Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lesson #6: You Are Not Your Body

Like most others, I have been taught my value comes from my body.  I have been conditioned to focus primarily on what the body looks like, how it is feeling, how it is functioning, what it is doing, and what it can't do.  In this view, other aspects of who I am, such as what is in my heart, my mind, my spirit, come far second.  At age forty I am finally starting to see how this way of thinking is destructive, painful, and only creates suffering. 

When we focus on the body we are basically looking at two ephemeral qualities: body image and health. I'm going to break these down here:

Image:
Everyone, at least in the United States,  has been told that their value and worth stem from their physical appearance.  Even if you grew up in an area that didn't drill this belief into you day and night, you would no doubt have gotten it from any kind of entertainment, media, culture.  There is an assumed and generally unspoken "truth" that being thin and looking young is equivalent to deserving happiness and strength.  There are billions and billions of dollars invested in literally brainwashing you into believing this is true.  You are told what to think, you accept it, and then you condemn others who don't or can't follow the mandate.  It is a complex circle of shame and humiliation that ultimately ends up in nearly everyone feeling anxious about their physical appearance.

I grew up hating my body.  I hated how skinny and pale I was, I hated me in this body.  Growing up in Los Angeles and coming out as gay in West Hollywood only further reinforced the distortion that my value as a person was correlated with my physical appearance.  I believed I was physically ugly, and therefore thought I was ugly as well.

I started unlearning this programming in my Psychology college courses, which fortunately focused on how social entities create and shape mental illness.   That was when I learned that there were industries founded in making a profit from trying to make me, and billions of other, feel bad, guilty, and unworthy.  That is when I came to realize that the only "enemy" to loving my body were my own beliefs that I had to physically appear a certain way to be deserving of love and respect.  I started learning that the fundamental qualities that make me Damon are not based on physical attributes.  They are based in what I think, how I act toward others, and how I can make this crazy world a better place than how I found it.

I will not always have the body I have today.  But when I balance my self-care to include activities that nurture my mind, my spirit, and my body, then I feel much closer to feeling peace and positivity about all aspects of who I am, and who I am becoming. 

Health:
Using the same idea above, I have been conditioned to believe that my value comes from living inside of a healthy body.  Throughout my forty years, whenever I have had a cold, an illness, an ache or pain, or fatigue, I have used my thoughts to create suffering by thinking, "I am in pain, I am slowed down, I can't function."

Back in 2004 I took a wonderful Spanish class, during which time I learned that the Spanish language never refers to the body in the first person, it is always in the third person.  The correct way of saying "my back hurts" is to say, "Me duele la espalda," which literally means, "my back hurts me."  The Spanish language depersonalizes illness and pain to emphasize that the body hurts, not the person inside the body. 

That reminded me of the ideas celebrated in the musical Rent. We are only renting these vehicles we call "bodies" while we are here.  And just like renting a car, sometimes you get a rental that runs well, and sometimes you get a clunker.  When my car breaks down in the middle of the road I don't take it personally.  So why would I take it personally when my body gets sick? 

I am nowhere near where I want to be with Lesson #6.  My brainwashing from the world still leads me to be concerned with body image.  My automatic thoughts are still horribly judgmental when I get sick.  The difference now is that I no longer believe these thoughts when I think them. I may still automatically think, "uh oh another wrinkle" when I look in the mirror, but I catch myself and realize that I am only internalizing a harmful message learned long ago when I wasn't realizing it, and that I get to choose what I think and feel now.   

This is the liberation of getting older.  At any age you can question and challenge any belief system that holds you back and leads you to suffer.  It may seem very hard to do at first, and it is! But just like any muscle in that rental of yours, the more your work it, the more you will be able to do it.  The more you practice the easier it gets, especially when you get help and support from others.   

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He specializes in issues related to addiction, ageism, bullying, caretaking fatigue, body image, grief and loss, gay/lesbian issues, stress management, depression, as well as couples in non-traditional arrangements. He is the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To have him speak with your group, or to schedule a counseling visit, call 347-227-7707, or email at Shouldless@gmail.com

**If you are in the New York City area, please come by for Damon's "Fabulous at Forty" workshop on Monday, April 25th, at 8pm, at 208 W. 13th Street, Room 410*