Really Bad Days
There are days when we feel ugly, gross, worthless, and our confidence plummets into a very dark, deep well. It is no wonder that we struggle with these feelings. We live in a media-saturated society, in which we are surrounded by perfectly fit, airbrushed images all the time. This can teach us to hate our appearance and our bodies at the slightest perceived imperfection. This pressure is especially acute for women, and so in this post I write a lot about concerns women have pertaining to this issue. But I know that men increasingly struggle with these issues, too, and so I have written this post also with you in mind, men, and I hope they you will find some helpful ideas here.
When we feel ugly and gross, here is how we often feel:
- We want to hide
- We do not want anyone to look at us.
- We want to punish ourselves in some way.
- We want to adopt stringent plans and draconian measures to whip ourselves into shape.
- We feel huge and blobby, or we feel small and invisible.
- We feel like we do not deserve love.
- We feel alienated from our sexuality.
- We feel vulnerable and incompetent.
I deeply sympathize with you if you are having one of those days. They can be so painful. We often feel like we are alone in these feelings, but they are actually more common than we think. But we do not have to stay stuck in this place because there are specific practices and thoughts that can help us work through them. Here are five things we can do when we feel ugly and our confidence plummets.
Our Bodies and Shame
#1. The first practice relates especially to girls and women because it deals with the primary reason women often feel ugly and gross: we feel fat. This feeling causes a great deal of suffering for women (the majority of us, I believe), so I want to address this issue right at the beginning of the post. If you are feeling ugly and gross because you feel fat, you can practice realizing that you never have to apologize for any of the space you take up—no matter how matter how small or large it is.
One of the primary reasons that women feel ugly when they feel fat is because historically, women have been conditioned to feel bad for taking up space in the world. We have been conditioned to believe that being small, inconspicuous, fragile, demure, and self-diminishing is attractive and feminine. We are often conditioned never to disagree and never to push back. In fact, historically and even today, women are often conditioned to behave in a docile, child-like manner. This message can be communicated through toxic media messages, distorted religious teachings, and toxic, unhealthy cultural messages about masculinity.
The result of these messages is that women often feel guilty if they take up space or are very visible in any way. So when women gain any weight at all, they feel deep shame. But there is nothing to feel shame about with gaining weight. Women gain weight for different, perfectly understandable reasons. They gain weight because of puberty, because of pregnancy, because of stress, because of difficult emotions that make them feel vulnerable. Many women (and men) gain weight because they feel objectified by other people or they have been abused, and unconsciously they gain weight as a protection against this.
Weight can be a way that women or men make themselves feel safe in the world. All of these reasons for weight gain are either healthy and/or completely understandable. There is no reason to feel shame over them, but we do because we have been conditioned to think that we must be perfectly fit at all times or, in the case of women, that we must be small, retiring, and that we must not be any kind of burden (burden = weight).
What is interesting, though, is that often women feel fat and full of shame when they have not gained any weight at all. In her book Fat is a Feminist issue (which I recommend), Susie Orbach suggests that often when women feel fat, it is almost always about something else other than their bodies. Often it has to do with women subconsciously feeling ashamed for having a big spirit, for being confident, for asking for more, for being more active and powerful in their lives. You can read more about these ideas here. (I believe more men are dealing with these issues, too.)
You never have to apologize for the space you take up in the world–no matter how small or big it is.
In addition, often when we feel fat, it is because we feel vulnerable, and we are ashamed of our vulnerability. Although we are often conditioned to be shy, retiring, and docile, women also receive the contradictory message that they have to be in control at all times.(Men often receive this message, too.) So we often feel ashamed and terrified when we feel vulnerable, and we interpret this shame as feeling fat. For women, “I feel fat” becomes a code for any painful feeling we have. It may be a way that we make ourselves feel more in control. We often do not know what to do when we or other women say “I feel really vulnerable”, “I feel dehumanized”, “I feel unsafe in the world.” So because we do not know how to talk about or deal with these issues, we unconsciously switch to something more familiar and say (or think) “I feel fat.”
Next time you feel ugly and gross because you feel fat, here is something you can say: “I never have to apologize for the space I take up in the world. I am allowed to be powerful in my body and spirit. It is okay to feel vulnerable. It is safe for me to feel and honor all of my feelings.
Toxic Comparison and Competition
#2. Second, when you are feeling ugly and gross, you can practice turning off comparisons and competition. We often receive harmful messages that we are only lovable and acceptable if we meet some impossible standard of physical perfection or if we have the body type that is currently fashionable. (This is definitely the message that is cultivated by the perfect, airbrushed pictures we see in the media.) This message is everywhere in our culture. Because of this, we often feel ugly and gross because we compare ourselves to others, we decide we do not measure up, and so we feel ugly and worthless. But it is actually possible to turn off comparisons and competition and to appreciate our own unique beauty.
One of the ways I turn off comparisons is to use something I call the rose metaphor. Consider how we view roses. When I look at a rose, I do not get mad at the rose because it does not look like a lilac or a daffodil. Rather, I realize that the rose is in the process of unfolding its own unique beauty. Each of its moments is beautiful: from when it is a fresh, new bud until it is a mature rose beginning to wilt and return to the ground. I never chastise, punish, or scold a rose. I honor the rose and enjoy all the moments of its beauty, and I make sure I water it, give it lots of sunshine, and keep away pesky blight. As I do this, the rose does its beautiful rose thing and is a natural beauty.
That is the way you are, too. You are like a beautiful, one-of-a kind flower that carries original beauty from the time you are a little bud-of-a human being until the time you begin to wilt and return to the ground. Each of those moments of your life contain beauty. All you need to do is nourish yourself with love, and you will lovingly unfold the unique and original beauty that you have. Just like you would not scold a rose for being a rose (rather than being a daffodil or a lilac), you do not have to scold yourself for not looking some other way—for instance, not being thinner or not being more curvaceous or not being taller or shorter or whatever. That is not the kind of flower you are. Be the kind of flower you are. We need your beauty in the world: there is no comparison, no competition.
One way you can begin to recognize and nurture your own unique beauty is to cut down significantly on the fitness and fashion magazines you read, as well as the movies and the television shows you watch that contain images of extremely thin, perfectly dressed, airbrushed people. Studies suggest that these images are highly correlated with body-loathing and eating disorders in young girls and boys (and most likely in adult men and women, too). If you cannot cut these types of media out entirely, start critiquing and resisting them. For instance, when you see such images, you can start saying out loud or to yourself “That is an airbrushed image. That is not real.” or “The people in these images have been manicured and posed professionally. This is fantasy, not real life.” My own peace and self-love began to increase dramatically when I did these things. You can read more about that here.
In addition, if you want to learn how to appreciate and nurture you own unique beauty, some people, especially some women, have found that using “selfie therapy” to combat unrealistic images in the media can be extremely helpful. Selfies can allow us to decide how we will present ourselves, and they can teach us that we can take pictures of ourselves purely to explore different aspects of our face and personality and to celebrate our own unique beauty. And while you can share selfies, you can also keep them entirely to yourself as a communication tool between you and your heart, mind, and body. You can use them as a tool to practice radical self-acceptance. You might like to read more about that here.
The next time you find yourself feeling ugly and gross because you fail to meet up to some other standard you think you should meet, you can say, “That is not the type of flower I am. I am cultivating and appreciating my own, unique beauty. There is no comparison, no competition.”
Let Your Intuition Guide You
#3. The third thing you can do when you are feeling ugly and gross is to tap into your body/mind/soul’s loving wisdom and listen to your intuition. Your body and spirit want to be healthy, flourishing, and full of energy and power (by power here, I just mean the ability to be fully yourself.) Sometimes we do not know how to help our body and spirit be healthy and to flourish, but our body and spirit know and are always trying to communicate to us. Sometimes we feel gross because there actually is some kind of imbalance we are suffering in our life, and our body and spirit are trying to communicate to us. (From this point on, I am going to refer to the communication from our body and spirit as our intuition.) Our intuition never tells us that we are ugly and gross. Rather, our feelings of ugliness and grossness are an invitation to listen to our intuition so that we can figure out what is off. When we learn to listen to our intuition it can be a powerful tool that helps us correct any imbalances in our life.
Sometimes our intuition will tell us that we need to stop playing small or that we need to reject comparison and competition (as discussed in #1 and #2). Sometimes our intuition will tell us that we need to drink more water, eat more fruits and vegetables to provide energy to our body, or to practice movement so that there is more of us, not less of us. Listening to and connecting with our intuition is a wonderful way to return to loving ourselves and to overcome feelings of ugliness and grossness.
Of course the question is “How do we listen to our intuition?” This is something I plan to write about in a later blog post, but for now, you can find helpful tips about listening to your intuition here, here, and here. I also want to mention that these are the things that I do when I want to listen to my intuition:
- I go on a slow walk in which I place no pressure on myself and just look at the sky and the trees and listen to the birds.
- I sit on the couch and look out the window and do nothing but be quiet and relax. (Often all we need to do to let our intuition speak is to create a space for it.)
- I take a bath.
- I ask God for wisdom or for a miracle (a miracle for me is a shift in perspective). If you do not believe in God, you can just be willing to see things differently. That often works, too.
- I draw and paint or do something that involves a lot of color.
- I watch a television show that involves characters working through a problem or solving a mystery. Often I find some way to identify with the way they are solving the problem, and it speaks to my own condition.
- I listen to classical music while being quiet or while cleaning my office.
The next time you are feeling ugly and gross, here is something you can say to yourself: “I listen to my intuition, and it tells me everything I need to love myself better. Love is the answer for any struggle I am having.”
Honor Your Landscape
#4. The fourth thing you can do when you are feeling ugly and gross is to practice cultivating radical acceptance through something I call the landscape metaphor. (As you can see, I find metaphors really helpful. If metaphors are not helpful for you, do not worry—you can do this step without metaphors. Keep reading).
Thanks to my friend, Kathy, for this picture.
To get into the mindset of the landscape metaphor, it is important to realize that your appearance is not primarily for the sake of other people. Your appearance primarily is a record of your entire life. It is a record of your growth, your development, your joys, your sorrows, the love you made, the adventures you have been on. It is a unique record, filled with perfection and also imperfection. It is much like a landscape. When I was a teenager, I got to spend a few weeks in rural Arizona. I spent a lot of time looking at the canyons and rocks that had been shaped and eroded by the wind. This landscape was stunning, and it was stunning because of all that it had weathered and because of its cracks, snags, crevices, and breaks.
You are this very same way. Your body and your appearance—with all of its perfections and imperfections) are a record of your life. It is what makes you interesting. The more you practice radical acceptance of the record of your beautiful and unique life, the more this beauty becomes evident to yourself and to everyone around you. You do not have to escape your landscape; you just need to accept it and relax into it.
Thanks to my friend, Marian, for this picture.
This does not mean that you ignore the painful or bad things that have happened to you. This does not mean that you do not recognize that there may be changes your intuition is telling you to make (see #3). Rather, you honor all of the moments of your life as what creates your unique landscape. Keep listening to your intuition and keep relaxing. That is a powerful combination. (You can read more about this here and here.)
Here is something you can say the next time you feel ugly and gross: “My appearance and body are the landscape of my life. I do not have to escape my life. I listen to my intuition and relax into it.”
Thanks to my friend, Sean, for this picture.
All the Love You Need
#5. The fifth thing you can do when you feel ugly and gross is to realize that you do not have to be anyone else to get the love you desire and need. Often we feel ugly and gross because we think there is something wrong with our appearance, and we worry that this means that we cannot get the love we desire so deeply. We often receive the message that we will only get love if we are beautiful (in a particular way) or sexy or perfect or hot (again, in a particular way) or whatever. This is not true. People of all shapes and sizes and appearances throughout history have experienced beautiful and life-changing love. We can always get the love we need. We can begin by loving ourselves (and we can do this by practicing the truths discussed in #1-#4). The more we love ourselves, the more peaceful and whole we feel, and the more we accept all of the moments of our appearance and life. When we do this, we fully inhabit our lives, and we become more powerful. This power is a light that everyone can see, and the light in us begins connecting with the light in other people. This is what true love is. Sometimes that love will be the love of good friends. Sometimes that love will just be a spark of recognition (“The light in me honors the light in you.”) Sometimes that love will be romantic and erotic. Whatever kind of love it is, we never have to be someone else to get the love we desire. We just need to be ourselves.
It is true that there are some people who will tell us that unless we change in some way—dress differently, lose weight, fix our teeth, etc.—that they cannot love us. These people have a cloudy heart, and they do not understand what true and powerful love is. Relationships or friendships with these people will not flourish because the state of their heart is diminishing their power and our power. Love can only flourish when people honor and cultivate their own power and the power of their loved ones.
Here is something you can say the next time you feel ugly and gross: “I give myself permission to fully inhabit my life and to express my own power. I have all the love I need.”
Friend, I am so sorry that you feel ugly and gross today. You are not alone. These feelings are normal, but we do not have to stew in them. These feelings are habits we have picked up from unhealthy cultural messages. You are lovable, beautiful, and perfect right now. You can relax into your life, listen to your intuition, cultivate your power, and practice radical self-love. All of that is possible right this instant. You are perfect right now in this moment.
 While there is some evidence this is changing, heroines and leading ladies on television have almost always been extremely thin, far thinner than the average women. This communicates to young, impressionable girls and women that excessive thinness and smallness is desirable, good, and noble.
 While the Bible is full of strong, courageous women, and while it continually stresses that women and men are created equally, many churches in the past (and even today) have discouraged women from leadership roles or from participating equally in church roles alongside men. Furthermore, some churches encourage extremely rigid gender roles, and this often encourages women to believe that they must be quiet, docile, and that they must never challenge male authority figures. Many women are also taught to feel ashamed of their sexuality and femininity through distorted religious teachings. This sometimes causes women to feel fat when they feel especially sexual or voluptuous.
 Unhealthy portrayals of masculinity suggest that to be masculine is to be forceful, aggressive, dominant, and in charge at all times. This suggests that femininity, the opposite, must be retiring, docile, submissive, and obedient. Neither of these are healthy or accurate portrayals.
 For any men or women who suspect that they gain weight because, for any reason, they do not feel safe in the world, Jon Gabriel does an amazing job of writing about this issue. He has developed a program that helps both men and women feel safe in the world so that they can gently release any weight they are holding onto because of fear.
 In her book There is Nothing Wrong With You, which I highly recommend, Cheri Huber distinguishes between acceptance and resignation. Acceptance is something we do with our head up. Resignation is something we do with our head down.