So many volumes have been written, debated, marketed, and books bought, sold, and even destroyed about body image, dieting, and how to “feel good about your body.” Most writing on this topic focuses on an externalized view of the body. Perhaps this basic assumption—that the body is “other” or outside of the self—is where the problem begins.
Western culture seems intrinsically locked in a dualism that views the body as separate, insofar as the mind is superior, and the body needs to be controlled. Hierarchical objectification—as if you can push, pull, and craft the body into what you think it should be—leads to a disconnected mind, body, and heart relationship.
Nurturing a Mutual Relationship Between Body and Heart
What if, instead, we communicate with bodies on a relational level, based on mutual positive regard? What would happen in the conversations with ourselves, as well as those with our patients in our consulting rooms?
Would our patients shift the way they care for their bodies if we encouraged loving kindness in the mind, body, and heart relationship? Would mental health improve if there was less negative body-talk, especially diet talk?
My experience confirms this is possible. Our task is to help shift the relationship toward a more health-enhancing, whole person standpoint.
On first glance, it is easy to approach your body as if it exists outside of yourself; a cut-off relationship. Cut-off relationships are very clear: yes or no, black or white. There is no maybe, and no gray can exist.
An external focus leads to competitive judgments about appearance (At least I’m not fat!), and looking outward for confirmation, positive or negative, about your body. Body evaluation along the lines of how parts measure up, as if the information validates your personhood (I wish ___________ was different) is the norm.
How Therapists Can Model Body Acceptance for Their Clients
Often judgments are reduced to body dissatisfaction as a way of avoiding connection with yourself, regardless of the pain or joy. It is a big part of the cultural dialogue to be unhappy with your body and desire to change it.
This was evident at a recent professional gathering I attended, where a few of the women jokingly stated they were, “bad” because of the food they enjoyed at the event. These were mostly middle-aged psychotherapists, some having raised daughters and worked in the area of women’s issues.
They are caught, too. If this is our cultural consciousness, even enlightened mental health professionals, who implicitly value consciousness and curiosity, succumbed to the cultural practice of body and food shaming when the focus turned to their own bodies. Regardless of whether it is spoken or held silently, muttered only in the depths of your own body shame talk, what hope do our patients have if we feel badly about our own bodies?
Acknowledging that the relationship might need to shift is the beginning stage of healing. To move more deeply into relationship with yourself you must go “through the looking glass,” and work your way through the surreal confusion and contradiction and get back to the light of day. The relationship can mature, like when someone who is part of a couple in a long-term relationship learns something about their partner that brings them to a deeper understanding of the partner, their self, and the relationship they share. A real “ah-ha,” moment. To develop a peaceful, loving relationship takes work, time, and thoughtfulness—even if we are psychotherapists.
Trusting, Rather Than Judging, Your Body
There is another path toward mind, body, and heart integration. Trusting rather than ruling over your body is a leap of faith.
Fortunately you can learn how to rely on and lovingly catch yourself. Remember these points and share them with your clients who struggle with body image.
Remind yourself that this is a relationship. You will make mistakes. A renewed foundation of love means you can forgive, learn, and grow in the process of change. Your relationship with your body can grow into a trusting, loving, kind one. It takes time and nurturing to re-establish your relationship. One where you relate to your body in a different way.
Make a plan to shift negative body talk. Choose a word, symbol, color, anything, that will bring you back to the present moment, accepting where you are today with the knowledge that each day you are nurturing a mind, body, heart relationship.
You have a fresh opportunity each day. As psychotherapists and healers our mandate is to heal thyself, preferably before you help others, and do no harm, equally for yourself and your patient. Developing your relationship with your body and then helping others to do the same is a wonderful skill and gift.
Set relationship goals. Allow yourself to be, “in process.” Your relationship with your body does not need to be all or nothing, good or bad. Focus on connection, communication, and kindness. Ask yourself questions and be curious—you have the skills!
The subtle shift toward mutuality and partnership opens up possibilities. It is so incredibly freeing to communicate with connection and love. There is room to grow and your relationship with yourself is the most important place to begin.
Photo courtesy of Noelle Buske on flickr