What it means to really see ourselves

We, as a collective, know that body image, and the awareness of the self that derives from it, is of prevalent concern in society. While the media that creates these issues continues to fuel them, it has also provided a platform for positive discussion. The discourse around these struggles offers space for growth as an aggregate. We talk, we acknowledge, and we struggle. But, we also learn, share, and grow. 

Issues of self-esteem begin during childhood, when the human brain is most susceptible to subtle, unconscious learning. Children are often unaware of that which they absorb in youth, but in later years may be affected by those very things that passed seemingly unnoticed. Children are flooded with imagery; in a culture that focuses so much time, energy, and money into outward beauty and appeal, it seems unlikely that we could claim people are not impacted by their surroundings.  

It is impossible to enter a public place without being bombarded by advertisements that project altered images of unreal people; people whose beauty is not attainable even to them. Images of beautiful people lend the idea that these images—(I repeat the word “images” because that is exactly what they are) have become inadvertently internalized into standards —  that is, the expected norms for society. When individuals fail to meet these expectations, whether or not they realize this is happening, they absorb negative cognitions about themselves. They then digest them so they become deeply ingrained and impact beliefs about the self. This is, for so many people, all consuming. 

 This may lead to poor self-esteem, body dysmorphia, anxiety, depression, disordered eating, self-harm and more. The idea becomes that one should change their appearance to be considered beautiful by someone else’s standards, whether verbalized or subliminal. For example, thinness has been identified by most as the ideal body shape because it supposedly demonstrates health and happiness. Accordingly, anyone who does not reach this standard (ideal) is susceptible to feelings of deep insecurity, inadequacy, and often unhappiness. 

The part that many struggle with is that their entire identity becomes formulated around outward expectations and norms for beauty. It is common for individuals to feel good about themselves, content with themselves as a whole, when they feel good about their external appearance. This is normal, and this is okay. It is a wonderful thing to look in the mirror and be happy with what reflects back. But what happens when a person does not feel good about themselves because they do not feel good about their external appearance? It impacts their ability to be content with themselves as a whole. 


When our entire self-image is based on the impression of these beauty standards, we miss out on the opportunity to see ourselves and love ourselves for who we are. For who we really are.

We are so much more than our skin. We are so much more than our bodies. We are so much more than our eyes, our smiles, our teeth, our noses, our ears, our hair or our aesthetics. This concept is difficult to truly grasp. Sure, many of us understand it intellectually. “Of course beauty is only skin deep. We are more than how we look. I like myself for who I am as a person.” Yes, this is all true. But it goes deeper than this. When we can look in the mirror and see ourselves, see ourselves for the friend, mother, son, artist, lover, teacher etc. that we are, we begin to really see ourselves. And, seeing isn't just with our eyes. When we really see ourselves, I posit we hear, feel and understand ourselves. We become aware of ourselves as one whole, complete and capable person. This person is part of a collective of human consciousness of people who are also whole and complete and capable.

When we look at what the world needs, compared with what we can offer it, we can consider our contributions to our friends and loved ones, to those who are suffering, to animals, to the environment and to the community at large.

Maybe we, as a whole, can someday diminish our interest in aesthetics. I don’t intend this to be perceived that we should all pretend we don't care at all about how we look. We will probably always care. That’s fine. It’s real. We cannot deny, and should not deny, our reality. Further, I will always encourage an appreciation for ones self and an allowance of positivity and confidence to flourish. It is a beautiful thing to look in the mirror and think, “Wow, I look great today!” But, wouldn't it be something if instead we looked in the mirror and thought, “I look great today, but I am doing really great things for the world.”

Mindfulness

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is lauded worldwide for his writings and teaching of peace and mindfulness practice. He is an international spiritual leader who inspires individuals worldwide. In recent reading, I came across the following teaching of his: “the present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.” This beautiful concept is simple, yet so meaningful.

Mindfulness practice refers to the human ability to be fully present in time and space; it offers the opportunity to be truly aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not all-encompassed by what is around us. When we engage in mindfulness, we often focus our energy on our basic senses of what we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Through mindfulness, any person can live happily and peacefully in the present.

When you engage in mindfulness, you allow yourself to be conscious of and actively involved in your experiences. How often do you find yourself reading a book but not really paying attention? Or eating food for the purpose of satiety without interest or acknowledgement of taste? Many people, myself included, often find themselves rushing through their days and struggling to achieve everything on their to-do list. When this is your norm, you rarely pause to bring awareness to that which is around you (by using your senses) or to your own state (by paying attention to your cognitions and emotions).  

There is a bounty of research showing that when you practice mindfulness, not only are you training your brain to operate with new autonomous habits, but also you are actually changing the structure of your brain. Amazing, right?  

I invite you engage in mindfulness. To get started, I recommend you observe the moment you are currently in. Perhaps you’re sitting home in a quiet, dimly lit room with soft candles burning. How lovely! But, this is not necessary. You can certainly be mindful out in the busy world, whether you’re taking a stroll, waiting in line at the grocery store, or enjoying a latte at your local coffeehouse.

Your only goal is to notice the moment as it is, without judging it. A great way to begin is by becoming cognizant of your five senses and their perceptions. Maybe you smell fresh cut grass, or perhaps you realize an absence of smell. Does your mouth taste like the cup of coffee you drank twenty minutes prior? Perhaps you hear birds chirping softly in the distance, or see leaves rustling about.  

If you find your mind drifting or thinking too much, that’s okay. It’s normal. Our minds think automatically, much like our hearts pump without our instruction. In mindfulness, we return again and again to the current moment as it is while acknowledging judgments as they may come up but not letting them detract from your moment. You can simply let them pass.

Mindfulness is powerful. It’s more simple to practice than many people realize, but the benefits are incredible. It helps protect us from current stressors while leading us towards an improved state of being. It has been found to improve memory and focus as well as health and sleep. Many studies have also linked mindfulness practice to healthier and happier relationships and less emotional reactivity. It has been found to increase our self-insight, intuition, and morality. There are no known disadvantages of mindfulness. What have you to lose by engaging? Allow yourself the joy of feeling balanced and happy. You will always thank yourself for investing time into you.