We’ve all got things about ourselves that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s our physical appearance, something about our personality, our emotions, or even our health. Have you ever noticed that the more you focus on it, the worse it feels and the more you want to find a way to fix that part of you?
I’ve been thinking lately about the way we talk about the parts of ourselves we dislike. About the words we use, whether it’s to ourselves or with others.
When I was an adolescent going through puberty, I grew 5 inches in one year. I promptly lost any lingering baby fat, which suddenly exposed a long, narrow chin, a small chest and a notably slender body that had not a curve in sight, while others around me were fast developing curves, larger breasts, etc. As often happens in puberty, I developed a newfound preoccupation with these physical traits. I felt terribly ashamed by all of it and I was certain that others were noticing these ‘flaws’ in me, too. I quickly learned to use humor to offset my shame. I started joking with others that I sharpened my chin everyday and I would cup my chin with one hand and turn an imaginary pencil sharpener with the other hand to depict how the sharpening was executed. I would joke that I was built like my dad when I referenced my smaller chest size. Oh, everybody laughed and so did I. Over time, though, I noticed that when others joined me in joking about these traits of mine, I felt uneasy inside and often even felt hurt. Yet clearly I was sending the message that it was ok to joke about it.
How many times have I heard others joke in this way, too? I’ve encountered many who struggle with their weight and frequently joke about their size, using words like ‘whale, thunder thighs, lard”, etc. Their jokes tend to result in rounds of laughter from them and everyone around them. What about those repeated times when we don’t understand something being taught to us and we refer to ourselves as idiots? Or when we feel insecure about something we are navigating in our lives and we quickly call ourselves stupid for not knowing what to do or for the particular way we chose to handle it?
It seems so innocuous on the surface, doesn’t it? We’re simply trying to beat people to the punch because we anticipate it will make it hurt less if we joke about it first. Does it work, though? I have yet to meet a person for whom it doesn’t really hurt. Yes, using self-deprecating words to joke about the parts of ourselves we feel ashamed of certainly sends a clear message to others that it’s ok for them to joke about it, too, but what message is it sending to our own body and feelings?
I remember reaching a point in high school when I began to really notice just how much my insides cringed when others joined me in the jokes about my chin or smaller chest size or body shape. If they brought up the jokes on their own without my initiation, it felt downright painful inside. There came a day when I made the decision to no longer joke about any of it myself because I realized it simply gave others permission to do the same. Oh, wow, was that a strange transition for me! I was surprised to realize how often I felt inclined to joke about it all. Like, a lot! The thoughts would pop into my head and I would almost blurt them out, but I would stop myself. It took practice, but do you know what happened? My perspective shifted over time and strangely, I could feel that my sweet chin, slender body and small chest appreciated my new approach. I began to feel we were on the same team, rather than me fighting against what they were. (Some of you may remember a similar experience I had this past year when I shifted from referring to my weak, post-cancer muscles as wasting to calling them my hero muscles. (https://dremilycolwell.com/is-my-body-really-betraying-me/).)
Words are powerful. We’re constantly inundated with messages about how to look, feel, act and be. Part of our human experience will always be learning how to navigate between the messages we take in from the outside world and the messages we receive from our inside world. It’s a dance, isn’t it? Sometimes the dance is beautiful and sometimes it’s not as graceful. The more we find ways to make our own body and feelings our dance partners, the more room we create for a different experience with the very traits we dislike about ourselves. How do we do this? By noticing the words we use in our everyday to describe ourselves and spotting how frequently we feel pulled to use self-deprecating comments about our looks, our smarts, our personality, etc. It can be surprising to note how it actually feels inside when we reference ourselves in these ways.
Does this mean there’s no longer room for any humor about ourselves? Nah! I’d be in trouble if that were the case! There’s ALWAYS room for humor☺ Instead, it’s about becoming really honest with ourselves about how the use of that humor feels to each of us on the inside in a given moment or on a particular subject. When we disregard the feeling of unease, hurt or even a sensation of cringing inside that happens when we use humor in certain ways, this intrinsically sends a message to our bodies and selves that we don’t care about them or that they don’t matter to us. Is that what we are trying to do in those moments? Likely not, yet it is still the result. I’ve previously written about what a game changer it is when we turn towards our emotions to meet them rather than fight against them (https://dremilycolwell.com/coming-home/). The same is true for our bodies. When we tune into how the words we use make our bodies feel inside, this sends a clear message to them that we are a team and that they matter to us. This automatically creates space for a different relationship to form with the very parts of ourselves we thought needed to be fixed. How cool is that?!
I’ll be sending you a fresh, new video soon that ties in with this topic so keep your eyes out for that. I will be sharing about a super easy, hands-on way of experimenting with the power of our words and I’ll invite you to join me in the experiment. It will involve fruit, a couple of jars and some cussing. Studies have shown that people who cuss a lot are highly intelligent so let’s strut our intelligent stuff, huh? Who’s in?
Emily Colwell, MSSW, ND
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Hi Dr. Emily! Loving the new site and these letters. I can hardly wait for your video with fruit and jars and cussing. ✨
So wonderful to hear from you, James, and I’m so glad you are enjoying my new site and blogs:-) Yes, you just wait for my upcoming video and perhaps you can practice your cussing in the meantime to get ready to join in the experiment!! I hope you are doing great! xo
Wonderful Emily! Keep them coming I’m really enjoying reading and learning from them. I think we can all relate in some way! Stay well old friend. Andrea
Oh, Andrea, thank you! I’m so happy you are enjoying my blog. And yes, here’s to this really human experience we’re all in, right?! I hope you and your gang are well! xo
Thanks for keeping me on your list, Dr. Colwell. Your blog is a delight!
Kristen, it makes me happy knowing you’re on my list:-) So glad you are enjoying my blog! I hope you are doing great! xo
Love it! Had to laugh, but we heard you!! Well written, too! Is it a judgement to say not so graceful dancing????!!! Gotta get on this🥴love ya from D and moi xx
Ha! Well, thank goodness the goal is to be perfectly imperfect so there’s room for feeling ungraceful in our dancing sometimes, right? Hehehe! xoxo