Last week I was talking with a new friend and the obvious first question she asked me after identifying what I do for a living was, “What kind stuff do you work with?”
I usually say the same thing every time someone asks me this- “Oh I see about 70% eating disorders and body image and the rest can be anything from addiction, to trauma, to basic life transitions.”
I didn’t say that this time, though. I just looked at her and said, “To put it simply- basically, I work with addiction. “
“To put it simply? Is it more complicated that that?”
“Yea, I guess I have realized over the past couple of years that we are all addicted to something in our own way. And my job has become to help people untie themselves from those things.”
After this conversation (that went deeper into the how’s and why’s I think like I do) I realized I tend to forget that the majority of people around me don’t have an addiction focussed lens to view the world.
A little backstory on my journey as a therapist: I got my start in a residential treatment center so my foundation of therapy is actually in addiction. However, when I started as a naïve intern, I thought addiction just looked like drinking too much or doing a bunch of drugs. Now, I believe that is just a corner of what addiction is. Humans have created this skill of becoming addicted to just about anything- and then they have this way of masking it as things that a lot of times look ok or “normal.”
So, what really is addiction?
Depending on who you talk to you’re going to get different answers to this question.
When I explain addiction to people for the first time it usually sounds like this:
It’s not about the thing you’re using. It’s not about about the drugs, the alcohol, the shopping, the sex; it’s about what you’re trying to fix. All that the vices are- are solutions to problems that end up not working anymore. At one point- for an alcoholic- the alcohol fixed the problem.
Addiction tends to happen when the old solution isn’t working anymore but you keep trying it- despite the pain it is now causing you.
Some of us get addicted to running. Running from feelings, relationships, or anything less than desirable. After you’ve run from enough relationships though- running stops helping you save yourself from pain and it starts stealing opportunity for joy.
Some of us get addicted to taking care of other people. And when you’ve done that for long enough the high you get from meetings others’ needs stops masking the hole you have from not caring for yourself.
And believe it or not… some of us get addicted to negative body image. Creating hurtful narratives around what our bodies look like becomes a way to get needs met- and because this addiction is rooted in our thought and belief system- it’s a real tough one to break.
Addiction is a way to meet legitimate needs in illegitimate ways.
So, the question here isn’t why the addiction, it’s why the pain of unmet needs?
The question isn’t why do you have negative body image, the question is why are you hurting?
At one point it was helpful to create these narratives around what your body looks like- that is the illegitimate way (negative belief system) to meet your legitimate need that probably is heavily hung around acceptance, love, and belonging.
It gave you something that helped you overcome something else. If it didn’t- you never would have kept going. But now you’re continuing to berate yourself because all you can hear are the evil voices that you raised and allowed to stay comfy in your mind.
Negative body image is not just about opinions we have around what our body looks like. A lot of times, it is no different than when an alcoholic picks up a bottle when they know drinking continually causes chaos in their life. And now, I’m here to let you know there is another (better) solution.
Why make this such a big deal though??? This isn’t like heroin addiction, right? What’s dangerous about negative body image?
Well for starters… it leads to the desire to change your appearance specifically through dieting.
No big deal, you say?
In a study done with 14 & 15 year olds dieting was found to be the most important predictor of a developing eating disorder.
We have all heard about the epidemics that are happening around the U.S. when it comes to chemical addictions but what we don’t hear about as much is the body image epidemic. This may be because what you probably don’t realize is that Eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders, surpassed only by opioid addiction. So, it is just like heroin addiction. For those of you who are thinking negative body image isn’t dangerous, you’re wrong.
In addition, this addiction also leads to low self worth, isolation, depression, and anxiety.
So why are we hurting? I think this is a more subjective question but I do believe I can start to answer it here. Clinging to our outside appearance is a way to escape the reality of what we feel about ourselves internally.
The truth is- all bodies are good. And fitting into a certain idea of what someone should look like doesn’t make spending time with you more exciting. The joy of being in relationship with others comes from the inner beauty of the heart.
This part is tricky though.
My fear is that the addiction of berating ourselves aesthetically comes from a place of not knowing if our inside, who we truly are, is good either. This is where the work comes in. The work that a lot of times- looks less desirable than hating our bodies.
I believe this is where we have to get close to our pain in order to untie ourselves from it; dig into why it feels good to hit yourself in the head with a hammer over and over again. Many of us don’t want to stop because when we stop abusing ourselves we start to feel again. Well, ignoring the pain doesn’t make it go away- it just turns the pain into complete suffering.
So again, the question here isn’t why the negative body image- its why the fear of honesty within yourself? If that cannot be tackled then the pattern most likely won’t be broken.
I’ve had to sit with a number of clients and tell them that I can’t help them improve their body image. It is one of the more painful conversations I have to have- because that’s often what people expect me to do- help improve their body image. However, I cannot help someone learn to love their body if they aren’t willing to learn to love themselves- and often that requires big courage to acknowledge some things they are hiding from.
It requires them to put the hammer down.
You have to be willing to hang in during the withdrawal period- the period when you feel exposed because you can’t cover up your old pain with new pain; your fear of knowing yourself intimately without self-hatred.
The addiction of negative body image is actually not about how you look, it is all about how you feel about yourself. It’s not about wounds of how people see you it’s about the wounds of what you think you are.
I can only speak for myself here- but once I learned that I possess a lot of intrinsic value- the negative body talk didn’t do much for me. I specifically remember looking in the mirror one day trying on a bathing suit- my first instinct went to something about my stomach not deserving to be exposed. My second thought was literally, “What was the point of that.” It’s like the high wasn’t there anymore. When I truly started to accept that despite my MANY imperfections I’m immeasurably valuable beating myself up for what I look like just seemed a bit pointless.
What I’m not saying is that when I began to accept myself I all of the sudden started to love the way every part of my body looked. What I am saying is when I learned to truly love myself what my body looked like stopped being so important.
Now I can’t promise it will turn out the same for you but I believe it to be worth a shot. Stop with the bullshit. You’re more than how many abs poke through your tank top- minimizing yourself to that is actually insulting to you and everyone around you. It’s unfair to you. But it’s also unfair to the present and future relationships with people who want to know you and see you but can’t.
If body shaming yourself isn’t solving your problems anymore- let’s look for new solutions.