Yesterday, I saw of picture of myself in a sleeveless outfit and realized that my triceps are a disappointment to me. My upper arms look like hotdog buns.
As for the outfit – a silky black jumpsuit – I liked it in the store. The saleswoman, fresh out of college, assured me I looked fabulous. But here’s the thing: If you are in your fifties and want to feel chic and slim, do not hang around with women in their twenties. Because no matter how great that jumpsuit looked in the dressing room, it’s no match for an impeccable midriff or the fashion fearlessness that comes with knowing you can throw on a mini dress with a pair of white Adidas and look effortlessly sexy.
This was apparent when we hosted a 25th birthday weekend for my son’s girlfriend. Over the course of a day, she and her pals moved through duffel bags full of cute clothes, from clingy yoga pants at breakfast to teeny bikinis at lunch to wispy slip dresses by cocktail time. At that point, I considered drowning myself in a sea of self-recrimination and tequila due to an acute case of frumpiness but decided not to be a party pooper. Instead, I forged on in my black jumpsuit, which I now hate.
Judging ourselves by the standard of how we compare to others encompasses multiple issues beyond body image and fashionability. Everyone has their own vulnerable spots; for me, creativity and productivity are open wounds when it comes to self-reflection. Recently I found myself cringing when one of my closest friends posted a photo from a California writers’ colony where he spent a spectacularly productive week making groovy new friends and knocking out a book proposal in the process. I stopped short of silently wishing him writer’s block, instead turning the knife on myself for the shockingly unproductive month I had spent doing anything – anything – but writing.
On a crappy day, there’s no convincing me I’m a not a failure by any and every standard. On those days, I’m a hack, a fraud, a weakling, a bore with bad hair.
Without a doubt, judging one’s self on a regular basis sucks the joy out of life. On a crappy day, there’s no convincing me I’m a not a failure by any and every standard. It’s then that I wonder how anyone, including my children, could find me loveable or even tolerable. On those days, I’m a hack, a fraud, a weakling, a bore with bad hair. I fully expect my husband to walk through the door and announce his permanent departure due to an overdue epiphany that his wife is the most unsatisfying spouse on the planet.
Recently, Facebook reminded me that I hadn’t updated my profile picture in a while. In fact, it’d been almost six years and it seemed criminal to continue to fool my FB friends into thinking I hadn’t aged a bit. So I switched the picture to one taken just a few months ago…then tried to hide the update from my timeline so as not to draw attention to the change. Evidently, I failed. More than 100 people “liked” or commented on the new photo with the kindest of compliments. Yet, in the whirlpool of negativity in which I was spinning that week, I couldn’t enjoy their words. In my mind, my friends were either liars or legally blind.
What a waste to deprive myself of the pleasure of those compliments. They were given freely in good faith, so why not accept them as such? Perhaps that barrier is a result of my particular psychology or the way I was raised or some deep-seated notion that society rewards the humble and punishes the proud. Most likely, it’s a combination of all those things and more.
But here’s the really scary part: I’ve read that, for people like me, self-judgment is actually an addiction. It’s a habitual behavior intended to protect ourselves against pain. Self-judgers believe that if they judge themselves first, they’ll be safe from the judgment of others or they’ll be motivated to do better.
This doesn’t work. Anyone who has ever raised a child (or been one, for that matter) knows that people respond better to encouragement than to criticism. Rather than spurring us on to greatness, self-judgement creates so much anxiety that we freeze up and that immobility leads to even more judgement. The result: We end up feeling paralyzed and miserable.
When I consider my addiction, I feel a little crazy because my life is good and I have much to be proud of. But I’m not alone. Plenty of people with mostly happy lives throw a private pity party now and then, some more often than others. I also know that for many women in their fifties, the ways in which we define ourselves undergo seismic shifts as we contemplate new or ending careers, empty nests, aging parents and changing bodies, not to mention mortality. Any one of those things can knock your world off its axis; a combo platter can be a total confidence killer.
The challenge is how to get this monkey off my back. What would it mean to say: “Yes, I do look pretty in that Facebook picture”? Or to accept positive feedback on something I’ve written by acknowledging rather than denying the worth of my words? Would lightning strike me if I took pleasure in recognizing my positive attributes rather than focusing on how I’m not measuring up? What might a day without judgement feel like?
To find out, I am embarking on an experiment. For the next month, every time I catch myself judging myself negatively, I will make a concerted effort to stop and redirect those thoughts in an effort to break the cycle. So this morning during yoga, I reconsidered those hotdog buns, which were, in fact, supporting my body quite nicely. (Maybe that traumatic tricep photo was just taken from an unfortunate angle.) When I took a catnap in the late afternoon, I labeled myself tired instead of lazy. And I wrote an honest essay that might even help someone else. That’s progress.
P.S. If you like this essay, let me know. I promise I’ll believe you.