How do you know what you are, what you are not, and why? Where did you gain this knowledge and experience that influences your current behavior and choices? While in the process of developing your Self, did you consciously stop to think if you wanted to be shaped in a particular manner? Certainly there were moments where you may have wanted to stop an experience or avoid pain, but did those experiences shape who you are today anyway? Are you interested in shaping your experiences through re-authoring your Self? Some people look to the body to try to control their experience of self in the world. Does this have any merit? When does it become a problem?
You were born into the world with certain genetic traits. The environment you grew up in further shaped the development of your inherent strengths and weaknesses. As you grew, you learned values and concepts of self-worth from family, friends, and culture. You took this outline and began testing it on the world, editing bits and pieces of your Self as the ebb and flow of pleasure, pain and belonging shaped your self-narrative. Messages about self-worth are also based on the parts of your identity that have already been shaped. Sometimes without knowing what influences you, you draw a line around yourself that determines what you want to let in, who you will let closer, and what you want to keep out.
In adolescence, an exceptionally important stage for the development of identity and self-worth, you may have experimented with different ways of being, groups to belong to, and new pleasures and pains in your growing body— some of them dangerous— all in effort to solidify a sense of identity and belonging. Although we do this throughout life, it is with a special intensity in adolescence.
Emotions and Body Image
Ultimately, all of these influencing experiences were informed by messages. What kind of messages? Emotions. Emotions are messengers that tell us if we are doing something right or wrong, frightening or pleasurable. They may be based on perceptions of need or values, and may be experienced in a range of intensities according to variables such as inborn traits or cultural and family norms. However differently we experience them, emotions are the messengers about the Self and are housed in the body. Sadness can be felt by having a heavy heart or lethargic energy. Fear can be experienced by having a racing heartbeat, heightened sensitivity to sensory information, or pulsating muscles ready to flee, fight or freeze. The body is the narrator of the Self, the text is emotion, and the story is You.
People dealing with challenges to their body image often don’t know how they feel. They have been taught somewhere along the line that their feelings are shameful or unacceptable, or that the needs behind the feelings will not be met. They often cannot differentiate what they are feeling from the feelings of others. This could be because of childhood experiences with frighteningly huge feelings, either their own or others’. They are often unable to identify and fight for what they need as they don’t listen to the messages. They often don’t have a clear sense of who they are and are preoccupied and vulnerable to external messages about their worth. This can lead to an overly controlling focus on the body, a focus that often goes astray.
Learning to Listen
While the body is a good place to start in knowing and defining the self, it isn’t by controlling the shape of the body that identity and worth are strengthened. Getting to know the self by identifying and expressing the emotions in the body— by respecting the messages— is a much healthier and more effective way. A controlled approach to the body is one that doesn’t listen to messages out of fear or avoidance of pain. Avoidance of emotion is self-rejection and inevitably leads to low self-worth. Your body and the emotions housed within it author your life. What are the messages your emotions are trying to tell you? Have you been ignoring them? If you listen, you may learn more about what kind of experiences you want more or less of, how close or far you want certain people around you, and how you want to be treated. By practicing this listening, you will get better at advocating for your Self and hence feel much better about your own worth. You only have to attend to the story— what you do afterwards is your choice. Will you listen?