When you look in the mirror what do you see? Be honest. Where do your eyes immediately go? To your wide hips, a big tummy, heavy calves, wrinkles around your eyes? Do you assume that everyone else sees them, too and judges you because of them?
Yes, you do. And, what’s worse, you make up stories about what others think and then feel sad, discouraged or angry.
You’re not alone. I’ve done it, too, and I’m going to share what I’ve learned from it and help give you some peace and relief.
I do not remember the exact moment that I became aware that my legs were different from other women’s, but when I look back at pictures now I can see that they were always that way. As a 3 year old, my legs were sweet—I mean how can you not love a toddler’s legs! Beyond that, however, I always felt like I had been shortchanged when it came to my legs. While my friends had tanned, shapely legs, mine were as pale as pale can be and crooked!
As I got older, I became increasingly sensitive about how I dressed and what my legs looked like in what I was wearing. I have a vivid memory of my junior year in college when friends wanted me to be in a picture. Since I was wearing shorts the answer was no—no picture! I went so far as to sit down on the stairs refusing to move until they pointed the camera in another direction. No one understood my embarrassment and discomfort, but they finally relented anyway.
Silly, I know, but recognizing that I am knock-kneed and hiding that fact became an all-consuming pastime. As a teenager in the 1970’s, the trend was to wear skirts above the knee. That meant that since we were not allowed to wear pants in high school my legs were exposed every day! This was so uncomfortable for me. I was absolutely certain that every time someone even glanced down in my presence that they were chuckling at my crooked legs or, worse, were disgusted by them. In my mind, I made up elaborate stories about why they thought my legs were so funny looking and what they were thinking. “How could she wear that with legs like THOSE!” Or, “Does she know her legs bend in a funny way?” Or, “Poor Ginger, I’m so glad I don’t have legs like hers.” And, on and on. Why I thought my legs could garner that much interest is beyond me, but I had lost all perspective.
What was causing all that angst?
Stories! That’s all they were. Sure, I don’t love the shape of my legs, but what really caused me the most distress were the stories I created—crazy stories about what I thought people were thinking about my legs. For all I know those people were wondering what to have for lunch or, hey, maybe even admiring my shoes. They were not examining and critiquing my legs.
A few days ago, I was reminded of my propensity for making up stories about what others are thinking when I read a recent blog post by Cheryl Richardson. In it she talks about how one day she was not able to give her cat, Poupon, his usual morning bowl of almond milk and she started creating stories about how upset he was and how neglected he felt. As she caught herself mid-story, she laughed as she realized that she had no way of knowing what Poupon was thinking and not only that, but she was reacting to her own fabricated stories. Meanwhile, Poupon had moved on. He just wanted to sit her lap or look out the window. He wasn’t pouting or planning revenge.
My stories about my legs and what others were thinking were exactly the same. I was sure others were making fun of me, feeling sorry for me or were aghast that I would wear something that drew attention to my (unattractive) legs and I reacted accordingly by always wearing pants. If I chose to wear a skirt or a pair of skinny pants that made the curve of my legs more pronounced, I would be sure always to stand with my weight on my right leg and my left leg slightly bent to offset its crookedness. To be honest, I did that for so long that I still do it today purely out of habit.
Phew! What a lot of expended energy on something that most likely no one else noticed. And, like Cheryl, I could get quite elaborate in my fantasy world of how others were judging me. None of it (really, none!) was based on fact. I made it all up and then allowed myself to feel badly because of the stories I was telling myself.
Last week I took a break from writing this blog post to travel to New York City to do a 2-day workshop. As I walked into South Station in Boston to catch my train, I was wearing one of my favorite coats. It is bright mustard yellow fleece with beautiful detailing at the bottom, as you can see here.
I noticed, as I was walking around South Station amidst a sea of black and gray, that I stood out. I could see people looking at me and became immediately aware of the topic we are discussing here.
This is a very important point: Because I love this coat and feel great wearing it, my self-confidence was high. I didn’t care whether anyone else liked it or not and I didn’t cringe and second guess myself when I noticed someone looking. It is a very loud color (especially when everyone else within a hundred yards is wearing black) and if I hadn’t felt great wearing it, it would have been easy to imagine that people were thinking it’s an ugly color or who was I to stand out so much or for me to worry that I didn’t look as good in it as I thought.
Yes, of course, in a perfect world we would all have super duper high self-esteem and not worry about what others think. We wouldn’t spend time making up stories about how others are judging us and we certainly wouldn’t be judging ourselves about how we look. But, this is a world where unrealistic standards of beauty are the norm and especially as we get older we feel more and more like they are out of our reach. This is where our own self-confidence comes in. When you feel great about how you look, the anxiety dissipates and you don’t find yourself in the midst of an anxiety-ridden story of your own imagination.
Check yourself the next time you feel a story coming on! If you’re walking down the street and people are smiling at you and you rush to check to see if you have something in your teeth or, oh, no, what if there’s a coffee stain on your jacket it’s now visible for all the world to see! Hey, it couldn’t be just because they want to extend a friendly greeting or that they were admiring your sunglasses or necklace, right? Why assume that the only reason they would make eye contact is because something is wrong!
If you find that you have a tendency to make up stories that relate to body image and personal style, remember that these two components are critical:
- Create a personal style and wardrobe you love. When you feel good about how you look, one of these three scenarios will be true: you won’t notice when others look at you, you won’t care what they are thinking, or you’ll just assume they think you look good, too! Wear a color you love and that makes your eyes sparkle. Or, instead of rushing out of the house without any accessories on, stop for a minute and put on your favorite necklace or a pretty scarf. Maybe you always wear the same comfortable shoes and haven’t even opened the box of new shoes you bought last month. Now’s the time!
- If you are going to make up stories, make them positive and affirming. Catch yourself the next time you are going down a long, dreary road of self-incrimination and shame. You can turn it around! Imagine that you are walking down the street and someone walks by you with a look of disapproval on her face. Rather than assume it’s because she thinks your skirt is too short, your pants are too tight or your shoes are ugly, create a new story. Perhaps instead it’s because she got bad news at work a couple of minutes ago or she suddenly remembered she forgot to bring her umbrella and it’s starting to rain. Or, it could be that she’s just thinking about the board meeting she is on her way to and she’s lost in thought—looking more through you than at you. Hey, maybe she’s even thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I looked that good in that blouse.’
If you are someone who has a relentlessly strong sense of self and you don’t ever make up stories about what others are thinking about how you look, more power to you. You have the advantage of being able to put your inner strength to good use and empower others to feel good about who they are. Someday I will get there completely, but for now I am happy that I am so far ahead of where I was when I sat down on the stairs as a teenager because I didn’t want my legs photographed by dear friends.
If body image isn’t an issue for you, instead be mindful of where you might make up stories in other areas of your life. Maybe you do it about measuring up at work or worry that others question your effectiveness as a parent. I certainly don’t wish any negative story-telling situations you on. I just know that these insecurities can be insidious and creep in when you least expect it. Stay alert and watch for signs that you can nip in the bud.
This week be hyper aware of every time you make up a story about what someone else is thinking about you. The more you do this the earlier you will catch yourself and the less personal angst you will feel. In fact, it can be a fun exercise—one you can laugh at as you go into (and pull yourself out of) storytelling mode!