Sunday, February 18, 2018

Experiencing Relief From Shame In The Nick Of Time

When I was a little girl, my mother said to me, out of the blue, "Have you ever noticed that your nose is not centered over your teeth?" I had not noticed.  I looked in the mirror at myself.  Sure enough. My nose deviated to the left.  Hmmmm.  I felt like a freak.  She would refer to my "droopy eye." What to make of that?

When I was at Girl Scout camp, another Girl Scout joked about my "ski nose."  I was devastated.  I felt ashamed of my nose and myself. Why did I let another young girl determine my self image?

When I was in my late teens, a young man that I thought was extraordinarily handsome and who had told me that he thought his nose was too large said, "Looks like someone tweaked your beak." Not a particularly sensitive thing to say.  He seemed to like me anyway.  But why the comment?

When I was in my late 30s, a so-called boyfriend said to me, "You look very different, depending upon whether I look at you in profile on the left or on the right."  That didn't sound flattering, and I'm sure that, observing my reaction to his words, he tried to make things better by quickly saying, "But both sides are pretty." Still the damage was done.  I felt like a freak.  What was going on there?

When I was in my 40s, a co-worker asked me if I had had a stroke. Hmmmmm.  There it was again.  I had been feeling good about myself and suddenly my positive image of myself was undermined by her insensitivity.  So what if I had had a stroke?  Why would that cause me to feel shame?

Around the same time, my father asked me, out of the blue, "Why can't you be normal, like your sisters?"

So what if my face is asymmetrical?  So what?  Why would someone who supposedly loved me or someone that I thought was a friend look at me so clinically and without compassion for my feelings and point that out in such a cold way?  Why would I react with such tremendous shame?

And worse, why would I grow to hate myself for having an asymmetrical face? What is that all about?  Everyone has an asymmetrical face to some degree.

Before I began my recovery from self-hate and other related problems in 1987, I hated what I saw when I looked in the mirror, as well as in all photos that were taken of me.  I felt immense shame about the appearance of my face.  So much so that I was occasionally unable to leave my house.  All the shame that had once been connected to my entire body and manifested as eating disorders was focused on my face.

In my 40s, I took a series of self-portraits in a mirror with my Minolta camera.  It puzzled me that I when I took photos of myself in a mirror, I liked myself.  I liked the way I looked.  I wasn't on guard.  I could relax with myself in a way I could not relax with other people.

In recent years, as I approach my 70s, I don't hate my appearance at all when I look in a mirror.  I like what I see, despite the fact that I am aging, and I have heard women my age say that they find it hard to look in the mirror and see all the signs of aging. For me, the experience has been that of liking what I see more than I ever did up until now!  I don't hate my appearance anymore!

I'm not sure what happened to change my self image so radically from negative to positive.  It seems to have happened gradually.  Perhaps it came from meeting a great number of people since 1987 who weren't ashamed of themselves and didn't hate themselves because of the way they looked.  Maybe I accepted myself as a member of the human race and stopped thinking of myself as different from anyone else and deserving of contempt.

After experiencing dismay at the recent photo of me taken by a former co-worker in an unguarded moment, I found it interesting to learn that most people prefer their mirror image to the image they see in photos, which is the way they are seen by other people.  However, according to this article, most people see the way they look in photos as less attractive rather than ugly.

"Ultimately, when we dislike a picture of ourselves, it's not that we think that we look necessarily ugly (italics by the writer of the article). It's just that we find our other self -- our inverse self -- more attractive."

I am seeking the self-love and self-compassion that will allow me to stop regressing to that default perception of myself as being ugly and unloveable when I see myself in a photo. Why did I develop such a perception of myself as ugly? Why did neither of my sisters who look very much like me develop that? Why has that perception diminished in recent years, except for short relapses into self-loathing?

It is astounding progress that I can now look in a mirror without experiencing shame and emotional distress.

As a scientific experiment, I took a photo of myself in the mirror a few days ago and then flipped it. When I look at at the two photos above, I do like the first one (the mirror image) much better!  I think, "Yes, that's me.  What a good photo." Oddly enough, I didn't notice that my bangs were longer on one side until I looked at the flipped photo of my mirror image!  I felt a startle reaction when I saw the flipped photo!  I thought, "Yikes!  Is that what I look like? And my bangs are higher on one side than the other! How awful!"

Very peculiar that identical images, though flipped, look dramatically different to me.  I am assuming that I look the same in both photos to everyone else!

The fact that I could write these thoughts down for others to read is almost unbelievable to me, considering the shame I have carried about my appearance.

The miracle is that my shame is, for the most part, fading into memory. For some reason, my parents were ashamed of something that they projected on me, and I carried their shame.  It was never mine to carry. Now I question that shame reaction, that self-hate that went so deep and became so disabling.  I wonder if Michael Jackson would have related to what I have written today.

I am not asking to be told that I look just fine.  I am asking to be heard on the topic of shame about one's physical appearance, where that shame comes from, and that healing from such intergenerational shame is possible.


37paddington said...

This is such a profound post. In high school, a class mate said to me in a very casual and offhand way, "you would be pretty if it wasnt for your chin." I thought, what's wrong with my chin. And forever after, i was hyper aware of my chin. Of course for me there were other things, not being slim chief among them, and I so identify with your sometimes being unable to leave the house based on your sense in that moment of your appearance. I confess I don't love my aging face yet, especially my chin, no surprise there, but there is a kind of resignation I feel, a recognition, finally, that this is my face, the only one I will wear in this life, and after all these years, make peace with it. Thank you for this post, it helps me make peace. As for Michael Jackson, his father told him in childhood that he had an ugly nose because it was so broad, and Michael could never see himself as attractive after that, and we see the horrific result. You're right, you look the same in both those pictures to me. No one is ever scrutinizing us the way we scrutinize ourselves.

am said...

Just writing about this issue helped me in my process of making peace. Good to know that it helped you, too. Thank you for your comments. I suspected that someone had told Michael Jackson something about himself when he was a child that made it difficult for him to see himself in a positive light ever after.

Sabine said...

Oh, I am so much with you here.

Looking at your picture, I see strength and vitality, a hands-on person and in my book, these are compliments.

My mother had this critical look in her eyes that I will never forget. I think I first became aware of it when I started to pick my own clothes in the mornings. Some days she just had to give me one look and I would run upstairs again and change. On other days, she would just mutter 'trashy' or 'common' under her breath and it took me years to accept it as badge of honour she never intended.

As we grew older, she initiated a fierce competition between my sister and me, mostly about our weight and teenage skin. As much as we pretend to have overcome this, my sister and I continue with it to this day - and we are both over 60 yrs old.

Raising a daughter has opened my eyes in so many ways. I started appreciating and enjoying my body through childbearing and motherhood and mostly, I am confident. I think
it has been a form of revenge.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this down. I am asymmetrical as well, and I NEVER look good in photos. Or maybe I look exactly as I am in real life in photos, and it ain't pretty. I'm crooked in so many ways it's bizarre. Still, I am finally and absolutely content being in this body. I love growing old, except for the aches and pains, and appreciate letting go of the superficiality of image. Thank you for being beautiful inside and out.