Maya Rees never liked what she saw when she looked in the mirror. As a teenager she searched for clothes that would hide her frame, endlessly attempted to lose weight and lived in a "default" setting of shame towards her body.
“You have to be mindful enough to say, ‘Hang on, I’m being really unkind to myself.’”
"I always felt not good enough," the 39-year-old says. It wasn't until a friend invited her to a yoga class five years ago that Maya began to change her attitude. She didn't know what to expect from the class, but immediately fell in love with the practice.
Maya believes she learnt self-compassion through yoga. Instead of accepting all the horrible thoughts she had about herself as truths, she began to challenge them. If such thoughts persisted, she attempted to soften them. She also began actively deciding to not allow her thoughts to dictate her feelings and, in the process, she no longer felt hatred towards her body.
Maya discovered how body image could be dramatically altered through self-compassion. Research exploring the effects of writing with self-compassion, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly this year, reflects her experience. In the study, a group of women wrote letters to themselves. These letters focused on compassion towards themselves as a whole, compassion towards their body or gratitude for their body. Relative to a control group of women, the study found the letters increased the level of body satisfaction for the participants.
Psychologist Dr Marny Lishman believes letter writing can be helpful because it makes your thoughts feel "more real" and allows you to express yourself freely, without judgment. But you don't have to write lengthy tomes to strengthen self-compassion, says Sarah Harry, co-founder of Body Positive Australia. She says jotting down a few words at the end of the day – something you did well that day, or something you're grateful for – can also help foster positive feelings.
The more compassionate we are to ourselves about our bodies, she says, the better we will feel about them. "It's like a well-worn path in a wood. If we stop taking that negative 'I hate my body' path and start taking the 'My body's really great' path, then that is the neural pathway that becomes stronger."
The first step to practising self-compassion is being mindful of your internal chatter, says Lishman. As soon as you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts, redirect them to something more compassionate.
Talk to yourself as you would a "much-loved friend", Harry says. "So when your mind starts saying, 'Your body's not good enough' or 'You're disgusting', you have to be mindful enough to know you're doing it. "Then you have to pull yourself up and go, 'Hang on a second, I'm being really unkind to myself.' "
Eliminate certain things from your life: start by tossing out the scales, says Harry ("They're just an inanimate object telling you whether you should feel good or bad that day based on an arbitrary number"); ditch dieting and pay heed to the social media you absorb.
Every time you read or see something that makes you feel bad about your body, remove the source and replace it with one that makes you feel good. The more diverse images of bodies we see, the better equipped we are to love and accept our own bodies, says Harry.
Be kind to yourself in other ways, too, adds Lishman. Stop punishing yourself for perceived flaws; celebrate successes and "feed your soul" by doing things you love every day. Maya still has "good and bad days", but she says she finally feels comfortable in her skin. "There's a comfort and compassion that was never there before and sometimes that's enough … or more than enough."
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale August 12.
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