After flooding us with images of impossibly beautiful supermodels, pop culture loves to yell, “You’re beautiful, damn it, so start believing it!” From that Dove commercial asking women to choose the beautiful vs. average door to this burlesque dancer schooling the audience at a TEDx talk, promoting positive self-talk—and thoughts—is all the rage right now. And in this age of increased public body shaming, it’s definitely a good skill to have. The wise-beyond-her-years Kimmy Schmidt (ie Ellie Kemper in the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) says in the show, ”Smile until you feel better!” But is it really that easy to talk—or smile—yourself into feeling beautiful or happy?
First of all, it depends on the origins of the negative self-talk. Dr. Vivian Diller, a psychologist who used to be a Wilhelmina model and who treats many ex-models and dancers in her practice, says that your upbringing and the criticisms you heard as a child set a strong foundation for your self-perception in adulthood. “The whole notion of what Dove is doing, which is highlighting how often people choose to think of themselves in a negative light is a good thing. But I think it minimizes how complicated that choice is,” she explains. “What contributes to that negative self-image is a combination of genetics, early experiences, and the culture. If, in your formative years, you’ve been around either a mother hating the way she looked or a parent who was very critical, those things tend to have the most influence.”
Getting rid of such thoughts isn’t the goal though, because that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. Instead, focus on re-framing them. Caroline Rothstein, a writer, performer, and body empowerment advocate whose recent “Fat Is Not a Feeling” video went viral, overcame an eating disorder by doing this. “It’s impossible to get rid of our negative thoughts and our fears. It’s how we manage them,” she says. “We can expand our understanding of ourselves; we can expand the language we use to describe ourselves and the feelings we have to experience ourselves. I do feel it’s possible to know we are beautiful.”
Mindfulness practice, which has received some attention lately thanks to celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow, is one way to control your thinking, or, at least, how those thoughts make you feel. According to Dr. Steve Hickman, the director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California San Diego, mindfulness is “moment to moment non-judgmental awareness.” It’s trickier than it sounds, and definitely takes some practice. And the younger you were when those thoughts were planted, the harder they are to handle. “Most people aren’t completely aware of that internal dialogue. They’ve just taken it as truth rather than as a hypothesis or a possibility, so they’re not really tuned in too much to how incredibly self-critical they are,” Dr. Hickman says. “What they DO know is that they feel like crap and they’re depressed, anxious, and have low self-esteem. What they don’t realize is that it’s largely because of how they are speaking to themselves.”
Here’s where you can take action in a very concrete way. Dr. Diller tells her patients to ask themselves three things: What are you saying to yourself, how are you saying it, and how often are you saying it? “What I want you to practice is if you’re saying critical comments quite often and in a negative tone, I want you to remember that you’re probably focusing on your body rather than on other aspects of yourself. Let me hear the dialogue about some of the other things about you,” she recommends. “Are you a good friend? A devoted mother? How do you do at work? Any time you have a thought that is about your appearance, balance it out with another thought.”
Rothstein practices mindfulness in her daily life and credits it with helping to maintain her recovery. When a negative thought strikes, she uses the technique of “sitting with my emotions and sitting with my feelings and experiencing and witnessing and observing and tasting and touching and honoring my feelings and waiting.” According to Dr. Hickman, when a negative thought pops up, mindfulness can help you to see it just as a thought, and not as the truth. “The mindfulness helps pierce the veil, so to speak. A thought is just a brain secretion, a random neuron firing. It’s not a truth just because we thought it,” he says.
What you shouldn’t try to do – and this goes against popular convention – is try to change your thoughts. Dr. Hickman likens it to that classic Stuart Smalley SNL skit: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it – people like me!” He says, “It’s not about affirmations. That’s just equally false in a different direction. It’s more about seeing yourself as you actually are.” Instead, when a thought pops into your head and you’re able to recognize it as negative, Dr. Diller recommends talking to yourself like you would to a friend or your daughter, two people to whom you would never say, “God, you look so fat today!” You can’t do this every single time a thought like this pops into your head, but do it enough and soon they won’t come as frequently.
Dr. Diller acknowledges that looks do indeed matter, but they shouldn’t be at the center of your self esteem, and she is hopeful that the images we’re starting to see in the media—like Chrissy Teigen refusing to retouch her selfies, for example—will begin to set a different tone. Rothstein said it best, “I’m so sad that we live in a world where anyone would think of themselves as anything other than beautiful.”