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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Goodbye Inner Critic, Hello Healthy Body Image: Mindful Awareness is Freeing

Dec 02, 2015 02:09AM ● By Carol Shear

We have received an invitation. We have received an invitation for a special occasion, for a special occasion, such as a birthday celebration, a reunion, a wedding, or perhaps just an easy dinner with friends. Whichever event it may be, we need to decide what to wear. As we look into the closet and try on something, a sudden inner wave of critical commentary crashes through the mind: “Ah, I don’t have anything to wear,” “I look terrible in that outfit,” “If I lost 10 pounds maybe I’d look okay,” or “Look at my face - lines around my mouth and bags under my eyes.” Our inner critical being has come alive.

We live in a culture obsessed with how we look. Concerns about weight and body image preoccupy our thoughts. Body image refers to how we think, feel about and see our body, as well as the actions we take surrounding our appearance. This applies to both men and women; no one is immune. To varying degrees, we often judge our bodies as inadequate, feeling terrible about ourselves, maybe even depressed. Then we partake in unhealthy eating habits, such as strict dieting, emotional eating or other unhealthy coping behaviors—such as alcohol, drugs, excessive busy work or excessive exercise—in order to feel better.

This can become a vicious cycle impacting not only how we feel about our bodies but also spilling over into how we live our lives. It’s a subtle but dangerous way of thinking that can lead us to feeling trapped in a state of imperfection, unhappiness and pain.

Why We Reject Our Bodies

There are several theories as to why poor body image is so common in our culture, yet we don’t need to look too far to see a barrage of difficult to achieve media messages telling us how we should look and feel. The discrepancy between what we see in the mirror and the conditioned messages we receive gives the loud voices in our heads lots of opportunity to turn up the frequency and volume of harsh and critical commentary.

Women at midlife are particularly vulnerable, as the body is already in the throes of hormonal upheaval with shifting moods, weight gain, and changes in skin elasticity. Additional stressors may further antagonize how we feel about ourselves and our bodies including issues of life balance with either imposed or desired changes in employment, or financial woes. The impact of divorce or health crises—personally or that of an aging parent or loved one— and feelings generated by becoming an empty nester also can be stressors.

Find Freedom in Mindful Awareness

Despite the negative story our inner critic likes to shout, there is good news and immediate help available. Mindfulness meditation can be a way out of these draining and debilitating thought patterns. The healing, transformative and restorative effects of the practice have been known in Eastern traditions for many centuries. Mindfulness means to pay attention on purpose, non-judgmentally, and in the present moment. To be mindful is to focus attention on the breath and to bring awareness to our thoughts, feelings, emotions and physical sensations just as they are in this moment. When our attention drifts or gets caught up in conditioned mental habits and behaviors, we practice mindfulness by returning the ever-wandering mind to awareness of the breath and being the observer of our thoughts, feelings and sensations.

According to a recent study done at the University of Waterloo in 2014, when women were able to quiet the mind and engage in compassionate, non-judgmental present moment awareness of whatever thoughts arose, they had a healthier relationship with their bodies. As Allison Kelly, professor for the department of psychology at the University of Waterloo, describes, “Regardless of their weight, women with higher self-compassion have better body image and fewer concerns about weight, body shape or eating.” As a result of learning and applying mindful practices, the women in the study were better able to handle personal disappointments and setbacks in their daily lives.

How Mindfulness Helps Foster a Healthy Body Image

It helps to quiet the constant stream of mind chatter, allowing us to become the observer of our own thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations—without judgment.

We learn to be present in our body from the inside, instead of it being just about our outward appearance.

We wake up to how we have been conditioned to think and feel and the resulting mental and behavioral habits that go along with that conditioning.

We learn to create new ways of responding (versus reacting) to these newly illuminated, self-defeating thought and feeling habits, and how to stop getting carried away down the river of negative thoughts or engaging in unhelpful coping strategies.

Since mindfulness is grounded in kindness and compassion, choosing to bring it into our lives is an act of love and self-care. Simply showing up and paying attention to whatever we are thinking, feeling or sensing in the present moment is enough.

A common way to begin is to sit quietly with our eyes closed to minimize distractions. As we are “waking up” to our life more fully, choose to sit nobly in honor of our decision to care for ourselves in this way. Sit up straight on a chair or cushion with hands resting comfortably in the lap. Bring attention to the fact that we are breathing. Observe the inhale and the exhale; noticing the breath as it enters and leaves the body has a very calming effect. In this way, we begin to settle the mind, and create a strong, steady foundation from which to observe feelings or thoughts.

It may be helpful to count the breaths, breathing in and out up to 10 and then back to one. It is not necessary to keep track of the numbers. If the mind wanders—which it will—simply without judgment return attention to the breath. Setting aside even 5-10 minutes per day as a formal practice and working our way up to 20-30 minutes can be a good place to start. Consider joining a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction group program for in-depth learning, accountability and support. Regular commitment to mindfulness practice is a powerful way to be with and ultimately transform the suffering surrounding body image.

Mindfulness fosters a sense of inner peace and self-compassion that allows us to accept our bodies and our turbulent emotions just as they are without judgment or needing to change anything. The more we practice and wake up to what is already here we begin to see the choices available to us. This is the key to body image transformation and the restorative path to feeling better, stronger, more alive and decidedly more peaceful.

Carol Shear, BNRN, is an integrative health coach and an instructor in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). To connect and to register for the winter MBSR programs in Fairfield and Danbury, visit RiseUpCoaching.com or call 203-452-9614. See ad, page 9.