What if I told you that in order to heal your body image issues, you needed to learn how to speak up for yourself?
So many of my clients bump up against the same thing:
Due to people-pleasing (and learning to center their worth in what other people think of them), they never learned or practiced the skills of self-advocacy, boundary-setting, authentic communication, or letting themselves be seen and known.
As a result of these lacking skills, my clients often struggle to connect with people.
In place of grounded communication and intimate bonding, there is often a lot of anxious detective work in their relationships:
What are they thinking?
What are they feeling?
Are they mad at me?
Are they judging me?
Do they think what I just said is stupid/selfish/weird?
A lot of people’s nasty inner monologue around body insecurities, anxiety, obsession, and hatred comes down to a lifetime habit of doing this detective work to try to figure out what other people think and feel about them.
When your default mode of communication with people is to search for hidden meaning in all the subtle things they say and do, it’s pretty damn easy to find “proof” that people hate you or are judging you, and that goes double for your body and appearance.
The interesting thing is that the people who engage in this kind of hidden-meaning detective work are nearly always the same ones who find it impossible to speak up clearly and truthfully for themselves. It’s a kind of projected paranoia, as if your inability to directly communicate and advocate for yourself makes you unable to imagine that anyone else could either.
Since this mental habit both comes from and creates anxiety, you can be sure that it’ll apply to any insecurities—body image included.
Do any of these sound familiar?
“She’s judging me for what I ordered; she must think I’m fat and disgusting.”
“They think they’re so much better than me because they lost weight during quarantine.”
“He did xyz because he obviously doesn’t find me attractive enough.”
This is all projected paranoia, based on a habit of trying to do a bunch of detective work to figure out what other people are thinking/feeling instead of just asking them, or trusting them to speak up if they have something to say.
I’ve noticed that such behavior often gets labeled by my sensitive clients as “empathy,” but I’d call that a gross misuse of the concept of empathy.
Picking up on non-verbal communication is one thing, but picking up on non-verbal communication and then imagining that it’s all about you, weaponizing it against yourself, and using it to disrupt connection with the person is not empathy. It’s just a mixture of sensitivity with anxiety, self-monitoring, people-pleasing, and self-loathing.
This all may even be the natural coping mechanism of someone who had to develop their “read the room” skill in order to survive… but that doesn’t make it accurate, and it sure as hell doesn’t make it helpful.
In other words, you might think you have a superpower, when what you actually have is anxiety.
In my experience, this anxiety comes directly from an inability to clearly, directly, and truthfully speak up. It’s kind of like how people who cheat on their partners become the most paranoid about their partner cheating on them. When you never speak up, advocate for yourself or your needs, or tell people what you really think or feel… you become completely paranoid that they’re doing the same thing.
Unfortunately, the end result of this lack of skill is always the same: disconnection. And given how many body image issues come down to the pain and fear of disconnection, this is a significant player in the conversation around body image.
Let’s take a look at how this anxiety-based detective-work habits functions in a new friendship.
You meet someone you think is cool. She seems friendly, and interested, and invites you to grab a coffee. You feel anxious that she was just inviting you to be nice and doesn’t really want to hang out with you, so you tell you’re busy, or just never respond. The friendship dies.
Now let’s look at what might happen if you had the communication skills to be open, honest, and advocate for your desires and needs.
You meet someone you think is cool. She seems friendly, and interested, and invites you to grab a coffee. You tell her that you’re super interested in getting to know her, but between Covid and work, you’d be more comfortable with a coffee zoom date, maybe this Friday morning or Saturday afternoon? She says yes, you have a great talk, and friendship blooms.
Boom. When you feel comfortable speaking up and advocating for your own needs and desires, it’s a hell of a lot easier to trust that other people are doing the same.
When you’re well-practiced at the skills of boundary-setting, self-advocacy, and authentic communication, you recognize that each of us is responsible for ourselves. This allows you to stop doing so much emotional labor on other people’s behalf, and focus instead on being accountable for your own wants and needs.
Doing this translates directly to a less-paranoid and anxious mind, and the volume getting turned waaay down on body-negative thoughts. It will also make you feel more confident and safe overall because you’re suddenly less out of control, less helpless and vulnerable, and way more empowered.
When you hold yourself completely accountable for your own feelings, wants, and needs, you’re literally in the driver’s seat of your own experience. The entire world opens up for you when you’re capable of speaking up directly, truthfully, and without centering other people’s needs or feelings:
Instead of waiting for someone to drop a hint that they like you, you can just tell them that you like them, and ask how they feel.
Instead of waiting for someone to reveal that they’re secretly angry with you, you can just observe that you’re feeling something off between you, and ask if they have anything they want to talk about.
Instead of saying “thank you” when a creepy dude hits on you, you can just say “you’re making me uncomfortable.”
Instead of mumbling something about quarantine when your mother in law comments on your weight, you can respond that actually your weight isn’t her business and you’re not accepting comments on your body anymore.
But that’s only half of it. Self-advocacy and authentic communication will also change your life and relationships because it means you’re no longer responsible for someone else’s feelings, wants, or needs, and don’t have to play detective to figure them out anymore.
Instead of trying to make sure they’re always comfortable, you can just be yourself and know that they’ll speak up if they need anything changed or addressed.
Instead of trying to make sure they’re not upset with you, you can just focus on authentically investing in the relationship, knowing that it’s their job to let you know when they’re upset.
Instead of trying to protect them from your too-muchness, you can trust them to take care of their own boundaries, and say no to anything they don’t want to do.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this.
-Do you still feel attached to and responsible for other people’s experiences?
-How much of that comes from a lack of agency or skill in how you take responsibility for your own through boundaries, self-advocacy, and communication?
-And what impact does/might that have on your experience of body image?