I wanted to share a personal example of working the Change Triangle to overcome perfectionism about my body in case it is helpful.
For years I lamented my curvy figure. I wanted to be flat-chested and look like a boy or a model. I thought I was fat (I wasn't) and dieted like crazy. The idea that I had to be thinner was a defense against my insecurities about my body. In the last ten years, I was determined to change and accept myself.
I was the first of my friends to go through puberty. At nine years old my body changed. I got chubby. My friends all looked the way that I wanted to look: tall and lanky. Throughout my teens, twenties, and thirties, this little 9-year-old me, looking short and chubby in my mind's eye, exerted an ever-present force. I felt her through my gnawing doubts, fears, and the persistent pressure of trying to look sexy to win the eyes of boys and men. I sensed her in my mind as a relentless judger of my body.
All of us grow up with ideas about how we should look. These "shoulds" come from images we see in print and on-line. They come from comparing ourself to others. They come from living in a male-dominated capitalistic world where women's insecurities are big business for products and services.
Early memories, parental imprints, and cultural influences deeply affect how we feel today because the brain is wired by our lived experiences. When something in our current life, like a new relationship, triggers insecurities and anxieties, it can light up old insecurities and anxieties like a Christmas tree.
In my teens through my forties, I'd bury my childhood insecurities with a false self of confidence. But when I learned I could change how I felt on the deepest level to feel more authentically confident using the Change Triangle and the power of tending to my core emotions, I set out to feel better about my body.
The Beginning of Change
Overcoming my perfectionism began with awareness of this 9-year-old part of myself and the negative beliefs she held. I learned to visualize this younger self as separate from my present-day authentic self so I could extend care and acceptance to her instead of judgment. Additionally, it was through working the Change Triangle that I'd be able to to name and validate that little girl's emotions in a new and positively intentional way that led to healing myself.
My first step to working the Change Triangle was trying to move aside that perfectionistic defense. That was the part of me that thought I had to have a "perfect" body to be loved by a man. Intellectually I knew that wasn't true just from looking at other couples and seeing how they could love each other with their "imperfect" bodies.
To move this defense aside, I had to be willing to NOT indulge my perfectionistic obsessional thoughts. Instead, I had to dive into my body to tend to and calm my emotions.
I started doing this practice in real time. When I was with my husband, I moved my perfectionistic defense aside and tried to accept myself exactly as I was. This brought forth many emotions and a rising discomfort that threatened to overwhelm me. Leaning into self-acceptance was very challenging and difficult to bear because my emotions and the physical discomfort they brought screamed "Don't go there!" (I at least understood why I had been avoiding these feelings for so long with perfectionism.)
Determined to lean into my raw experience, I set out to scan the internal landscape of my body up and down with a stance of curiosity and compassion. I wanted to name, validate, and then use strategies to calm and soothe my upsetting emotions.
I noticed and named shame and anxiety about being fat and unappealing. Going forward I realized these emotions were the usual culprits and the ones i would again and again have to work with in a repetitive fashion. These emotions were consistent in nature always starting with self-consciousness about my arms, thighs, and stomach. The anxiety and imploding would start to build, my body buzzing.
At that time, I was learning varied techniques to calm anxiety, like steering my thoughts into choosing to believe my partner was attracted to me (that's what he said) and using deep belly breathing to calm my hyper-aroused nervous system. Using active fantasy, I imagined laser beams of compassion from the heart of my adult self going straight to my child self for feeling so exposed, which helped.
Through these techniques, I got better and better at calming my anxiety when shame and other emotions arose. I also got better at noticing shame, connecting with it and giving myself compassion, like a good mom who loves up her child when they are anxious and uncertain. I also shared my shame and anxiety with my partner so I would not be alone with it. I might say, I am feeling quite anxious (and/or self-conscious) right now so I need to slow down or take a break and talk.
With this shift from listening to and even indulging my perfectionistic obsessions to working with my anxiety and shame directly, I moved on the Change Triangle from the defense corner to the inhibitory emotions corner. Now my goal was to name my core emotions.
How to access core emotions
Imagine that you actually felt true acceptance and confidence in yourself exactly as you are - that you were grounded firmly in the openhearted state of your authentic self. What emotions would come up toward the people who judged, insulted, or criticized you?
When I was in the process of accepting my body, I realized I was angry and scared. I was angry at society for surrounding me with images of emaciated women and giving me the impression I should look like them. I was scared of being judged and ultimately rejected. I was also sad at the losses I’d experienced as a result, like freedom and enjoyment to be confidently me. I also noticed some disgust for these poisonous societal messages and the "bro culture" that judges women's bodies without a mere thought to the effect on women. Here’s the summary of the emotions I noticed:
FEAR of being rejected.
ANGER for being judged so harshly by society and pressure to be thinner than I could make myself.
SADNESS for the loss of being loved as I was.
DISGUST at our sick society that causes people to feel toxic shame about their bodies leading to symptoms.
Once I named my core and inhibitory emotions, I needed to connect to them one at a time in my body. It's noticing the sensations of the emotions as they occur in the body that rewires the brain, re-regulates the nervous system, and connects us in an accepting and deeper way to our core authentic self.
One of the main goals of working the Change Triangle is to fully experience and release core emotions each time they arise. Experiencing a core emotion involves 1) naming it; 2) sensing it in the body; 3) noticing the impulse or the need; and 4) staying with the physical sensations and energy the emotion creates using mindful attention until there is a felt shift. The kind of shift that typically occurs is either a feeling that the emotional wave is subsiding, a release of tension, or where a different emotion pops up that needs the same kind of processing. Below is a summary of this process:
Working the Change Triangle turns down the volume of our perfectionistic defenses. We might continue to notice perfectionistic parts of ourselves for a long time, but perfectionism will no longer rule us. It doesn't need to because we can now tolerate our underlying emotions and deal directly with them. Best of all, we derive the benefits of spending more and more time in our authentic Self. We learn to truly accept and even come to love our perfectly imperfect Self.
As for me, I still look relatively the same on the outside as I always have (+/- 10 pounds) but on the inside I feel much more relaxed about myself. I can acknowledge the parts of my body I am fond of (my legs) and accept the parts of my body I am not so fond of (my belly). I don't feel bad on the inside the way I used to and that is a beautiful relief.
In case you missed it, read Loosening the Grip of Perfectionism (Part 1).
For a step-by-step self-help book on how we heal from the wounds and traumas of our lives, pick up a copy of It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House & Penguin UK)