I was reading an article in the SMH this morning by Kate Fridkis (one of my favourite bloggers incidentally, from Eat The Damn Cake) and it really got me thinking. Why is it SO hard for us to acknowledge our good qualities, particularly when it comes to physical appearance? Ask someone to tell you what they’re not good at, or what they don’t like about themselves and it’s a completely different story!

Image courtesy of Photostock
Kate’s article observed that it is perfectly socially acceptable to be self-deprecating, self-critical even, when it comes to appearances, but it seems almost immoral if we dare admit that we like the way we look. This is completely congruent with what I notice with my clients – not only do they find it difficult to identify anything positive about their bodies, but even if they can find something, they really struggle to voice it, and express serious concern that I will think they are “up themselves”. Now, this might make some sense given that I work with Eating Disorders, so obviously body image is going to be a challenging area, but it is not just the physical qualities that clients struggle to talk positively about – and it is certainly not limited to clients. It seems that in our society, it is very difficult to verbalise anything positive about appearance, ability or even character without worrying that we will seem conceited. And this worry is unfortunately not unfounded. Think about the last time you heard someone say something they like about themselves. How did you react? Did it make you feel a bit uncomfortable? If so, you’re not alone.

Something I have noticed is that when people talk about what they like about themselves, it frequently comes with a qualifier or a ‘but’: “I like my boobs but I wish they were a bit perkier”; or it’s phrased in the negative: “I’m not stupid” or “I know I’m no supermodel but I’m not ugly”; or it’s said somewhat defensively: “I might be short but at least I’m in proportion”. If we take the edge off the positive in some way we seem to feel much more comfortable articulating it, and the listener also seems much more comfortable hearing it.

So what impact must it have on our confidence and self-esteem if we are allowed, if not encouraged, to talk negatively about ourselves but are quickly shot down, mocked or just received awkwardly if we dare say something nice about ourselves (job interviews aside of course – they come with a totally different set of rules!)? And if we are not allowed to say anything positive, then does that mean we are not allowed to think it? What we say to ourselves in our heads (our ‘self-talk’) has an enormous impact on our self-esteem, self-respect and perceived self-worth.

An exercise that I often give to clients to help combat this is to keep a ‘positive logbook’, where they write down at least one (but preferably three) positive thing about themselves each day. I ask them to bring their book to their next session and have them read their observations out loud. It is incredible how confronting this exercise is for just about everybody. I also encourage clients to build awareness of how often they engage in negative or self-critical talk with friends, and to then work on eliminating this. It’s a great idea to talk to your friends about what you’re working on and see if you can agree to call each other out when you notice any self-critical or body-shaming conversation starting.

Perhaps in these small ways we can start to realise that it’s okay to feel good about ourselves and the way we look, without that meaning we think we’re perfect or better than anybody else. Because a society that only encourages negative, self-critical talk is a very scary place indeed.

How easy or difficult do you find it to acknowledge your ‘good bits’? Feel free to share with us what your positive qualities are!