brains after about 6 weeks or doing this for about 10-15 minutes most days of the week. The most neurological gains happen around approximately 30 minutes a day. But, don’t get intimidated. Just start small. This has a profound effect on your ability to be patient, grateful, compassionate, and calm. And, there are tons of apps to help, like headspace or Calm, or for those looking for something more advanced, try the free meditations on www.tarabrach.com
For some of you, this might be a new term. But, it’s the word that means what its like to be in your body, to feel yourself as your body, not just thinking about what your body looks like from the outside. This can be helpful on bad body image days, when we aren’t sure we like our appearance and don’t know what to do that is healthy, or sustainable. A good example of embodiment is to think about what it feels like going for a walk. Just say you’re walking down a street. You might normally past storefronts and you catch a glimpse of your image in the glass. Worried what you look like, you stuck your stomach in, or fix your hair. But, to be embodied means you’re paying more attention to what it feels like in your legs to move you across the pavement, or feeling your feet on the ground, or the feeling in your lungs as you breathe in. The embodiment can be one of the best ways to help us combat body shame that is centered on our appearance. (You can read more about this in my book “Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to love ourselves as we are”).
Don’t forget to play.
Sometimes when we grow up, we can lose the ability to experience the freedom we once had. We can get sucked into to-do lists, responsibilities, and trying to be the perfect parent, employee, wife, friend, whatever. What we know from research in developmental psychology is that play is really helpful for expressing negative emotions, helping us access our creativity, getting into our bodies (embodiment) and being less fixated on doing things or looking perfectly. It can give the overused parts of our brain a break, and help us remember that life is so much more than a list of responsibilities. Playing includes doing things that are creative just for the sake of them, and doing things without worrying about if they are ‘good enough’. If you have kids, trying getting immersed in their creative world for the afternoon. If you are baking cookies, squish the dough and let it squeeze out through your fingers. If you are at a park, jump on the swings. Or get some watercolors and paint whatever your feelings you have in that moment – something that can’t be painted ‘wrong’ or that can’t be ‘bad. And, whenever possible, laugh, do things that light you up. This is really good for discharging stress and releasing ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters into your brain that may not change your day, but over time can help you feel more joyful.
Spend time with people who build you up.
If you know that you feel happier and more positive, when you spend time with certain people, make spending time with them a priority. Deep and meaningful relationships with friends are a significant predictor of well-being across the lifespan, and even predicting better health and mood as we age. Make sure you take spending time with your friend as seriously as you take your workouts or making it on time to appointments with a doctor. These people are what helps life feel less lonely and more vibrant. And, make sure that you share your feelings with your friends- if they make you feel happy, tell them how much you appreciate them. Learning how to be vulnerable to people can be difficult, but is often worth the risk. If thinking about letting people in seems scary, you might enjoy reading “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown.
Care for yourself.
Self-care is a bit of a buzz word these days. Our research is showing us that while many of us are really good at caring for others (kids, parents, spouses, friends) we often forget that we too need to be cared for. For almost every client I see in therapy, I prescribe self-care as part of their therapeutic work. Every day do something little for yourself or do something more substantial a few times a week. And when you do that, try doing it with the following mindset: “I’m worth caring for, and I deserve to feel good in my life”. If that is hard, try saying “I want to learn to care for myself better, and so I am going to keep working at it, until my view of myself changes”. Self-care activities can be as simple as starting the day by doing some deep breathing or going for a walk on your lunch break. It could include ending the day by putting a beautiful smelling lotion on your feet or choosing to take time out of your day of obligations to do something you want to do for yourself. Whatever you do, try to be present, and receptive to the care you are giving yourself.
I know there is irony in this: I’m suggesting that you don’t have to change anything, followed by a list of things you could do to change. We are all on this journey of life and want to have lives we are proud of, that is full of richness and meaning, joy and growth. Most of us just want to be happy. Let’s try to get there by changing things on the inside, that helps us feel more proud of who we already are, less critical, more present, and grateful so that whatever happens on the outside will not be able to shake who we have become on the inside.
*This is a guest post written by Hillary McBride.
Hillary McBride is a Ph.D. Candidate at UBC and a Registered clinical counselor living and working in private practice in Vancouver. Her research and clinical work is focused on women’s experiences across the developmental lifespan from a feminist perspective, including motherhood (including the transition to motherhood, and mother/daughter relationships), women’s experiences of and relationships to their bodies, and trauma.
She was recently awarded the international Young Investigators Award for her work in human sexuality, and recently published her first book with Post Hill Press entitled “Mothers, daughters, and body image: Learning to love ourselves as we are“. The book explores how we as women can change our relationships with our bodies, and how this is connected to our relationships with other women- particularly our mothers.
The book is available through Indigo, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and most other bookstores. Hillary’s research has been recognized by the American Psychological Association and the Canadian Psychological Association. Her next book “Embodiment and Eating Disorders: Theory, Research, Prevention and Treatment” is out in June 2018, and is a feminist and existential approach to eating disorders.
You can learn more about her work at www.hillarylmcbride.com, or follow her on Instagram @hillaryliannamcbride & twitter @hillarylmcbride.
Featured image: Pixabay.com