Hello hello! Your girl’s here with a bit of a hot take, and if you can relate — don’t worry, you don’t ever have to tell. It can be our secret.
(Here’s a little trigger warning for you babes out there that I’ll be talking about body image, diet culture, fat shaming, and body dysmorphia later in the piece if you want to stop now. Cheers!)
I work a lot with shame and shameful cognitions, some of the really “deep” therapy stuff that doesn’t come out till we’re years deep in this ish, and of course! — because we all have a thing that we pack away with certainty it would turn others off of us entirely. Because maybe it’s turned ourselves off, and that sucks, right?
I was trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which was the Big Thing ™ at the time, evidence-based practice and all that (of course, other modalities have come out that prove to be effective, so a more eclectic approach in therapy is great, and what I do, but this was a foundational framework of my education). So this kind of therapy, CBT, is all about noticing and challenging cognitions that aren’t helpful — termed “cognitive distortions.” Here’s a brief lil blurb on them, taken from David Burn’s landmark popular book, Feeling Good —
All-or-Nothing Thinking: This distortion involves believing that things are either all good or all bad, with no shades of gray. For example, thinking that getting a bad grade on an exam means you are a complete failure.
Overgeneralization: This distortion involves forming negative beliefs based on a single incident or piece of evidence. For example, believing that one rejection in a relationship means you will never find love.
Mental Filtering: With this distortion, individuals focus only on the negative details of a situation, while ignoring any positive aspects. For example, dwelling on a single criticism and dismissing numerous compliments.
Disqualifying the Positive: This distortion involves rejecting positive experiences or feedback as insignificant or invalid. For example, discounting compliments by saying they don’t really mean it.
Jumping to Conclusions: This distortion involves making negative interpretations about situations without any evidence. This can take the form of mind-reading, assuming we know what others are thinking, or fortune-telling, predicting a negative outcome without any basis. For example, assuming someone is angry with you based on their facial expression without considering other possibilities.
Magnification and Minimization: This distortion involves exaggerating the importance of negative events or minimizing the significance of positive ones. For example, blowing a small mistake out of proportion while ignoring your accomplishments.
Emotional Reasoning: This distortion involves believing that our feelings define reality. For example, feeling anxious about giving a presentation and concluding that it will undoubtedly be a disaster.
Should Statements: This distortion involves having rigid rules about how things should or must be, often leading to guilt or frustration. For example, thinking, “I should always be perfect” or “He shouldn’t have said that.”
Labeling: This distortion involves assigning harsh and negative labels to oneself or others based on a single characteristic or behavior. For example, labeling yourself as a failure for making a mistake.
Personalization: This distortion involves taking responsibility or blaming oneself for events that are beyond personal control. For example, blaming yourself for someone else’s bad mood.
Catastrophizing: This distortion involves always assuming the worst-case scenario and overestimating the negative impact of events. For example, believing that a minor inconvenience will completely ruin your day.
If you’re looking at this list going “omg that sounds like me,” same — that’s because we’re human, and the ways we frame thoughts is going to be like other humans and can be categorized into certain tropes because of a variety of factors including our base biology (nature) and the cultural conditions under which we grew up (nurture).
Cognitive distortions are common, especially because we all use a set of mental heuristics (or shortcuts) and “rules” to organize our lives so that we can “get through life” without much critical thinking — we form snap judgments, we practice the rules and they seem to be true, so then we go through life kind of thoughtlessly (because who has the time for all that or wants to work so hard?).
We get used to “eggs are by the milk in the store” and don’t question this too much because it just kind of works, until we go into a store with a different organization and then need to scratch our heads and peer up at the store signs in confusion. Likewise, we can overgeneralize, a cognitive distortion, like “all drugs are bad,” a script from a bad psychedelics trip we had, and this sounds good enough and logically sound, until we find one day that we probably have to combat this cognitive distortion because we need to take a new medication as prescribed by a doctor and we find that we are scared and resistant. And that’s when we might need help if that belief is feeling a bit sticky on its own.
Because of the normalization of cognitive heuristics, we end up not necessarily noticing when these mental heuristics get us into snags, or finding them hard to undo. Usually in therapy, we address this with a trusted, neutral third party who might encourage us to zoom out and notice cognitive distortions before addressing their roots or encouraging us to challenge and move forward from them, expanding our moveset, so to speak.
So while this all sounds very straightforward and perhaps we can recognize some more surface-level cognitive distortions we might do, or recount ways we have un-snagged ourselves from thought processes that didn’t serve us in the past, there’s some more that are really kind of baked in and require more scrubbing — if only there was a Barkeeper’s friend for life, although I guess that’s just your therapist, right? I digress.
We all have some stressful, shameful, sticky cognitions that feel SO objectively true, that they’re really hard to identify as cognitive distortions, even if they feel really obvious to others, or feel impossible to deprogram, even if they feel really obviously not-right to us.
I’m thinking of this today because I was having a conversation about lessons learned from parents that create or cause cognitive distortions and reflected on some lessons I learned that resulted in a pattern of traits I’d organize as body dysmorphia for myself. “Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), or body dysmorphia, is a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance. These flaws are often unnoticeable to others.” (NHS)
Growing up, my mom taught me a ton of “rules” about how a person should look. She would criticize her own appearance in my presence, calling herself fat or shaming where on her body fat naturally accumulated. She constantly engaged in yo-yo dieting, oftentimes bringing the entire family along for the ride. My mom would criticize others’ appearances in addition to her own, often aiming her lens even at young children, speaking vile words about their appearances that I cannot forget. To this day, I can’t go to the beach with my mom without her pointing out others’ bodies, criticizing her own body, and saying her rules of “shoulds” about what people “should” be doing, wearing, etc.
A few rules I’ve learned from my mom:
- Fat can be in “good” and “bad” places and how it falls on my body is in “bad” places
- I need to lose weight because I am ugly
- I need to lose weight through dieting, restricting, and exercising, and this is a negative thing and a huge drag I should also feel terrible about
- I should monitor and check my appearance to know what others are going to criticize or so I can “fix” what’s “bad”
- I should feel self-conscious about the shape of my forehead (although my mom will be the first to tell you I have one of the “good” foreheads and hers is “bad” which is why it had to be hidden away by bangs all her life)
- Having “thick” hair is a positive thing (evidenced by my mom mentioning something as ridiculous as assaying the circumference of a classmate’s ponytail who “unfortunately” had thin hair, which my mom pointed out to make the point that my mom’s hair is thick, to hide an insecurity of hers)
It’s all quite negative. And for the record, I don’t think my mom is a villain, although I wish she’d stop doing this (it’s gotten better with my grey rocking the shit out of her and expressed distaste at this habit of hers, thankfully). My intention is not to paint my mom as a villain. She is a victim too, of constant criticism from her own mother probably extending further back generationally than even that, and also a victim of the nesting dolls of culture that impacted her throughout her life — the media, toxic misogyny, diet culture, the makeup industry, medicalism, rampant capitalism that suggests we are never good enough and need to spend more money to fix every perceived flaw.
Furthermore, the “schooling” I got from the media about body image in the 90s and early 00s was bleak as fuck. No wonder this became body dysmorphia. I never had a chance. What a fucking dastardly time for someone at an impressionable age to go through puberty — and it continues to persist now, with filters and kids going to fucking sephora to do “skincare” and all this other shit. Make it stop.
I’m sure the above sounds so familiar to many. Many of us develop body image issues from our mothers. Unfortunately, even though my mom spared me most of the time, to her credit, from her diatribes and overt criticisms, a mother who insults the appearances of others still teaches her child the “rules,” and no child is perfect — we will cross the line at points and then become one of the “undesirables.” And, a mother who insults her appearance is insulting her child who will take after her because of, well, genetics. It’s a bummer all around.
These lessons are learned through repetition, and hit a deep shame center so they feel so true, and there’s more safety in continuing to practice these black and white “rules” rather than the potential danger of letting one’s hypervigilance on it lapse — because what could the outcomes be? In these instances: being ugly, undesirable, having poor body image and appearance, perhaps never having a partner or becoming a laughingstock. All of those outcomes sound terrible, so Brain — who is doing her best — clutches onto the rule and tries to follow, follow, follow it even after it crosses the threshold into unhealthy.
Therefore, I was left with a set of rules that did not serve me, but I was repeating them all the same. And it harmed me. I remember being of single-digits age and calling myself fat, wearing large clothes to hide my body in, never showing anyone my stomach which was a source of deep shame, weighing myself obsessively and restricting my eating and dieting and overexercising only to lose weight. I would cry at night and journal about my appearance from the time I was in second grade onward. I remember being in the fourth grade and developing an insecurity about my side profile, nose, and chin when we had to do an exercise where a traced a shadow of ourselves on the wall behind us and feeling horrified at how I looked. I wonder if this would have occurred absent of all the above factors, and my mother’s own body dysmorphic lens.
Or, as Jessica Valenti says in “Sex Object,”
“I started to ask myself: who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women? I’ve been unable to come up with a satisfactory answer, but I did realize that I’ve long been mourning this version of myself that never existed.”
I’ve heard from others, and said it myself to a large degree in my work and personal life, “Oh but you would never think this about others. so maybe it doesn’t apply to you.” Meaning, “Sara, you don’t go around insulting others’ appearances, so maybe others don’t notice these flaws in you.” Or, “Sara, you don’t measure the circumference of others’ ponytails (fuckin’ ridiculous I know), so others likely won’t notice or assess the thickness of your own hair.”
I like that and it’s cute and it’s mostly true, that I don’t often go around having wicked thoughts about others, or disparage others in my head, so it’s also likely that my friends and strangers are also not doing the same and noticing my secret shame about how much I hate my side profile.
But that said, let’s look at the poisoned well of deeper shame, and here’s the hot take:
Maybe I actually do fucking think this about others sometimes.
Like, maybe I learned to give a shit about a person’s ponytail, and I learned this from my own goddamn mom at a young age, and now it’s kind a mental heuristic that does populate my brain from time to time, in the same incidental, casual way I might remember, “Oh look, a Spongebob shirt, remember that time when they went to Weenie Hut Jrs?”
Sometimes, your brain recognizes a pathway and says, “Oh, we’ve done this before. I know where this goes. Here’s the rest of the thought.”
For some folks, this can manifest in deep shame, as they might hold tightly to these “rules” or cognitive distortions, and fear they’re “becoming their parents” or are “just as bad.” This can be a result, and source, of trauma as folks find their brain walking a well-worn path that leads to something they may no longer agree with, like revisiting a learned religious rule that leads to shame, or a rule that is bigoted against groups of people that the thinker no longer agrees to mentally persecute. The mental heuristics may make a person think back to traumatic or abusive memories they wish to no longer recall, or that make them feel shame, or that may make the person fear they then might perpetuate just by the very nature of “Well, but my brain produced the thought.”
It sucks, man. Like, sometimes our brains go through a thing when they’re trying so hard to do us a fucking solid and learn shit about the world and they encode in fucking etched stone a rule that makes us go, “Noooooo!”
I’m with you. I wish I could scrub my brain of the thought of evaluating a person’s ponytail circumference as worthy or not because it’s fucking ridiculous, but of course sometimes my brain will do it automatically. And there’s no malice or ill intent behind it. But here we are — I learned to do a thing and it happens automatically in my brain sometimes. I mean, it’s decreased the more I’ve aged (love the dirty 30s), but will probably happen a bit more after I write this article because I just happen to be thinking of it more at this time.
And that’s ok. Maybe the best we can do, since there’s no Men In Black flashy-thingie, and I can’t just make this thought evaporate, and I might have it until I’m 87 years of age. So maybe it’s just a thing I have to accept, a vestigial organ pointing to a time when learning this “lesson” was a necessary part of my evolution and survival. And, I don’t have to paint over it with an optimistic thought like “People never think about ponytail circumferences” because I can name at least two people who have this wicked thought, and maybe just created a few more (hope not, sry).
So let’s review some directions forward —
First and foremost, we are not our parents. Say it with me, we are not our parents.
Our parents were flawed as fuck (and so are we) and that’s ok. They were trying to do their best (well, some of them 👀) with the light they had to see by — and some of them only had a dim-ass flickering candle for many, many reasons. We can look at our histories and hold people and culture and environments responsible without having to villanize, and gnash our teeth and all that. It’s cool. Everyone’s just an ape trying to get by on this rock.
So, we can recognize when our parents were emotionally immature and may have harmed us as a result. In our understanding of this, and our work on self-reflecting, we already separate ourselves from what we came from.
If your parents gave you some cognitions that range from “not really correct” to majorly FUCKED UP, I welcome you to not hire the thought police on full-time, and what I mean by this is, I dislike what my mom does by going to the beach and bemoaning others’ choices to wear two-piece swimsuits, for instance, and can recognize it’s because she feels terrible in this crazy misogynistic body-negative hellscape. And I am not her, and I don’t say hurtful things out loud. My brain might populate a thought or cognitive distortion that says “Whoa, look at the pattern on that swimsuit,” but it doesn’t make me a bad person for having a thought. Let the thought police be on break. Of course I would prefer to not have the thought at all but perhaps in this world, just not passing it on to a young person, or saying it to harm an adult person is enough. I don’t have to aim for perfection. Maybe the well is poisoned and it won’t ever resolve itself. But we don’t have to take a drink.
Let this be the worst-case scenario. I can attest to the fact that my thoughts have lessened in frequency and intensity once I stopped feeding the under-the-bridge troll. What this meant to me was being exposed to those viewpoints less (not going to the beach with mom, not consuming “gossip” or body-negative media, not going on social media, not performing body-checking behaviors on myself) made these thoughts naturally occur less in my own noggin. Drinking from the well less results in less poison.
Refocusing on other endeavors, such as reformatting my view of my body to be about health and performance and accomplishments (I hate hiking but God damn did my legs take me to a great view) helped to lessen the ponytail-circumference arguments. And doing things to lessen our shame response (giving the thought police the summer off, trying to curb our worries that we are just like our parents, lessening the aim from perfection/no “bad” thoughts to a more realistic goal to having some thoughts but not voicing them, for instance) decreases the likelihood that we are continuing to train a cognition to become strong. Like, we are taking a cheat day from doing endless sets of reps. That helps to decrease these unwanted cognitions.
We aren’t aiming for perfect. We just want to FEEL better. Maybe we can gently take the hand of this younger person inside us who wants to do her best and let her have an ice cream day, on us.
I don’t think I’m “a bad person,” (whatever that is), even though I have thoughts I don’t like that were taught to me, or memories I wish I could forget. I don’t have to hold it against myself that my brain sometimes pops up a thought that makes me go, “Yikes!”
I feel the same about you, if you’re reading this.
I named this piece the poisoned well because sometimes when I feel dark about it, it feels apt. And I meet with folks who firmly believe their well is poisoned and there’s no going back.
But for you all, I would like to say that I’d gladly take a drink.
Because you’re not a bad person. Your brain is trying to just repeat an old record you heard once over and over until it’s all scratchy. But that’s not you. You are more than just a sum of your parts and upbringing and you’ve overcome it already. And maybe you can take a break from all that hard work for the time being and discover even more great parts of yourself.