If you’ve read a few of my blogs, you will now know there are a few factors that contribute to our body image, and you might have dived into where problematic body image thoughts can originate.

But here’s the real question: what keeps these thoughts and feelings going?

For example, if you were called chubby when you were a kid, and years later you aren’t chubby anymore but still feel that way any time you’re at a dinner at your family’s house, what’s the deal with that?

In the next few pages you’ll learn how your present-day triggers can catapult your thoughts, feelings and emotions back to the past and set you up for a day filled with anxiety and frustration, and what you can do to stop these triggers in their tracks.

In this blog you’ll learn:

  • how to calm your anxious, appearance-focused mind
  • how to think logically (and not lose the plot) in emotional situations
  • how to change your negative body thoughts by using a simple mind trick
When one domino falls, they all fall

Triggers are tricky little buggers. A trigger is essentially something that sets off a negative chain of reactions that can lead us to experience negative thoughts and feelings.

Here are some examples of triggers when it comes to how we think about ourselves:

  • someone saying, ‘You look tired’
  • not getting the promotion you hoped for
  • getting dumped
  • failing a test
  • a breakout
  • PMSing
  • stepping on the scale
  • watching the Victoria Secret Fashion Show

What are your triggers? Take some time to think of a few. (If you’re stuck, just think about this: what sorts of situations can turn your mood from sunshine to shitstorm?)

If one domino falls, do we assume they all fall?

Now that you’ve thought of a few personal examples, you’re probably wondering, ‘But how are my negative thoughts formed?’ For example, not everyone has negative thoughts while watching the Victoria Secret show, so why do I?

Answer: a trigger can become a negative thought through our assumptions. For example, if our trigger is someone saying, ‘You look tired’, in reality it may just be that we do look tired—but instead we assume that what they’re really saying is that we look like sh*t, that we can’t handle our stress, that we’re bad mothers, that we suck at our job, that we . . . Er, I think you get the point.

An easy way to figure out how your trigger can become an assumption is by filling in the following statement, allowing for the first space to be your trigger and the second to be your assumption:

For example:

  • If I get a zit, then everyone else will think I’m ugly.
  • If I don’t lose 2 kg, then I’ll look awful.
  • If I eat chocolate, then I’ll lose all control.

Now it’s your turn. What do you assume will happen based on your triggers?

The problem with check-ups

The way we look at, or perceive, our body image can lead to several problematic behaviours that can be tough to break. As such, let’s continue discussing body image by expanding on the behaviour component. I call these check-ups, because they’re behaviours that you obsessively do to ‘check up’ on your appearance.

For example:

  • weighing yourself repeatedly (I used to weigh myself before and after number onesies and twosies to see if my weight went down)
  • trying to convince or prove to others you have a ‘problem area’, such as flabby arms
  • touching or feeling areas of your body you don’t like for ‘proof’ that they’re problematic, such as pinching the skin around your waist
  • constantly thinking of areas of your body you don’t like
  • taking photos of body areas that you don’t like and using apps to ‘fix’ the feature to see how much ‘better’ you would look with it corrected
Things are getting complicated

You’re already starting to see how negative thoughts can be quite complicated! This is why just saying, ‘I love my body’ doesn’t work . . . at least in the long term. We need to look at the multitudes of layers that form who we are and why we think, feel and act the way we do, before we can create long-lasting positive change when it comes to our confidence.

So the next thing I’d like you to do is expand on the examples of triggers and assumptions you came up with from previous sections, by adding any ‘check-up’ behaviours.

For example:

  • If I get a zit, then everyone else will think I’m ugly, so I’ll constantly check my face in a mirror.
  • If I don’t lose 2 kg, then I’ll look awful, so I’ll weigh myself every single day.
  • If I eat chocolate, then I’ll lose all control, so I’ll never allow chocolate in the house.
Putting it all together

Before we get to the ‘fixing’ part of this article, let’s first put everything we’ve learned in one place, and see how one component can feed into the next using a flow diagram. A flow diagram is sort of like a set of dominoes, where if one thing happens, it triggers the next thing to happen. In this example I’ve used skin problems as the main issue, but you can replace it with whatever is your trigger.

Step 1: We start out with a perception that acne is ugly. As a result, we’re constantly worried about getting a zit.

Step 2: Boom, trigger happens; we get a big, massive, pulsating zit in the centre of our forehead.

Step 3: How do we feel? We feel disgusting. This catalyses our thought that we are ugly.

Step 4: We assume—because we think we’re ugly—that everyone else will think we’re ugly too.

Step 5: As a result, we change our behaviour; we avoid leaving the house and hide our ugliness.

Step 6: This leaves us with a lot of time on our hands, so what do we do? We repeatedly check-up on our zit in the mirror, which supports our original thoughts that acne is ugly.

Wait a minute!

Did you pick up something important within the flow? It’s important to note that we originally started with the perception that acne is ugly, but this led us to thinking that we are ugly. The two things are completely unrelated, but we’ve made one equate to the other.

Acne = ugly

Zit = ugly

I have a zit . . . therefore . . . I am ugly.

Seems a bit far-fetched, but I’m sure you can relate. That’s the power of the mind; it can play some pretty nasty tricks on us.

So what can we do about it? I won’t lie, it’s a challenging one. But challenging our assumptions is a good place to start, which we’ll talk about next.

Feel the fear, and do it anyway

Let me tell you a story.

When I was going through therapy for my eating disorder, my therapist and I got talking about body parts I didn’t like, in particular, the back of my thighs. Because I didn’t like the back of my thighs, I didn’t like to wear shorts. He then asked me what would happen if I wore shorts. I didn’t even have to think about my answer: I knew that if I wore shorts, everyone would look at my thighs and be disgusted.

He asked me, ‘How would you know that?’

I responded, ‘Because I would see people looking at my thighs and making faces’.

This is where the scary part came in. He gave me a challenge. I was to wear a pair of shorts and look for evidence of these horrified faces.

Don’t get me wrong, it took me weeks to actually take up the challenge. Long story short, I wore the shorts out to do my market food shopping . . . and a guy tried to pick me up.

Needless to say, my assumption was proved to be dramatically wrong.

But it’s true!

The difficulty with challenging assumptions is that assumptions are actually very important. For example, we don’t need to jump off a cliff to figure out that we would get hurt. We just assume that we will. We also assume that we may run into a shark if we go swimming in the Great Barrier Reef.

But what happens if we just assume that all bodies of water have sharks? What if we assume that even lakes and ponds have sharks too? Sounds crazy, but this is something I do. I even get scared of sharks in swimming pools.

The reason why this type of assumption is unhelpful is because, not only is it wrong, it overgeneralises what may happen in one situation to another one. It doesn’t allow for any flexibility in thinking.

So now it’s time to think about how to challenge your assumptions. This will be hard because the whole reason you have that assumption is because you wholeheartedly believe it. So even if you don’t believe it, it’s a good way to get the brain thinking from a different perspective. Here’s a few examples:

  • If I get a zit, then everyone else will think I’m ugly, so I’ll constantly check my face in a mirror.

Challenge: People may look at it, but so what?

  • If I don’t lose 2 kg, then I’ll look awful, so I’ll weigh myself every single day.

Challenge: My weight has nothing to do with my relationship status.

  • If I eat chocolate, then I’ll lose all control, so I’ll never allow chocolate in the house.

Challenge: Even if I eat a lot of chocolate, why is that so bad?

Final summary and action points

Here is your key take-home message:

The layers that make up our body image (or how we feel about ourselves) are really, really complicated for numerous reasons. Mostly, it’s complicated because it has little to do with your actual appearance and more to do with your thoughts, feelings and beliefs about your appearance, which may have roots stemming from past experiences.

So when it comes to changing how we feel about ourselves, it’s (unfortunately) not usually as easy as saying, ‘I hated myself, now I love myself’. We need to look at the various components of the negativity itself.

Actionable advice:

More often than not, we don’t even recognize our negative thoughts and feelings until it is too late. We’re already picking our zit, or eating ice cream because of that darn number on the scale.

So, in addition to all the action points within this article, the very first step is simply to think, ‘What triggers me?’ Don’t wait until something happens to notice it, learn from your experiences! Challenging your assumptions will come in time.

Dr. Katherine x