Today’s post was inspired by a question that came in from a reader who is struggling with depression and body image issues after having children. I asked my colleague Dr. Lindsay Taylor, being a psychologist and a mother herself, to step in.
Having witnessed all the wondrous changes that women’s bodies go through during and after pregnancy with my wife Carrie, I’d like to add my support and encouragement to my readers who struggle with these issues.
This post is for all the mamas and mamas-to-be who are struggling with the ways in which their bodies have changed, grown, stretched, and been marked by pregnancy. For you mothers who have suffered a loss, I see you, and you are included here.
It’s really a shame, but not a surprise, that so many women are plagued by negative body image around pregnancy. A strong predictor of negative body image during and after pregnancy is negative body image before pregnancy. Body image is, of course, something so many people struggle with every day, women in particular. Volumes have been written about the ways in which our cultural standards of attractiveness, media and social media, and social factors conspire to make us feel unattractive, unworthy, and dissatisfied with our bodies. That doesn’t need to be rehashed here.
Then when you’re pregnant, you and everyone around you is hyper-focused on your body. Are you gaining the “right” amount of weight? Eating the right things? Moving in the right way? Strangers are commenting on your size and shape, and probably touching you too. (PSA: Don’t do this.)
Some women love this time and revel in the changes their bodies undergo. Other women feel completely alienated from and even disgusted by their bodies. Probably many women feel different and conflicting emotions at different times. No matter what your experience has been, let me assure you that it’s normal. The whole gamut of experiences is normal and valid.
If you feel confused, conflicted, sad, disappointed, or discouraged about the ways your body has changed because of pregnancy, it’s OK. Your body is different, your relationship to it is different. There is no right or wrong here. My goal for today is to help if you do feel distressed by persistent feelings of negative body image and self-worth after pregnancy. It needs to be addressed. Poor body image correlates with symptoms of postpartum depression (it’s not clear that one necessarily causes the other, but some data suggest that poor body image predicts later depression). This can interfere with your relationships with others, including your partner and, very importantly, your baby.
Sometimes when we talk about this, the first reaction is, “Great, I already feel like &%$! about myself, and now I feel worse because my feelings are going to mess up everything.” That’s not it. Most of all, you simply deserve to feel good about yourself. You deserve to have peace with your body. You don’t need to waste your precious mental energy on tearing yourself down. For many women, their postpartum body image issues are extensions of lifelong feelings of insecurity. Let’s interrupt the cycle now.
Accepting Your Postpartum Body
Most people who want to change how they feel about their bodies take the approach of trying to change their bodies. This rarely works. Postpartum bodies (and bodies in general) often don’t respond how we want, and anyway many of us have constructed ideal body images in our minds that aren’t realistic.
If you want to change how you feel about your body, you should be working on how you feel about your body. There is a lot of well-meaning messaging in the meme-o-sphere about how you should love your body, but I prefer to start with appreciating your body and practicing self-compassion and self-care. If you’re ready to jump right to self-love, by all means go for it! However, this can feel daunting for some women who are stuck in a cycle of self-deprecation and even self-loathing.
The first step in all this is acceptance: accepting the fact that you probably can’t control the size and shape of your body right now, not like diet culture tells you that you can. Yes, there are some women who “bounce back” and flash their postpartum abs in magazines and on Instagram, but they aren’t the norm. Your body is in recovery. If you’re nursing, it’s focused on continuing to keep another human alive. You probably aren’t sleeping, and you might be finding the transition more stressful than you anticipated. Even months or longer down the road, these can still apply. This is hardly the ideal scenario for controlled weight loss.
Moreover, the truth is that your body probably won’t look the same ever again. Even if you go back to wearing your pre-pregnancy clothes, your shape will likely be different. You’ll probably be sporting some new stretch marks. The idea that you can and should “get your body back” is unrealistic and unfair for most women. (Health is something different here.) Your body has done something new and fabulous. It’s not the same body it was.
It’s O.K. to feel sad about that at first. It’s O.K. to mourn the loss of your pre-baby body even while you also appreciate and respect the hell out of your body for growing another human. Denying those feelings or, worse, feeling guilty for them and spiraling into self-criticism and shame doesn’t help. Be open and honest with yourself, and talk to other people who will listen non-judgmentally.
I can’t stress enough that you should ask for help if you need it. If your partner or your friends can’t give you the support you need, or you just feel like you need an impartial ear, find a therapist who specializes in body acceptance and postpartum issues (including depression, even if you don’t think you are depressed, since they are so often linked).
I hear some of you saying, “There is just no way I could ever get to a place where I accept, let alone like, this body.” If you’re feeling too mired down in self-negativity to believe that this is for you, consider this: Self-acceptance allows you to care for yourself and the other people in your life. Imagine if you could model a healthy, happy self-image for your baby as he or she grows. Which of your friends would benefit from someone who speaks in body-positive language and who models self-compassion? How would your partner respond if you could believe that you are sexy and deserving of physical affection?
You don’t owe it to other people to work on yourself if you’re not ready, but sometimes a little outside motivation is what gets the gears turning when the inner motivation is hidden under layers of fear, shame, or self-doubt.
Steps You Can Take
Have I mentioned that I strongly advise anyone who is struggling with mental health and well-being to seek professional help? Good, and I’m saying it again for the record. Therapy rocks.
Self-appreciation, self-compassion, and self-care are things we all deserve and we can actively cultivate. I recommend checking out the book Self-compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., as a starting point.
Quit Negative Self-talk: As I’m sure you know, we are usually our own worst critics. We say hateful, belittling things to ourselves that we would never say to someone else. If you want to deal with negative body image, this has to stop.
When you find your inner voice saying something self-critical, interrupt it and replace the disparaging comment with one that expresses kindness and compassion. Mantras and affirmations can be helpful here. (If you think they’re cheesy, humor me and give it a try.) The trick is to find one that feels authentic to you. One that I like, which I found here, is: I will accept that my body may never be exactly the same as it was before I had the baby, just as my heart will never be the same. Some others you might try are: I deserve to treat myself with kindness and respect, I am learning to be gentle with myself, or My body is beautiful and deserves all the love I can give it. It’s O.K. if you don’t quite believe it yet; still say it whenever a negative thought intrudes.
You can also actively redirect your attention from how your body looks to how it feels. Maybe you actually enjoy the feeling of softness is new places. Maybe pregnancy and childbirth made you feel powerful. When a negative thought appears, crowd it out with Hell yes, this body is strong and capable and awesome.
Again, if this feels forced at the beginning, that’s all right! Body positivity and self-acceptance take work. Many things feel awkward when they’re new, but over time they become second nature.
Negative Body Talk with Others: As a veteran member of multiple moms’ groups, I know that when a group of moms gets together, more often than not we end up kvetching about our bodies. I think social support from other moms is hugely important, but if I could go back in time to when my kids were babies, I’d really try to shut down the self-deprecating body talk.
If you have friends who do this, speak up! Honestly, this is a gift to the other women as well. Complaining about our mom bods is such a common form of bonding, sometimes we need permission to break the cycle. Try, “I’ve noticed we spend a lot of time criticizing ourselves, but I think we are all strong and beautiful rockstar moms. I’ve started a personal project to try to stop negative self-talk and replace it with compliments. What if we tried that here?”
And by all means, if there are other people in your life—family, your partner, co-workers—who try to engage you in body or diet/exercise talk that perpetuates your bad feelings, shut it down. Boundaries are fantastic; draw them often.
Of course, I’m not suggesting you suppress your emotions. Find a friend or counselor you can talk to about your feelings, one who won’t respond with, “Ugh, I know! My belly button looks like a Shar Pei too, I hate it. That’s why I started this new diet, have you heard of it?” Processing and dealing with your feelings is one thing. Using language that keeps you stuck in a cycle of body hatred is something else altogether. You can tell the difference.
Curate Your Social Media: Think about the images you see on your social media. Are they mostly #fitspo accounts that depict a narrow range of what it means to be “healthy” and “fit?” If so, consider seeking out the many people who are spreading the word that bodies of different sizes and shapes can be strong, healthy, and attractive. Find other women who are at your stage of motherhood and who are also promoting positive self-image.
Move Your Body: Your body is so much more than what it looks like! Move for the joy of movement and to connect with your body on a physical level. Exercise to feel strong and powerful, not to try to force your body to “lose the baby weight.” Movement should be self-care, not punishment.
Wear Clothes That Fit: Dress up your body in clothes that fit rather than hiding in too-big clothes or squeezing into uncomfortably small clothes.
Step Off the Scale: I know this is a hard one for a lot of people, but if your daily mood depends on the number on the scale each morning, this is bad for your well-being. You don’t need to be aware of the daily fluctuations in order to take care of yourself.
Other Forms of Self-care: The sky’s the limit here! Let someone watch the baby while you take a nap or go for a coffee date with your partner. Get a pedicure. Ignore the laundry and watch a TV show. Taking care of your emotional well-being and feeling more positive overall can help you avoid the negative self-talk trap.
How You Can Help Support a Mom
If there’s a mom in your life whom you want to support, a good way to start is by not commenting on her body, period. (This is a good policy in general.) “You’ve lost weight!” is generally considered a compliment, but sometimes people lose weight because they’re ill or depressed. Plus, it draws attention to her body and reinforces the notion that she must be hoping and trying to lose weight. Better ways to engage her in conversation: Ask how she is feeling, and express excitement about the baby. Ask her if there is anything she needs. Offer to bring her coffee or a meal, go for a walk together, or watch the baby so she can shower or run to the store.
Resources for Finding Help and Support
If you feel like you could use help or support in this area, please don’t be afraid to ask. Below are some resources that cater to postpartum women specifically. There are also some great individuals and organizations that promote body positivity and self-care more generally.
After the Baby is Born: A Postpartum Series — A collection of photos and commentary from new moms as part of The Honest Body Project.
“It’s also helpful to realize that this very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now… with its aches and it pleasures… is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.” – Pema Chödrön
“Treat yourself as if you already are enough. Walk as if you are enough. Eat as if you are enough. See, look, listen as if you are enough. Because it’s true.” – Geneen Roth
Thanks for stopping in today, everybody. Comments, questions, experiences to share? Include them on the comment board below, and have a great end to the week. Take care.
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We’re almost halfway through 2018. History is accelerating. New advances, technology, scientific findings, and social changes are occurring faster than ever before. There’s never any time like the present, but these days it feels like the present is slipping away at an exponential rate. This is no time to be resting on your laurels, biding your time, or waiting to see what happens. It’s time to act. It’s time to make the changes you’ve been mulling over, the ones you know in your heart are the right moves to make.
To help you on your way, I’ve put together a 30-day action plan for the month of June. No one has to follow this to the letter, or even at all, but use it as a template or inspiration. Wake up on June 12 swelling with energy and unsure how to direct it? Check out the action plan. Feeling a bit lazy on June 19? See what the action plan recommends; it may resonate.
Let’s get right to it:
June 1st: Plan your month. Set a goal or two, aiming as high as you realistically can attain.
June 2nd: Track what you eat, how much you move, how long you sit or stand, what you do in the gym, how much you procrastinate or waste time, how much time you spend in flow or being productive. Get specific, get precise—it’s just one day, and you can handle it. Get a good baseline, so you know what you’re working with. Then try to improve on it every day forward.
June 3rd: Try the fitness or movement pursuit you’ve been thinking about for a long time. That thing you know you should be doing, like foam rolling at night or doing a light mobility session in the morning, but keep putting off. Just do it. Feels good, right?
June 4th: Take a cold shower.
June 6th: Reflect on your approach to competition. Who are you competing against? Who should you be competing against? Consider that it might be a better idea to compete against your former self, because besting your former self is a reliable path to self-improvement.
June 7th: Take three walks. One in the morning, one at lunchtime, and one after dinner.
June 8th: Meditate, if you’ve never tried it before. If you have and it doesn’t work for you, try an alternative method for reaching a similar headspace. My favorite way as of late is just sitting quietly at the beach, watching the waves go in and out across the horizon.
June 10th: Don’t just go to the farmer’s market. Make friends with your favorite farmer’s market vendors.
June 11th: Pickle something. It’s really easier than you think to make your own fermented food. Mix 50 grams salt with a liter of quality water, pour over garlic/hot peppers/shallots/pretty much anything you can stuff in a jar until submerged, place something on top to keep everything submerged (a roof of carrots wedged against the sides of the jar works well), lightly cover, and wait for the bubbles to start. When you like the taste, you’re done and can refrigerate the jar.
June 12th: Plan a camping trip for later during the month. Get your family and/or friends together, throw your gear in the car, and make a weekend of it somewhere nice and secluded. Leave electronics behind if you can, or at least limit artificial light after dark (red LED on the headlamp is a must when camping).
June 13th: Wake up and write down ten ideas. About anything at all. They don’t even have to be good. They just have to be on paper.
June 14th: Go for a PR in something. Pick a physical activity, and try to beat your personal best.
June 15th: Fast (if your personal context permits). Men, aim for the full 24 hours. Women, shorter will probably work better—somewhere in the realm of 12-16 hours (less if you’ve never tried).
June 16th: Grill something over open flame. At least one animal and one plant.
June 18th: Try a new recipe. Or just cook something new freestyle, using no recipe at all.
June 20th: Read for two hours. Books, not blogs or social media feeds (present blog excluded).
June 21st: Try to assemble the least expensive, most nutritious day of meals you can.
June 22nd: Have a glass of good wine with someone close to you. Friend, spouse, child (if of age).
June 23rd: Meal prep for the week ahead. Take an hour and get all the basics you need for the rest of the week ready to go. Roast veggies, start something in the Instant Pot, boil some eggs, prep Big Ass Salad makings. What you can cook ahead of time, cook ahead of time.
June 24th: Climb a tree. Be safe, just not too safe. Try to get the blood pumping.
June 25th: If you have any nagging health concerns you’ve been worrying about, make an appointment with a medical professional to get them checked out. Eating, exercising, and living well can transform our health, but we’re not invincible.
June 26th: Dance. Preferably with someone watched (and joining).
June 27th: Dream big. What’s your biggest, most ultimate dream that still has a chance of happening? Write it down, and figure out what you have to do to make it a reality.
June 28th: Forage for something in your yard, neighborhood, local park, or forest. Edible plants are everywhere.
June 29th: Grill some fruit in cast iron over open flame. The best fruit of the year is in season—peaches, cherries, nectarines, berries of all kinds—and yet most people don’t know that you can grill them over open flame and improve the flavor. Top with unsweetened whipped cream (you don’t need the sugar).
June 30th: Show gratitude for the awesome month you just experienced.
I’ll also have more on June’s staff-led 21-Day Challenge next week, so stay tuned. Have a great end to the week, everybody. Thanks for stopping by.
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My staff and I are quite close. Things stay busy these days, so there isn’t a lot of downtime, but I’ve worked with some of these folks for over a decade. We don’t discuss every grisly detail of our lives with each other. But we do share. We care about each other.
So when one of the Worker Bees mentioned he was having some potentially serious medical issues, I asked for details. Turns out he went to his doctor for a hard lump on his throat that was getting progressively bigger. Initial pokes and prods were inconclusive. An MRI led to a biopsy, which led to an email in the middle of the afternoon with the results and a hell of an opener: “This may be a cancer.” May helped. It wasn’t a sure thing yet.
For the next couple months, he continued getting tests to confirm one way or the other. A full body scan confirmed hypermetabolic activity in the lump, just like an active cancer would show. No other tissues showed up on the scan, meaning nothing had spread or originated elsewhere. No cancer confirmation, but his doctors were definitely leaning in that direction. He had meetings at the cancer center, filled out end-of-life directives, got a special parking pass. It was intense.
It wasn’t supposed to happen to a man like this. A wife, two kids, dogs, chickens, a new house, a job working in the health, fitness, and nutrition industry. Mid 30s. Fit, eats well, a strong foundation in Primal health principles. But happening it was.
Here’s what he said to me:
“Whatever happens, this has changed my perception of reality for the better (I think). I live in a different world now, rich with meaning and love and powerful emotions. It’s remarkable.”
As he put it, when you think you’re dying, the nonsense you’ve been perpetuating falls away to reveal the essentials. It just happens on its own, and you get a glimpse of what really living entails.
Hugging your kids. Kissing your wife. A stroll after dinner to watch the sun dip below the horizon. A hawk soaring overhead. All things you’ve done and watched before, only now it’s different. Everything becomes imminent. Your concepts of the world and space-time condense. There’s less time now, but instead of getting frantic about it, you slow down and savor the moments. You’re present. Things that might have ruined your day or mood just roll off your back.
He saw it as a rare gift, and I have to agree. For all intents and purposes, he was dying (he wasn’t, but his nervous system didn’t know the difference). He got to make all the amends, undergo the self-realization, think about all the dreams and regrets he had accumulated or almost accumulated, and view things he took for granted in a new light. He got to prepare for death.
And then, he got good news. Exploratory surgery with an immediate biopsy right there in the operating room revealed that it wasn’t cancer. It was a cyst. They removed it. He went home, none the worse for wear.
The trickiest part of his whole experience has been figuring out how to keep it fresh in his heart and mind. How can he take what originated as a visceral response to the perceived threat of dying young and make it established policy? Turn it into wisdom that persists even when the threat has gone? The lump’s gone, and it never actually was a real threat. Will the insights remain?
That’s the eternal battle raging inside us, isn’t it?
We have these massive epiphanies triggered by events large and small. They change us, make us see the world from a different perspective. The prospect of random cancer helped the Worker Bee realize what he was taking for granted and glossing over. But when the direct effects of the trigger wane, we tend to let ourselves go. We get sloppy, complacent, and return to our previous incarnation.
Figuring this out seems like the key to happiness, success, meaning, world peace, and everything else we claim to hold dear. If we could get a handle on that slippery aspect of human psychology—the tendency to let learned wisdom flit away because the initial trigger resolves—there’d be no limit to what we could do as individuals and a species.
As we near the halfway mark of 2018, I want you all to ruminate on this matter.
- How can we keep the spark of learned wisdom alive?
- How can we turn tragedies into sustained improvements?
- Better yet, how can we turn the tragedies of others into fuel for our own enduring improvements and realizations?
Let me know what you think, what you’ve learned down below. We all have stories like this. Candid details welcome and encouraged.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care, be well, and next time you hug a loved one, feel that hug for the miracle it is.
Because it is.
The post Gaining (and Maintaining) Wisdom From Life Experience appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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