I thought I’d take a break from my usual software engineering and best practices articles to talk about mental health. In particular, I’m going to cover a preoccupation with body image that once had a significant impact on my quality of life.
I’m not usually one for discussing personal things in public; however, I decided to write this post because the counseling I received was so valuable that it would be considered selfish not to share it with everybody. After all, according to a 2019 study done by Mental Health Foundation:
One in five adults (20%) felt shame, just over one-third (34%) felt down or low, and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image in the last year.
Let’s face it — we’re all here exchanging our time for money. So while we’re at it, why not try to create an inclusive and supportive culture to help our employees get the help they need while facing mental health challenges.
I must begin with a couple of caveats — I’m not a mental health professional and have never worked in this area.
If you’re feeling that a preoccupation with body image, or any other mental health issues, is having a prolonged impact on your life, you MUST seek help.
The goal of this post is to help you own the power to control your mental health situation, have the confidence to seek help, and arm yourself with alternative ways of thinking to live a happier life.
I was born with Kyphoscoliosis, which combines a side-to-side scoliosis curve with a back-to-front kyphosis bend. At ages 2 and 3, I had life-saving spinal fusion surgeries to stop my spine from moving towards my heart and lungs.
I’m fortunate for the healthcare I received and my family's support when I was growing up, wearing a Milwaukee Brace for many years, and the good news is that today it doesn’t affect me at all. Remarkably, I’m not in any pain and live such an everyday life that most of the time, I forget I have a more curved spine.
It wasn’t until I got to my late teenage years that I started to develop an unhealthy preoccupation with body image, frequently checking my appearance in car and shop window reflections.
I would spend several minutes in the changing room at clothing stores, sometimes with no intention of buying anything — I wanted to use the 45-degree mirror to check how my back looked. It was a reassurance technique that gradually consumed more and more of my time. I’d avoid swimming and wear a t-shirt to the beach and not want to be in any photographs.
I realized I had a problem that was affecting my happiness and needed help. Here are the top three things I learned to control a pre-occupation with my body image from cognitive-behavioral therapy.
1. Limit mirror checking
It must have been my third or fourth visit with a counselor when I explored a scenario that had the most significant impact on me. We discussed the number of times I would check myself in the mirror when out at a bar with friends. I explained that I would go into the bathroom to check my appearance, only to find myself in the same place 15 minutes later, again reassuring myself that I looked good.
The counselor asked me the following question:
“Did somebody punch you?”
I paused for a couple of seconds and then asked why he asked me that question, to which he replied:
“Did somebody strike a glass bottle over your head? Or, did you walk outside the bar with your drink and get knocked over by a speeding car? What catastrophic event happened to you that forced you to recheck your appearance 15 minutes later?”
I was shocked, as I’d realized how ridiculous my behavior had been for many years. Why would I need to go back and check my appearance if I’d already convinced myself that I looked perfectly acceptable once in the recent past?
My memory of this counseling session leads me to my first piece of advice I found very useful — agree with yourself a limit on how many times per day you should be allowed to check your appearance.
2. Check for the evidence of your beliefs
At my old company in Canary Wharf, London, I worked in a sizeable open-plan office space and would need to walk a fair bit to get from my desk to the watercooler. I used to think that people were looking at my spinal curvature as I passed between banks of desks on my way to the kitchen.
But one day, I stopped, turned 180 degrees, and looked back very briefly. Nobody was looking! Everybody is too busy on their work, participating in sprint update calls, developing features, and solving production issues. Nobody cares!
I stopped that day because my counselor asked me during my Saturday appointment to do, well, just that — stop and check for evidence to support my beliefs. I repeated this exercise only once more after that and never did it again.
3. Identify better settings to build confidence
Going to the beach is daunting for everybody, and in my case, I would not take my t-shirt off or go into the water and wore a rucksack to hide the kyphosis and surgical scarring at the top of my back.
My counselor advised me to remove myself from that situation and try going swimming at the gym before going abroad on my next holiday. People who go to the swimming pool care primarily about one thing — putting in their lengths of the pool. That’s it. They’re mostly not interested in other people’s appearance.
The trouble is with the beach, or the hotel pool is that it’s a much more sexual environment than most of us like to admit. Being unable to relax in the sunshine is just no fun. The gap between being fully clothed and then wearing swimwear at the beach is just too big.
I hope that this has been useful for everybody — let me know what you think in the comments section below.