I took a good long look at my naked self in the mirror this morning.
I’m turning 40 soon. My body is getting older. Some of my imperfections came by design, like my crooked spine, my flat feet, and my jaw that distends to the left. And some are the result of choices I have made, like the scars near my ear where I once picked at my chicken pox, and the small amount of extra skin on my stomach from those years I spent obese.
And then I realized, here I am looking at myself, and I’m immediately scanning for my imperfections. That’s the first place that my brain goes, to look for the things I want to change. I didn’t look first toward my big brown eyes, my full head of hair, or the straight-teeth-smile I paid for after finally getting braces. I didn’t scan for the changes I’ve made with my intense workouts this year, my thicker legs, the muscles forming over my chest and biceps, my broad shoulders, my calves, my core, my ass.
I’m proud of myself. I like myself. And I hate that upon first glance, at least this time, I only noticed the things I want to change. I wouldn’t treat my children this way. I wouldn’t look at them and think, hmm, that’s that imperfection about them. Instead I see them as perfect just as they are.
As I got dressed, I realized that I often do this with others, though. It’s superficial, but I tend to notice the more attractive men and women around me in my daily interactions. I assign more inherent value to those I deem attractive, subconsciously, and I compare them against each other. There is some ranking scale that works within me. I contrast muscles and styles and smiles, ages and prowess and height. I stack them up next to each other and assign a ranking. And worse, I compare them to myself. I feel more valuable than some, less valuable than others. I’m thinner, but he’s more fit. I’m more successful, but he’s taller. It’s exhausting.
I hate that this is an inherent part of our culture. It invades every aspect of culture, these rankings, these assignments of worth. Business, industry, politics, parenting, education, pop culture. We think of babies as prettier than other babies. Teenage girls think of themselves as less than for having smaller breasts while teenage boys high-five the friend who can pound back the most beer.
And recently, I had a conversation with a dear friend, a man I admire immensely, who is in his late 60s. He is accomplished, with a successful business and a beautiful home. He stands in front of crowds and gives inspiring speeches. Yet he confided in me that he has a low self-esteem. He’s getting older, he said, and he is realizing that fewer younger men are interested in him, yet he’s not generally interested in guys his age. It was heartbreaking to see someone so powerful struggling with something so personal.
And yet I already see this internal struggle developing in my own sons. My 6-year old came home one day last year, from the first grade, crying about how he is the smallest in the class, how other kids are smarter and better than he is.
I spend an enormous amount of time in my therapy office working with clients who grew up with the internal narrative that they weren’t good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, tall enough. They loved my sister more, if I had been a better boy then my dad wouldn’t have committed suicide, if I had been prettier than he would have loved me back, if I was stronger than I wouldn’t have made those choices. Always about the ranking, the betters and mores, the measuring, the shame.
And while I work hard on that internal image of me, on celebrating myself instead of shaming myself, I still found myself scanning my flaws in the mirror this morning.
And so, as I face my day ahead, I realize that I can’t delete these operating systems out of my brain, but I can become more aware of them. I can separate them out from the healthy parts of me, and focus on love, compassion, recognition, and strength. I can embrace the me that is while working on the me that can be. It isn’t about the flattest stomach, or the fullest head of hair, or the fastest run time. It’s about embracing me, each and every day, and working on the world around me. And it’s about helping those around me feel loved.
Because they look in the mirror and look for their flaws just like I do.