My question is two-pronged: I have serious self-esteem issues, in particular concerning my looks. I just don’t think I’m very pretty. My hair is frizzy and awkward and takes a considerable amount of styling to look even remotely presentable, my skin is greasy and tired-looking, I had a tooth smashed when I was small and, even with the best replacement money can buy, something still looks off about my smile, and the rest of my features don’t really shine through either. To the extent that I’ve been able to delve into the psychological origins of my anxiety over this (and I get *very* anxious over my looks) I think it’s (predictably) related to my up-bringing: my old psychologist (who was marvellous and I loved) had suggested that I didn’t get enough attention to build up my confidence in my early teens (which is totally true as my mother was battling a drinking problem at the time, that also absorbed most of my father’s energy and time). Anyway, my hair and skin are also practical concerns for me, in that they are very difficult to live in/with: instead of being the carefree girl who jumps out of the shower/swimming pool/sea, flips her hair back and looks, if not amazing, then at least, you know, presentable, I’m the girl who puts on her grumpy face as soon as a drop of rain lands on her, because she knows it’s frizz/greaseball onslaught time. It doesn’t help that I now live in the Netherlands (not where I grew up) where a) it rains a lot and b) everybody is gorgeous (like seriously, it’s scary and disconcerting and *very* bad for my self-confidence). Also, generally speaking, my whole family (or at least the family members that it makes sense to compare myself to, i.e. my mother and sister and female cousins, not my old bald uncle) are all of the “effortlessly pretty” persuasion and I feel like the ugly duckling/black sheep.
Anyway, the result is that I don’t live my life the way I want to – I can’t enjoy traveling as I would like, I avoid biking or other outdoor activities which otherwise I find very appealing, I try to stay indoors when it’s raining, etc. I also avoid being photographed like the devil avoids holy water, because I simply *hate* seeing myself in pictures – most of the time I have an image of myself in my head that I can live with, but photographs simply smash that idea to smithereens (for some reason I see myself differently when I look in the mirror). And the problem is that this just doesn’t feel like it’s really *me* – at least not the me I could be, *should* be, if I could only get rid of my infuriating neuroses and insecurities (or, depending on my point of view on a given day, if I only had better hair/skin/smile/face…) I feel like I’m holding myself back, because, even if I let go and decide that I’ll just run out into the rain and damn well enjoy it, I know that as soon as I come home and look in the mirror I’ll just be reminded that I shouldn’t be running around in the rain, because I’m not pretty enough to pull it off.
As mentioned above I have seen a shrink about this (like 5 years ago), but we really only ever got the chance to scrape at the very surface of my issues – very soon after I started seeing her I moved country and although I have tried to find a suitable replacement in the Netherlands it’s been wholly unsuccessful. At my last attempt I spend an hour pouring my heart out to a very nice-looking girl, who then however had to report back to her superior for a diagnosis, who apparently ignored all the alcoholic mother/failed relationships/history of depression stuff and instead thought it was a good idea to focus on my weight. As in, look me up and down and ask me how my appetite is and, after being reassured that it’s fine, asking if I’m sure I don’t throw my food up in secret after I swallow it, because apparently I just look (to a medical professional no less!) like I’ve got an eating disorder. I found this approach very unprofessional and condescending (not to mention challenging to my self-esteem, because the last thing I need is to start worrying that I’m too thin – which really, objectively my BMI is fine and subjectively my weight is not something I feel bad about or try to change in either direction) and after that gave up on trying to find somebody new because a) trying to filter potential shrinks for appropriateness is just exhausting, not to mention really ridiculously expensive (my insurance, infuriatingly, only covers 8 sessions, which is not enough to do anything) and b) the truth is that most of the time I can bluff my way through life more or less fine. Also, shrinks in the Netherlands are so busy they’ll only see you once every two weeks at best, which I find unhelpful.
So I guess my first prong of my question is this: is there any way I’m missing on how to build self-confidence/get comfortable in the body I’m living in/grow a completely new and different type of skin/hair??? (I’m just throwing that last one out there you know, just in case there’s some huge secret everybody else is in on here and I’m not ;)
The second prong of my question is this: the bluffing thing becomes much more difficult when I’m in a relationship, with somebody who, you know, seems me when I wake up/really need a shower/have just dried my hair into a scary mess etc. Which currently I am. I just started dating this seemingly (for now, because you never do know) really nice guy who at least when we first met seemed to be really into me. And I say at least when we first met, because I think I might have started doing my usual trick of sabotaging my relationships by letting my insecurities take over, till they are reflected in the guy’s behaviour towards me, because he’s seeing the insecurities, which are basically just the flip-side of the worst things about me, till he decides I’m not that great after all and he dumps me. How do I stop that from happening this time??? Last weekend we went on a trip to Paris, for example, which didn’t go badly really, but which probably would have gone even better if a) I looked more glamorous (I mean lets be honest, looking great is always a plus) b) didn’t start getting fidgety and uncomfortable when it started raining, because I knew my hair would turn into a beehive (which it did) and c) had been more relaxed about having my photo taken in front of all the sites (this is my least favourite thing to do *ever*).
It’s pretty difficult to be loveable around somebody if you don’t love yourself. And it gets worse the more I get to know and like this guy because I start being all “what’s somebody so great doing with somebody like me?” And I mean, this guy has superb skin and lovely hair and the hottest beard ever (and other amazing qualities besides his looks, but those don’t have the same self-hating effect on me because I totally feel I can hold my own in areas that are not looks-related) and instead of just sitting back and appreciating his hotness, I find myself comparing myself to him and coming up short and then concluding that I simply don’t deserve him and why would he ever love me. Which is not good and could totally turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy, which I so totally know, but have no idea how to stop happening.
So, any advice? I don’t want to let my insecurities define me, let alone condemn me to a life of celibacy and solitude.
I love your dark humor and your self-awareness about this problem, but your letter gives me the sads, on many levels.
First, what if you are ugly? Maybe you are ugly. You would still deserve a great life, with bike rides and trips to Paris and good sex with attractive beardy men who like you. You don’t owe it to the world to never let your hair be out of place, or to achieve a certain level of prettiness before you deserve good things.
Second, there is a level where such extreme self-hatred and distorted thinking becomes narcissistic because you try to control the way others see you all the time and make their reality of you match up to your distorted inner eye. Probably what people think when they see you coming out of the rain is something like “Oh, it’s raining outside, better grab my umbrella.” Probably what your boyfriend thinks when he sees you in the morning is “Oh god, her hair is huge. Let’s have sex again! And then eat croissants!”
Third, there is some stuff you can do to look your best. Visit a dermatologist if you don’t like your skin. Shop around for a great hair stylist who can help you work with what you’ve got. Make sure your wardrobe is really chic – become the wearer of fantastic shoes and impeccably cut raincoats! I’m not going to say that appearances aren’t important and don’t have impact on how people receive us and how we feel about ourselves, but maybe you can learn to do this in a self-loving way instead of a toxic way. For this, I’m a big fan of Sal at Already Pretty and Gabi at Gabifresh (formerly Young, Fat and Fabulous).
For a nice primer on concrete, practical steps you can take toward self-love (one of which is Therapy: Get Some), let me turn this over to General Expression, who blogs about music and life as a professional choral musician at currentconductor.blogspot.com.
Dear Self-Saboteur Extraordinaire,
Well, I have some bad news for you. There are no easy answers to this one. I suspect that everyone who writes in to Captain Awkward wants to find a way to avoid difficulties and become happy with the status quo, but sadly you are in a verified pickle. You are correct that you are “sabotaging my relationships by letting my insecurities take over” but this is not limited to romantic relationships; this will have an effect on all personal and professional relationships as well. Therefore, a problem to be worked on immediately!
But, instead of trying to talk you out of your opinions and feelings (I’m sure your friends have done that, the commenters will try to do that, and it won’t change a thing) I recommend action. Let your thoughts be your thoughts, but if you DO the following things, I predict your thoughts will slowly change to fit your actions. There is experimental evidence that your physical movements/gestures/expressions can change your emotions and thoughts, not just the other way around (we usually assume that our thoughts and emotions guide our physical actions, not the reverse, but it’s not true!) So, don’t worry about your thoughts right now, just DO the following stuff.
1. Get a therapist. It might take time. It might take a lot of interviewing. But you must do at least two things each month to move you towards finding a therapist. You know this. No excuses. Look for someone who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
2. Move your body. Find a physical activity that is social that you enjoy, and do it at least once a week. Three times a week would be better. Dance (tap, swing, hip-hop, contra, whatever), martial arts (taekwondo, judo, aikido), curling, soccer, yoga, boating, biking, whatever. You need to start experiencing your body in a way that is not visual.
Side note: I biked across the continental US ten years ago and I have never felt so free of self-consciousness or appearance anxiety. If you can go on a multi-month bike ride, or hike, or join a tall ship crew, it would be great for you. But probably difficult for most people given the scheduling. However, if you could, I bet this would go a long way towards making you feel better.
3. Banish negative talk about yourself. You need to go on a conversational crash diet. You are no longer allowed to say out loud ANYTHING negative about your appearance. EVER. Not to your boyfriend, best friend, at all. Other topics for conversation include a book you’ve read, a movie you’ve seen, local politics, sports, the weather, what you ate for dinner. However, you are to start viewing self-put-downs as a deadly allergy. If you need to hate yourself somewhere, scribble it down in a journal and get it out of your system, but don’t inflict it on other people.
3A. Learn to take a compliment. If someone compliments you, you are not allowed to say “Yes, but…” or “Oh, no…” or roll your eyes or shrug your shoulders or huff a sigh. Here is your script.
Person: Your eyes/hair/figure/shirt/shoelaces look great!
Note the period. Thanks, PERIOD. You could also say: “Thanks. I like your eyes/hair/figure/shirt/shoelaces!” or “Thanks. Speaking of looking great, doesn’t Dina over there look awesome today?” or “Thanks. So, how’s work going?” or “Thanks. Have we met? Where do you live?” If you deny the compliment, you are forcing the other person to take care of you for the next 10 minutes. “Oh, no, I look so ugly today.” “No, you really do look great!” “Oh, I don’t think so.” They don’t want to be your mommy. They just wanted to give you a compliment. Be polite about it. Arguing with a compliment is rude.
Another side-note: Not putting yourself down can feel very difficult socially, because women in our society frequently bond by making derogatory comments about ourselves. So this may feel awkward not just because of your anxiety around your looks. Tough titties; You are on a diet and are allowed zero negative self-talk. And this will require practice, but if you fail to accept a compliment well or you make a mean comment about your skin, just note the mistake and resolve not to do it in the future. That’s what practice means – trying, failing, trying again, then slowly improving.
4. Get a super-short haircut. Or buy a series of awesome hats. Proceed to ignore whether or not it is raining. Really. But do not adjust your actions to suit the weather going forward. I know it will be uncomfortable. But we are on an action-plan, so feeling uncomfortable is fine, but make sure you stick to your actions!
5. If someone takes a picture, grin and bear it. Say nothing. Get it over with. Distract them if possible. But don’t make derogatory comments about it.
6. Enjoy your new guy. Remember your deadly allergy to self-put-downs. If you find yourself thinking about your appearance issues too much around him, give him a compliment or a kiss.
We all have insecurities around our appearance – capitalism is built on exacerbating them, otherwise we wouldn’t buy stuff – but the mark of a grown-up is to go forward boldly, doing the things you need and want to do, and not allowing the voices in your head to warp your life. I know repression is a bad word right now, but do your best to shut up those voices in your head, enlist a therapist to help you process them in a safe way, and go forward doing things like biking in the rain in Paris with sexy beardy men. Good luck!