Spending too long in front of the mirror? Turning up late or not wanting to go out because of worrying about our appearance?
We all have features that we are prouder of than others. That applies to both men and women. Whether it is having to get make up right, hiding spots or rashes, hair we don’t want or hair we wished we had, our appearance matters to us a great deal.
Taking pride in our personal care and appearance can be positive. We can communicate to others and to ourselves that we care and value ourselves by putting effort into our appearance .
However, how do we know when it has gone from care in our appearance to something that is driving our anxiety? When does the trappings of how we look become more important than who we are?
A picture says a thousand words:
The pressure today to conform to certain aspects of physical beauty is higher than it ever has been in history.
Today it is a universal phenomenon which most women and indeed some men can’t help but escape. Fashion, TV, Movies, Instagram, direct advertisements from make up and fashion companies have changed the standard of beauty we hold ourselves against.
It is hard to say whether this change is objectively for the worse/better or whether it is just now a part of life. Make-up and looking good can provide a massive boost to persons of any gender. Yet for this article what I would like to focus on is when our self-image drives anxiety.
When the makeup and the obscuring of features becomes less empowering and more dis-empowering.
Motivation for writing:
The obvious problem of a male psychotherapist writing an article like this is that anyone could rightly say well why is this man trying to mansplain what unfortunately is primarily an issue and societal pressure faced by women!
Well then I should introduce that I am not writing alone this time. A reader who wishes to remain anonymous has approached me through the page because of her years of experience with this issue and her desire to share some of her story to help others. We will call her Jenny for the purposes of this article.
“I have never been an overly confident person. I have always felt insecure about how I look, always thinking I was the ugly one out of my friends. I have been applying make up since I was a young teenager and initially it helped me to feel better about my appearance. However, a few years ago after being through a bad relationship and other personal problems I started to really doubt myself as a person.
I felt I didn’t have much personality and that I didn’t really bring much to the table. I started to really hate myself and who I was. I remember feeling that I couldn’t control how I felt on the inside, but perhaps I could in some way control how I looked on the outside. I remember reasoning that if I felt in some way happy about how I looked, maybe it would make me feel better.
At the peak I remember trying to get ready for nights out and completely obsessing over my make-up. Doing it not once, not twice but sometimes up to 5 times. Trying to look perfect or my version of perfect for me.
Always there, before I even started to do my make-up was the feeling of anxiety . Praying that I would get it right the first time and maybe for once I might be on time meeting my friends.
I recall times looking in the mirror crying about the way I looked. Why couldn’t I do my make up right? I’d compared myself to all the girls on Instagram, all my friends, all the girls I’d see on a night out.
I remember feeling plain, plain on the outside and on the inside. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone by having my make up done right, I wasn’t looking for a man. I just wanted it right for me. It was about how I felt about myself!”
Feeling good about myself:
“I just wanted one thing: to feel good about myself; but chasing it this way made me feel worse. If I were to ever leave my house without make-up to run to the shops or come home after the gym if saw someone I knew I would try to avoid them. I would be so embarrassed about how I looked with no make-up on.
Eventually, I started wearing make up to the gym, only a small amount but still what was the point? If I was running to the shops for 5 minutes I would need to put on make-up. It escalated until I could not think about facing someone without it.
I was getting up hours early in the mornings to get ready for work plus fixing it up on the dart before I got off. I would even fix my make up on the way home from work just in case I saw someone! It had to be perfect.
By the end of it did I even look like myself? For me was it real or a mask that I hid behind because I was not happy with the real me and how I looked? Of course, this does not apply to everyone. it can be nice to get dressed up, put on some make up and feel good, feel beautiful. But for me it became a daily obsession and I didn’t look like myself, it was a my mask.
Still a work in progress:
“It took me a very long time to start feeling comfortable with who I was as a person on the outside and more importantly on the inside. It was a long time trying to get to know myself and be happy with who I was.
The happier I started to feel on the inside the less I cared about looking perfect. Finally, something changed, and I started really listening to some really good people in my life who complemented me on who I was, not just on how I looked.”
“Don’t get me wrong I do still wear makeup and so enjoy getting ready for a night out. The key word being “enjoy”. Make-up should be fun and something we can experiment with. But nothing to obsess over.
I do still have days where I feel ugly but not the same feelings as before. It helped me to talk to people about how I was feeling and sometimes I do need a bit of reassurance. I feel a lot of my insecurities came from certain people putting me down about who I was or how I looked.
It took me a long time to realise that these people didn’t know me. My family, friends and my work colleagues know me, and they like me ?! The people putting me down never knew me and I realised when I questioned it: why the hell should I care what they think or feel about me.
It’s important to love ourselves and to get to know ourselves and question what we believe! Everyone has good qualities and the happier we are on the inside the happier we’ll be on the outside.”
Lessons to learn:
Michael again here and huge thank you to Jenny. As this story shows self-image is crucial to how we feel in the world around us. If we feel ugly on the inside we are going to over-compensate by focusing on the outside.
The truth about how we look though is that nobody is going to spend as much time studying and critiquing our looks as we will. If we feel self-conscious we naturally believe others are equally conscious of us. If we label ourselves as ugly, we will think that is what all others will see.
Projection is the idea that we take truths that we believe in and feelings that we feel and cast them into the minds of others. Think of the movie projector playing onto the wall. The movie projector might think wow where are all these fantastical stories coming from, never realizing they are coming from within!
However, with self-image issues what we project might be more like horror stories. Our worst thoughts and views about ourselves we cast into reality. But, if we ever stop to analyse this for a second we could ask how long do we spent thinking about the looks of friends? How long do we spend dwelling on their imperfections? Not very long I would bet for sure!
Yet what makes us so special? When we are at the centre of our own drama we construct the narrative around ourselves. The movies boring if nobody pays attention to the central character. But reality is like that. We are too caught up in our movie to truly participate others to the extent imagined!
I’m no expert on beauty but I work with anxious people every day. I see when clients pre-occupied with looks spend too long fixing their looks their negatives beliefs are reinforced. The logic goes I had to spend 2 hours the last time, so I must be so bad I need to spend 2 hours this time.
In other blogs for anxiety Ireland we have talked about filtering, polarized thinking, catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, personalization. They all come into this because we filter out evidence of our inner beauty, we polarize our appearance to either all good or all bad, we catastrophize how we look.
We assume our feelings are true and we take it personally if someone says anything about our appearance. We use looks, clothes, make-up or image to present a false self because we don’t like inner selves.
My advice to anyone would be ditch these logic traps and sit and write things down. What makes us so hideous or unlovable? What have we got to offer that is beautiful, and here think outside physical looks? Now re-rate ourselves.
Every human being has value and there are no zeros! What makes you worse than a murderer? What makes you more unfortunate than someone disfigured from burns? We all have a natural beauty to be confident about no matter what size or shape we.
Our image of ourselves is something that we build and change over time. If our relationship with inner self is poor we will place overemphasis on outer looks. Image issues can lead to eating disorders, anxiety, depression and more but they are the kind of issues that we can get help for today if we seek it and want it!
Therapy is a great way to get to the bottom of these questions and at Anxiety Ireland, we have a team of accredited psychotherapists who work helping thousands of people with anxiety every year.
If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help. On this page we will continue to write about Anxiety and related topics. We are always happy to answer messages to our page or I am happy to take calls/text to see how I can help: 087 063 0948.
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Team Anxiety Ireland
Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going nowhere fast, it’s ok to step off.