Updated: Mar 6
Why logic and positive thinking can’t help you stop hating your body (and what can!)
Your biggest fan,
Have you ever had the experience of knowing something is true but not feeling that it is?
For example: trying on a pair of jeans, realizing they’re too tight, and having a conflicted reaction. Intellectually, you might accept that body size is no longer your value system, or that gaining weight doesn’t make you “bad.” But despite the cognitive agreement, you may still experience a feeling of frustration or even despair.
This discrepancy between logic and feeling is an extremely common experience for people struggling with body image issues. On my own personal body image journey, I spent a long time assuming the latter piece would go away, if only I kept correcting my thoughts and furthering my education on body image concepts.
But it didn’t work– there seemed to be a whole other track of the process that wasn’t getting addressed.
Why was my brain able to understand my body was fine, but my emotions weren’t??
Eventually I learned about something called Somatic Experiencing (SE™: a body-oriented therapeutic model used for healing trauma and other stress disorders), and I was intrigued but skeptical.
“Somatic” means “relating to the body, as distinct from the mind,” which inherently turned me off. My love language is cerebral, it’s words, it’s intellectual concepts. I really, really wanted my mind to be able to solve this problem!
I felt solid in my cognitive rewiring around body image, and I understood the deeper needs under the surface of my body frustrations. But these negative, sticky emotions remained, and my mind couldn’t always reach them.
So I gave it a shot– I signed up to try processing emotions through my body.
This experience opened an incredible gateway for understanding how the mind and body work together.
As it turns out, emotional processing does happen along two distinct tracks: the intellectual (cognitive; of the mind) track, and the emotional (somatic; of the body) track.
And while these processes do interact, they are separate– processing in one does not automatically translate to processing in the other.
Like so many of my clients, I had spent a long time learning how to heal my body image through changes to my thoughts, beliefs, mindset, concepts, and ideas – but it wasn’t enough, because I had never learned how to heal it through my body and my feelings.
For me (and frankly for most people struggling with body image), tackling this somatic piece of the puzzle was/is absolutely critical for reaching body neutrality.
Processing through the body helps us move through emotional distress that lives outside the realm of what the conscious mind can understand.
Because this kind of processing is so important for healing body image–and so few people have encountered it– I want to offer you a very quick (and oversimplified) intro to Somatic Experiencing™, as well as a handful of exercises you can try today.
I highly recommend looking into SE™ to learn more, but here are a few basics:
Emotions are based on sensations in the body, to which have been assigned meaning.
Sensations are perceived through our five exteroceptive senses – touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing– as well as through our proprioceptive sense (awareness of our body’s movements through space), vestibular sense (awareness of balance), and interoceptive senses (awareness of sensations inside our bodies, like hunger, fullness, thirst, a need to pee, etc.)
When the body senses tension in our environment from any of these senses (i.e.: the feeling of pants being too tight, hearing a comment about our weight from a family member, seeing a person walking by in a smaller body), it assigns meaning to it.
If the meaning assigned to these sensations is negative (i.e.: “the fact that my pants are too tight means I’m fat and gross and lazy”), the body perceives there to be a threat, and manufactures stress hormones to prepare us to fight, flight, or freeze.
This process creates a surge of energy in the body. If that energy does not get used or released, it may find a way to use or express itself, through self-criticism, misplaced aggression, panic, or even pain.
A lot of somatic work focuses on helping a person tune into their sensations, be mindful about the meaning they assign to them, and then process the energy created by that meaning out. Once it’s released, the body and mind can return to a state of calm!
Can you see why reason and logic are not enough to heal body image issues on their own?? Reason and logic alone cannot move or release that energy.
Ready to try a few somatic exercises? Here are five I recommend!
This one is most helpful when we feel insecure, trapped, emotionally claustrophobic, less-than, afraid, or like we are closing in on ourselves. Lay on your back on the ground, with your legs and arms spread out in four different directions like a starfish. Take up space, and really notice yourself taking up space. Tune in to the feeling of the floor supporting you, and holding you up. Notice how it feels like to be unapologetically big, while also supported and safe. Notice any instincts to curl back up, or stop. You are free to alternate between taking up this expansive posture, and moving into contraction, as needed.
This exercise is most helpful for transitioning us out of feelings of disconnectedness, “other”-ness, imposter syndrome, anxiety, or low mood from body image distress. Singing stimulates the vocal chords, which stimulates the vagus nerve! The vagus nerve (really a bundle of nerves) is responsible, in part, for keeping us calm. Singing also releases oxytocin–especially when we sing along with others! (Oxytocin is a bonding hormone, which makes us feel more safe, calm, happy, and connected to others.)
3. Running in Place
This technique is best applied during an acute, intense, and upsetting body image moment, like spiraling into panic or shame after seeing a triggering photograph, going clothes shopping, or hearing a negative comment on our appearance. Fast or intense full body movement, like running in place, can be a quick antidote to moments of high anxiety, panic, shame, or self-loathing, because it takes the huge burst of fight-or-flight energy created by assigning such negative meaning to our bodies, and moves it through us. By using it up this way, it gets released, instead of just bouncing around inside us, wreaking havoc. Note: actual running works here too, but running in place tends to be a bit more accessible. And if running in place isn’t accessible for you, move any way you can: fast shaking, squats, swinging the arms, dancing, jiggling, etc.!
4. Push Away
This technique is useful to release energy from the fight element of the fight-or-flight response, and is therefore best applied when you’re feeling angry, combative, or irritable– but it’s also helpful when a boundary needs to be set, and is recommended if you’re feeling weak or victimized.
For this one, you just want to powerfully push your body away from something, whether that something is the floor (in a traditional pushup), or a wall. Pushing against resistance offers our body deep proprioceptive input to both make us feel powerful, and calm us down. (This can also act as a symbol for moving toxicity away from your body, or setting boundaries. Visualize yourself pushing away comments, thoughts, or behaviors that you want out of your space!)
5. Self Embrace
This technique is most helpful when you feel loneliness, sadness, disappointment, or grief– associated with body image, or anything else! Cross your arms across your chest as though you are giving yourself a hug. Traditionally, this technique is called the butterfly hug and the hands are placed under the opposite clavicle, making a butterfly with the hands. If this feels soothing to you, go for it! Personally I find it more effective to wrap my arms around myself like a cocoon, with firmer pressure and more enclosure. Either way, hold it for at least 30 seconds, and breathe. The self embrace signals to the body that we are safe and deserving of comfort.
The more tools we have to process our experiences (both cognitively and emotionally) the better able we’ll be to build emotional resilience, cope with discomfort, and decrease overall suffering–both around body image issues, and every other area of life!
By the way, if you try any of these, find me on IG and let me know how it went!