“Jessica, remember, it’s going to take time,” said my therapist, six months into our sessions together, for the hundredth time. She knows me well—I’m a go-getter, I make things happen, I don’t wait for the changes to come, I make them come, and when they don’t appear all at once, my impatient self feels like I need to do more. This was especially true while on my journey to learn how to love my body.
This affected everything in my life, including my relationship with fitness and my body.
Throughout the 14 months I was in therapy, one of the most important things I learned is that my body image issues aren’t actually with my body. As my therapist likes to say, “When something stressful comes up, your body is happy to go along with it.”
In other words: A bad day could drastically change the way I see my body when I look in the mirror, often referred to as body dismorphia. It’s at this point that I would begin spiraling, ignoring the real problem—which was never actually my body.
Having the personality of a go-getter only exacerbated this issue: When something was wrong, I’d look for a solution immediately, rather than taking a minute to figure out what was really going on.
Now, I’m much more aware of what’s going on behind the scenes. Developing an awareness of what the real issues are has helped me find the peace I needed to begin loving my body.
While I wouldn’t have made the progress I have without therapy, it took more than those sessions to get where I am now; it took a daily dedication to improving and keeping an open mind to the many things that my wonderful therapist suggested.
To reinforce what we discussed in therapy, I developed little habits that I relied on throughout the day. I am sharing some of those habits and tactics here, in hopes that you too can let go of what’s holding you back and begin to love your body.
Rebuilding the Tracks
My therapist kept reminding me that our brain is made up of tracks (to put it in the simplest possible terms), and for my whole life I’ve been building these tracks; tracks that I’ve come to know and trust.
Unfortunately, the tracks running through my mind continually reinforced negative thoughts and enabled my anxiety. Because my brain knew this, and nothing else, the main goal was to rebuild those tracks and change the conversation in my mind from negative to positive.
The only way to do this was repetitive and continual work. A few of the tactics I used on a daily basis, and still turn to now, include:
Mantras: I had a different mantra every day, depending on what I needed to reinforce or work on. Some days it would be, “You’re enough,” while others it was, “Today I choose peace.” These mantras changed with my mood, my needs and what I was working on that week in therapy.
Challenging statements: Whenever I would have a negative thought, I tried challenge it. I’d ask myself, “Why are you really thinking this?” or “Do you actually think your body looks too big or are you actually just stressed out about work?” It’s amazing how your mood can literally change the way you see the world, and in this case, your body.
“Lying” to myself: I read an article once where the author said if you’re going to lie to yourself about being ugly or big, why not lie to yourself about being pretty or fit? It’s likely that the latter—being beautiful and fit—isn’t a lie, but because we’ve trained our brains to believe and reinforce the negative thoughts, we automatically retrieve and believe them.
I took this sentiment to heart and started a habit of saying at least three things that I liked about myself every single time I looked in the mirror. Not just vague things like, “I like my legs,” but very specific thoughts such as, “I love how blonde my hair looks today.” The key: I couldn’t walk away until I had actually made three very specific statements. That was one of the most impactful habits I built during the process of learning to love my body.
Broadening The Lens
This is another important theory my therapist taught me about. When I was looking at myself, I was only seeing the one thing I liked least, my stomach. I was zoomed in.
So she asked me an interesting question:
“What does Ben [my husband] say he likes about the way you look?” And I realized, he has never once said, “Your arms look amazing” or “Your thighs looks really strong.” Why? Because he is not zoomed in on one part of me, he sees all of me. I was not seeing all of me.
I needed to zoom out and see the other parts of my body, many of which are parts I really love, like my shoulders, hair, butt, and fingers. To do this, I countered every negative thought about my body with a positive one.
No matter how long it took me to think of something, I did it. I still rely on this habit every single day, sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it anymore; it just happens naturally.
I’ve never thought of myself as a perfectionist—never, not once. It wasn’t until my very first session with my therapist that I realized perfectionism was actually something that drove every single action in my life, both personally and professionally.
This perfectionism supported a very black and white mindset in terms of my body image. For example, some thoughts I’d regularly struggle with were:
“If I don’t workout today, I’ll get fat.”
“If I eat that cupcake, I’ll definitely be bigger tomorrow.”
“If I don’t do cardio, I won’t burn fat, and I’ll never make progress.”
This way of thinking left me anxious and stressed, and understandably so; I felt as if everything I was working toward—a thin, fit body—would completely unravel if just one thing was out of place.
This was one of the tougher things to rid myself of, and it really wasn’t until recently that I had a breakthrough that allowed me to shed this thinking for good:
I was working out 5 to 6 days a week, with a mix of cardio and strength training. But I found that I was having a hard time getting out of bed to get to the gym—as a morning person, I very rarely struggled with early morning workouts; to be honest, I loved them. Yet, nothing was able to motivate me to get up and go. I was also experiencing severe soreness, with pain and tightness sticking around for 5, 6 or 7 days after my workout.
As a personal trainer, I knew these were all the classic signs of overtraining. As someone with severe body image struggles, however, I didn’t want to admit what I was experiencing. I was scared to take the recommended week off; I was scared that it would all fall apart.
But I took the break and it and it changed my life.
As my rest week went on, I saw that my body wasn’t getting bigger, fatter or rounder. Quite the opposite, it was relishing in this newfound rest. I realized that my body had been chronically inflamed from overworking my muscles. It was desperate for rest and I saw that this “perfect routine” was doing more damage than good. The best part: I didn’t need to uphold this impossible routine to be the fit, happy person I was yearning to be.
During the week off I spent more time loving my body, talking nicely to myself, and stretching my overworked muscles than ever before, and somehow it was all coming so naturally. I was treating my body well, giving it love and care, and it was returning the favor in spades.
I now workout 2 to 3 times a week, make time for stretching, and always give my body what my body it’s telling me it needs, whether that’s a tough workout or an extra day off. If someone had told me that I would be working out less and feeling better six months ago, I would have never believed them.
A Slow Transformation
My therapist told me a while back that I would likely start to feel better all of a sudden—one day, I would just notice it happening. And she was right.
While that one rest week was a major milestone in helping me over the hump after eight months of therapy, it was, and still is, a mixture of personal will power and the desire to make a change for good that fuels my positive body image—and the work I do to maintain it.
While therapy isn’t for everyone, I highly recommend seeking some sort of professional feedback for anyone struggling with body image issues. Not because you can’t get through it alone, but because you may not be looking for the answers in the right places.
Every week I had a different idea for how I would start loving my body or feeling better and they never worked because that wasn’t the root of the problem. The problem was my anxiety, my perfectionism, and a handful of other personal issues that needed to be worked through; problems I didn’t even know I had.
Learning to love my body has been a long process, and one that will likely never be finished. But, it gets easier every single day, and with every new realization, I take another step toward loving myself more than I did the day before.
This was originally written for and published on my good friend Erica’s blog, Grounded Strength. She was kind enough to let me publish it here as well.