A long time ago I read a book that changed my life.
I had been struggling with debilitating c-spine (neck) pain that western medicine explained as “herniated disks,” but couldn’t actually explain my symptoms.
I had been doing physical therapy and other bodywork for a while when I read the book
Despite being an outdated book with research that never really continued on, Dr. Sarno blew my mind with quotes like:
“It is perfectly acceptable to have a physical problem in our culture, but people tend to shy away from anything that has to do with the emotions.”
“There’s nothing like a little physical pain to keep your mind off your emotional problems.”
His work was unlike anything I had ever heard about back pain, or frankly about physical issues in general.
In a gross oversimplification of the book, Dr. Sarno posits that a lot of the physical pain and ailment we experience are due to repressed emotional issues. The idea is that many physical symptoms are either a distraction from feeling our real feelings, or a tangible representation of our emotional suffering.
I had never before heard a doctor connect emotional pain to physical pain in this way, or to call our most common physical ailments distractions from emotional pain. It felt like the most daring, truthful, and revolutionary thing I’d ever read.
After all, everyone understands if you need to take a day off work because your back seized up, but we’re still not at a place where most people can take a day off because they’re overwhelmed with sadness or anger.
Which reminds me– this entire premise only works because we as a culture have validated that something like “back pain” is real, valid, and important, while our feelings are not.
I’m sharing this with you, because in my coaching practice I have consistently seen a similar pattern– that our unexamined or abstract emotional pain often gets projected into the tangible, physical world in the form of obsessing about food, fat, weight, shape, and other body image issues.
Because, like back pain, we as a culture have validated that these topics are real, valid, and important, particularly for girls and women.
Body weight, shape, size, and the pursuit of “flawlessness” are all topics that society has fully endorsed as worthy of suffering over.
Put another way: body image issues are often a red herring for deep emotional pain.
What kind of emotional pain varies pretty dramatically. There’s fear of course– the fear of being too much, the fear of being rejected or unlovable, or the fear of being fundamentally unsafe in a female body. And shame– shame about not being good enough, shame at living in a grotesquely human body, or shame over big feelings like sadness and anger.
And that’s only the beginning.
Being alive comes with an extraordinary amount of pain, discomfort, loss, grief, rage, and other very challenging feelings, and most of us are never taught how to handle those feelings. Even worse, many of us were taught that having these feelings represents a personal character flaw or weakness.
So naturally, instead of feeling our emotional pain, we ignore it, repress it, invalidate it, and try not to think about it. And in order to assist us in this endeavor, we need a distraction.
Which is where body image issues more and more frequently come in.
The stories we tell ourselves about our bodies being too big, too curvy, too skinny, too flat, too lumpy, too ugly, etc.– these stories feel intensely real. That’s because, with all the varied and conflicting messages we get about how women are “supposed to” look, there is always some way in which a woman can feel like she is failing.
That’s precisely why our body and beauty insecurities are such effective red herrings!
Weight, fat, beauty, skin, shape, size, and everything else relating to our appearance are outlets of socially sanctioned suffering for women in our culture right now.
It’s worth noting that if we lived in a society with no messages about weight or appearance, we would have to find another outlet for our suffering. (And trust me, we would, because until you deal with the underlying emotional pain, you will always need an outlet.)
This is why the solution to negative body image isn’t for a woman to just stop hating how her body looks.
First of all, that’s impossible without dealing with the emotions underneath, since the problem was never really her body.
Second of all, it can be dangerous.
Attempting to give up your most powerful coping mechanism without replacing it with a variety of other tools and coping skills with which to handle the emotional suffering underneath can sometimes do more damage than good.
Best case scenario, you’ll simply find a different distraction or outlet; maybe a drinking or shopping problem, for example. Worst case, you’ll end up feeling terrified and vulnerable, and end up doubling down on your attempt to criticise and control your food, fat, weight, skin, face, body, or other perceived flaws.
If we want to get rid of the red herring, we must recognize it for what it is.
Body image issues and body anxiety are tools for avoiding the painful truth of what we’re feeling deep down. In order to tackle them, we need to both gather better tools, and learn how to tolerate (aka build a bigger capacity for feeling) our emotional suffering.
This is why, just like Dr. Sarno helped his patients heal back pain by turning them inward to repressed anger, I help my clients understand and heal their body image issues by turning them inward to whatever emotional pain waits for them under the surface.
Because it was never about their backs; back pain was just a convenient outlet.
And it was never about the shape or size of our bodies; our bodies are just currently the easiest place to put the extraordinary pain of being human.
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