This last weekend, I attended a personal development workshop.
There were 25 of us in attendance. We filled one small meeting room. For the duration of the event, I was seated next to and paired with a delightful woman. Her name is Kate. She offers personal coaching, owns her own business(es), and is raising a BE.YOOTIFUL. little girl, all by herself. Kate is a powerhouse of a human being, independent, strong, outspoken, and she lives her life louder than any other woman I’ve ever met. I was in awe of her at first sight (and a little intimidated, to be honest), and my awe deepened as I got to know her over our few days together.
Kate’s sense of style cannot be overstated. For the event, she was wearing a little black dress and super cute, wedge heels. We worked together as partners throughout the day, and every time I was asked to turn and look at her face I was impressed. I would turn toward her, take in her genuine smile, the frenzy of intelligence behind her eyes, and the don’t-let-the-serious-topic-fool-you-I-am-a-bad-ass gold, hoop piercing in her nose, and I had the same thought every time.
EVERY TIME. Same thought.
(I also thought “great rack, amazing eyelashes, I love the bangs,” and every time I hugged her I immensely enjoyed her curvy goodness, but yes. Mostly just “…DAMN.”)
At one point in my not-so-distant past, sitting next to Lovely Kate would have made me want to hide. (Seriously. She’s so amazing.) She is confident. She is absolutely GIRL. She is intelligent, feminine, sexy, strong. She is, in my mind, what I should probably want to be. The put-together, intentional, presidential persona she so successfully displays is what every professional, confident woman should strive for.
I’m so, so, so, SO SO SO not like Kate.
To the event, I wore yoga pants, a sports bra, and an exercise tank. In my defense, all of these items of clothing were fairly well fitting (usually they’re baggy and loose) and clean (usually they are speckled with bits of food and kid residue), but I did cover them up with a not-so-clean, loose fitting hoody sweatshirt. I THINK I combed my hair for the day? I’m pretty sure I looked in the mirror before I left my hotel room, but the makeup I was wearing was leftover and touched up from the night before. I had not showered. I did put on fresh deodorant.
I don’t think I looked bad. I did look like me. I just… I felt like I wasn’t enough.
For a very long time, I was known for my lackadaisical appearance. I picked clothes out and wore them, not for fashion or expression, but because I had to. The alternative was “be naked,” and as a body-hater, that’s never a good thing. I’d get cold, but even more vital, I couldn’t hide if I wasn’t dressed.
And hide I did. For years and years. Up until recently, I did not wear pants that fit me in any way but around the waist, and sometimes they didn’t even fit there. My favorite pair of pants I’ve ever owned, I found in a dumpster behind my college apartment. They were men’s jeans, painted on, riddled with holes, and torn at the cuffs. (a.k.a. “comfortable.) Tshirts were standard, men’s size XL. Underwear were granny in nature. When I did choose to wear a bra, it was a sports bra. When it was winter and I got cold, I went to the local Goodwill to buy sweatshirts and coats. I would walk in, head straight for the men’s sweatshirt section, find the biggest, frumpiest, warmest, least-printed, least-logoed hoodie I could find, take it back to the front, pay my two dollars, pull off the tag, and have it on before I got back to my car.
Also, kind of a cop out, super lazy, and really not feminine or attractive at all.
I didn’t care about those first parts, and I was particularly prideful of that last part.
Dressing ugly is safe.
When you feel like you’re ugly, it doesn’t matter what you wear. When you feel unattractive, you push into it and dress like it. When you feel fat, you wear big clothes. When you wish you were someone else, anyone but who you are (which isn’t really WHO you are, but the size of your body and the way you look because you determine your worth with such things), you wear whatever makes you feel less. Smaller.
For a very long time, I wore the ugliest, biggest, hide-iest clothes I could find, because then it was the CLOTHES that made me look ugly, not me.
If I was never in a dress, then no one could say “you look like a pig in a dress.”
In ugly clothes, I was safe.
…wait. I’ll be honest.
In ugly clothes, I AM safe.
Lately, I’ve been doing better with my body image. For a while, I was doing great. I didn’t feel ugly all the time, like I used to. I didn’t, and still don’t, hate my life because of the face I see in the mirror. I stopped feel trapped by the body I see when I look down as I change my clothes, I no longer feel worthless because my ass and thighs spread over the edges of the toilet seat when I pee, and I am not emotionally wrecked because my still-full-of-fat mommy tummy blurps away from my waist and covers my lap when I sit down.
Really, I don’t feel trapped or worthless at all. I’ve been doing better with those things.
The INSIDE things, the things in my heart and head, not so much.
I still feel ugly.
I still feel fat.
I still feel gross, disgusting, and unattractive.
At the conference I attended, sitting next to Kate, we were asked to “write down your top three or five limiting beliefs.” Write down with pen and paper the words you hear in your head, the words that hold you back. Write down the bad stuff. Write down what keeps you prisoner, the things you’re most afraid are true, the things you don’t want anyone to hear.
Write down your shame.
Once our limiting beliefs were written down, we were supposed to share them with our partner.
Kate did great. She jumped right in. We had a few minutes to write these things, and she was done with plenty of time to spare.
I couldn’t do it.
On my paper, I wrote “LIMITING BELIEFS,” then off to the side I listed numbers 1 through 5 in a neat, tidy column. I was ready. I sat there, opened up the contents of my head, heart, and guts, dug inside to find the biggest piece of garbagey baggage in there, lifted it up, and looked at it full in the face.
Then I freaked the fuck out.
In my mind, when I saw what was there, I ran. In my head I slammed down my pen, tore the stupid booklet we were working through into pieces like confetti, threw the shreds of paper toward the front, flipped the table up and over with a violent, lifty thrust, spun around, kicked my chair out of my way, sprinted down the aisle, and was down three flights of stairs and out of the building before the conference room door clicked shut behind me.
In reality, I dropped my pen onto my paper, crossed my hands, tucked them against my mouth, and I started to cry.
I couldn’t write it down.
I couldn’t say it out loud.
In fact, I couldn’t even bring the foggy, dark, ugly, spiky, hateful worth-sucking thought from the back closet of my head, out into the front part of my brain where light and real life could shine on it.
I couldn’t do it.
I thought about Kate. I was very aware of how she was dressed. I was thinking about myself, the thick feeling around my middle, the thick feeling around my chin and along my neck. I was thinking about my crooked face and my big feet. I was thinking about the color that was coming out of my hair. My big personality. My big fat mouth, and the f-bomb I’d dropped earlier that got crickets from some of the girls. Oh, and the other girls… the super small, very cute girls at the conference, none of them dressed the way I was dressed, most of them in actual dresses, cute heels, flowers, makeup, curled locks. My mind wandered back even farther, all the way back, all the way to the beginning of my self-hate and fat feelings, and I thought about every pretty girl I’ve ever seen at every stage of my life,
and I could. not. write. down. my. words.
Instead I cried, and I couldn’t stop crying.
Keep in mind, this was about 10 minutes into our 8 hour conference. I had been sitting with The Kate for 10 minutes, we had been collectively asked only two questions, and I was already ugly crying like an unpopular fat girl that got stood up by the quarterback on prom night.
“Hahaha…you’re such a fucking joke. I can’t believe you thought you were pretty enough for any positive attention, even for one second.”
And surprising, really. Like I said, I thought I was doing much better. I created The Body Image Project. I worked through my parts and pieces. I am okay with what I see in the mirror. I would like to lose a bit of weight, but not at the expense of the time I spend with my kids, so I’m thicker, but I feel good. I feel happy with my life, I feel appreciated and loved by the man, my kids think I’m pretty.
My reaction to “list your limiting beliefs” surprised me.
Kate was so kind. She said “I’m here, Girly, it’s going to be fine,” then jumped in and got to work with her sharing. She took the floor so I could gather my sharp, mental shards together and clean up my face.
As I sat and listened, I was (admittedly) not paying very good attention. I was thinking “what in the hell is going on, Erin, what is your problem, why are you freaking out.” I couldn’t understand why I was so terrified to write down, say out loud, and even fully think the belief that held me hostage. It was so strong a fear, I literally could not even THINK the words. Every time I tried I started to cry again. Every time I wrapped my mind around the top of that garbagey baggage to drag it out of my back, mental closet, I couldn’t force myself to grip and pull. I couldn’t close my mind around it without feeling panic.
I was literally terrified.
Over the next hour or so, I did calm down. I set aside a quarter of my mental thought to chew on the problem, and the rest I faced forward to the event. I had a good time. I learned things. I laughed and smiled.
In the back of my head, with one quarter of my brain, I fought to grip that baggage and drag it out.
“Fuck you, Baggage. I will not be held hostage.”
Eventually, I wrote down what I was afraid to write. It looked like this.
Limiting Belief Number One.
“Fat and Ugly.”
I wrote down what I believed, and (without looking away from the front) I slid the paper over to Kate. “So there’s this.”
She looked at me like I was nuts, and opened her mouth to reply. “You know tha- ”
I cut her off.
Thinking back on it, I probably should have listened to what she had to say. She is an amazing woman and an excellent coach, and it would have helped. Maybe someday I will ask her what she was going to say, and I’ll be able to listen.
At the time, I didn’t want to listen. I was too afraid.
AND THAT RIGHT THERE IS THE POINT OF THIS WHOLE, EMBARRASSINGLY VULNERABLE POST.
Limiting beliefs are not limiting because we think they’re true, they are limiting because we are afraid they are true.
We are limited by fear, not by rational thought.
It’s not the lie that holds us, it’s the fear that the lie is true.
When it all comes down to it, I know I’m not fat. I know I do have some fat, more than I’d like, but I know that I am not fat. I know that I’m not ugly. I know that my kids think I’m beautiful. I know that I can have a photo taken of me that is not horrifying. I know I have some great features. I know I am strong and independent, intelligent and worthy of all the good things I’ve got.
I am also terrified that the first belief on that list is true.
Here’s the good news – I know how to deal with fear. I know how to be afraid and just keep going. I know that fear is a constant, it is an emotional state, and it does not indicate reality or truth. I know that my perception is not always to be trusted, that fear warps what we see and changes it into something else (think Scarecrow from Batman), and no matter what I believe, facts are facts.
I am not ugly. Not to everyone, and absolutely not at all where it counts. My heart is a beautiful, ragey beast of a character, but it is not ugly. Neither is my mind, neither is my spirit.
I am not fat. I have some fat, but *I* am not fat. A physical state (fat or skinny or blonde or brunette or big breasted or tall or short) is not defining, but descriptive. It is not absolute, it is perceptive.
I am not disgusting.
I am not gross.
I am not unworthy of love, I am not worthless.
I am PLENTY. I am strong. I am brilliant.
Most importantly, I AM ME, I have fought tooth and nail to figure out who that is, and if I don’t like what I find I have the power to change.
I can change anything.
So can you.
Take a stand against fear. When you hear that voice in your head whisper the words that bring you terror, when you lay in bed at night and worry that the horrible things you think about yourself are even a little bit true, remember.
It’s not the truth that holds you back. It’s not the lie that holds you back.
It’s the fear you have that the lie is true.
And we know what to do about fear:
we push into it, and
we move forward anyways.
“Fear is an idea-crippling, experience-crushing, success-stalling inhibitor, inflicted only by yourself.”
~ Stephanie Melish
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