I still remember the first time I thought negatively about myself. I was around 8 years old, standing in the dressing room of a department store. I had spent most of the day with my mother looking for a dress to wear for my first communion ceremony. After what seemed like hours of climbing into dresses just to climb right back out of them, I finally found something I liked — but the dress was a little tighter than it should have been. My mom noticed it pinching my skin, but I was determined that this was the dress for me. She suggested that I start to eat a little healthier and move my body a little more so that the dress I wanted could fit properly, and I agreed.
Later that night, I stood in my bathroom. I stared at the reflection in the mirror, grabbed at the fleshy skin around my belly button, and wished that I could look like anyone but myself. Thus began the war between me and my brain.
"Next time you look at yourself and the negative thoughts begin to pour in, I want you to say, 'This isn't helping,' and immediately move on," she said.
About 13 years later, I found myself sitting in my therapist's chair retelling this story, ready to unpack the negative thoughts I so frequently have about myself. I reached for a box of tissues, wiped away my tears, and explained to my therapist that I constantly find myself in a loop of negative thoughts about myself. She then asked why I continue to think these things, even though I know it's detrimental to my self-esteem and body image. "It's just how I've always thought," I said, not really knowing how to separate myself from the inner workings of my mind.
"Next time you look at yourself and the negative thoughts begin to pour in, I want you to say, 'This isn't helping,' and immediately move on," she said. This is probably the simplest piece of advice, but it's been more impactful than anything else I've ever been told.
Struggling with anxiety means that it's incredibly easy to get caught in a tornado of my own thoughts. Often, I'll get stuck on one thought about myself, and it will stick in my mind for hours, days, and sometimes even weeks. When my mind immediately goes to this whirlwind of negativity, I remind myself that these thoughts aren't going to make me feel any better about myself. I say, "This isn't helping," and then try to do an activity that gets my mind off of whatever I was thinking about.
When I realize my thoughts are just that — thoughts — they suddenly don't hold as much power.
Acknowledging the fact that my anxious thoughts aren't helping improve my life helps me disassociate from them and zoom out of the situation I'm in. When I realize my thoughts are just that — thoughts — they suddenly don't hold as much power. None of this comes easy, though. It's taken years for me to recognize that I'm talking down to myself, and it's difficult to break the habit when you've done it your entire life.
Sometimes I'll wake up in the morning and catch a glimpse of myself before I step into the shower. I'll often think about how my hair looks like a rat's nest or regret that cookie I ate before bed because my stomach looks a little more bloated than usual. As soon as I catch myself thinking these things, I try to acknowledge that these thoughts aren't going to help me have a good day or feel better about myself. This way, I can move on to the things that actually will help: washing my hair and combing it through, or drinking some extra water to eliminate the heaviness I feel from last night's dessert.
This practice isn't meant to completely extinguish negative thoughts. The point of saying, "This isn't helping," is to recognize that I'm human and I'm going to think poorly of myself and my actions sometimes, but it's also to understand that I have the power to turn away from those thoughts and do something beneficial for myself instead.