Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Letting my defences down

This is the third post in a series where I'm sharing my ongoing lessons about body-image and body-acceptance. Part one set the scene. In part two, I shared about how it's helped to become aware that the way I view my body might be distorted and not reflect reality.

Today I want to talk about obsolete defense mechanisms and letting go of them.

Baby elephant image by Manjesh ambore
CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
Many years ago, I heard a motivational speaker explain that when baby elephants are trained for work in South-East Asia, their handlers restrain them at night with a piece of rope tied around one of the elephant's feet. The other end is tied to a wooden stake hammered into the ground nearby. As the story goes, the baby elephant initially tries to escape by pulling at the rope but soon learns that it isn't strong enough and eventually gives up. Years later, as a fully-grown adult elephant, its handlers still secure the animal at night with a similar piece of rope. The four-tonne animal could easily escape but it doesn't even try because it learned long ago that it wasn't strong enough to do so.

I've tried unsuccessfully to verify this story. For now, let's think of it simply as a fable intended to illustrate a deeper truth: that we all carry with us things that might have been true once upon a time, but reality has moved on while our beliefs about ourselves and about the world have not.

Getting specific

My psychologist has been leading me to become conscious of the specifics of my fears. For example, if I were to go shirtless at a pool or beach, what specifically am I afraid will happen? And why do I expect that?

Before working with her, my fear would have been vague: I'd have said that I'd feel really embarrassed and self-conscious without a shirt. Now, the challenge was to notice and become aware of what was really behind that fear. 

This particular example was an easy one for me to analyse: up until very very recently, my experience of being shirtless at a pool was that of the fat kid at swimming lessons at school being taunted and jeered at by other school kids. This was a horrible experience and I quickly created behaviours to avoid it. Primarily, I avoided swimming lessons. I would feign illness on swimming day so I wouldn't even have to be at school, or I would claim I'd forgotten my swimming gear (whether I actually had it with me or not) and have to sit out while everyone else swam. One direct consequence is that I never learned to swim; to this day, I still haven't learned yet. People who learn this about me often ask incredulously how it's possible to grow up in Queensland and not have learned how to swim. This is how.

As I touched on in the introduction to this series, another consequence is that I've spent decades avoiding any situation where my bare torso might be visible to other people, even by accident. To recap, these don't just include swimming pools and beaches, but trying on clothes in stores, having medical examinations, and passing through security checkpoints like at airports (which have equipment to see through clothes and people who might pat me down).

As a strategy to avoid repeating that childhood experience of being taunted, this behaviour has been 100% effective. I never again had that experience. The defence mechanism is tried and true.

The problem is, it's based on experiences that are very old and relevant only to a specific context.

Getting specific about what I was afraid would happen if people could see me without a shirt allowed me to question whether the risk of being taunted and jeered at was still a credible threat.

Rationally, I can predict that if I were to take off my shirt at a pool or beach today, the most likely outcome is that nobody would notice or care, and that even if somebody did have a negative perception or opinion of my body, it's very unlikely that they would come up and share it with me. The risk is not zero, but it's incredibly low, in line with other low-probability risks that we're all exposed to every single day and have no control over.

Therefore, I can understand my behaviour (always cover my torso) as a safeguard I developed to protect my feelings against something that, while once undeniably real, is not a valid current concern.

My life-coach describes these obsolete beliefs that cruft up our lives as "hyper-stabilised beliefs" that become self-fulfilling because we have an innate need to be right about the world. We therefore avoid challenging these beliefs (so we remain right) while at the same time remaining hyper-sensitive to anything that reinforces the belief (see also confirmation bias and the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon). Nothing catches my eye faster than a news story about air travellers invasively searched by overly zealous airport security agents.

This is the mechanism, she says, by which the belief gets reinforced further and further and further.

My own experience tells me this is true: if anything, my fears, left unchallenged, have indeed grown more intense over time. About eight years ago, the prospect of passing through an airport security checkpoint intensified from uncomfortable and unpleasant through to intolerably terrifying.

At least at the pool I can always wear a rashie...

Letting my defences down

As the quote beloved by motivational speakers and writers goes, there's one way to challenge these beliefs:

"You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it."
— Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, We Bought a Zoo
Putting this principle into action and slowly chipping away at my fears has been having results.

A few weeks ago, I attended an aqua-fitness event, and as I was putting on my rashie, I stopped and chose to notice my feelings. The organiser of the event is someone I trust utterly and completely; and the energy that suffuses her events is incredibly positive and supportive. In turn, this energy attracts positive and lovely people. I asked myself if I was afraid of anyone at the event, and when I affirmed for myself that I was not, I took the rashie back off and replaced it in my bag.

I still felt very queasy stepping out of the change room. And while it took a little more than a literal twenty seconds for that sick feeling to evaporate, it wasn't more than a couple of minutes. And... hypothesis proven: there was no taunting or jeering. I don't think I ever completely lost consciousness of being shirtless, but the sense of alarm definitely dissipated.

This fear isn't completely dealt with yet; but for me, this was a huge step forward. Someday there will be another opportunity for another twenty seconds of insane courage, and I'll see if I can push the boundary a bit further.

Next post: Being grateful for what my body can do

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