What she sees in the mirror

In today’s blog, two experts consider one problem with multiple dimensions. Jackie Conn is a weight loss and healthy living expert. Jim LaPierre is an expert in mental health and relational health.

The parallels between what we see and what others see is a central theme in recovery: We see the best in others – especially those we love, and the worst in ourselves.

Jackie:

When Karen and Bruce married, she proudly walked down the aisle is a form-fitting, size 4 wedding gown. Karen admits she “dieted for a year to be able to wear that gown on her wedding day.”

18 years later she is wearing size 16 dresses. She feels fat, unlovable, and not at all the woman to whom Bruce said, “I do.” Bruce can’t convince her that he didn’t marry her for her body. He married her because she was kind, loving, intelligent, strong, stable and reliable.

Karen and Bruce have 3 children. Karen gained a lot of weight with each pregnancy. She only lost a little of that weight before getting pregnant again. After her third child, she weighed 80 pounds more than she did on her wedding day.

She became obsessed with getting back into her wedding dress. She went from one diet to the next. She tried Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, LA Weight Loss Plan, Atkins, South Beach, the Zone, Diet Center, and Weight Watchers online.

She looks in the mirror and sees a fat and stupid woman who can’t do anything right. She doesn’t know how Bruce can stand her; she can’t stand herself. She often gets angry with Bruce because she thinks he’s lying when he tells her he loves her or that she looks beautiful. He isn’t lying.

Karen thinks she needs to lose weight to fix things between them. Bruce knows that it’s not her weight that’s causing friction in their relationship. It’s her perception of who she’s become based on something as superficial as her weight.

Society and the media exacerbate the problem. Karen is bombarded with both subtle and overt messages that, “good wives keep their figures”, and that obese people are lazy, undisciplined, a drain on society, and deserve the scorn and poor treatment they often receive.

Karen is more inclined to believe all the negative messages about herself than the positive messages she gets from the people who really know and love her. Karen isn’t unusual. Bruce still sees Karen’s kindness and her loving ways towards her family, but he’s alarmed to witness her behaving as though she’s less intelligent and reliable than he’s always known her to be.

Jim:

Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. I can empathize with Karen’s struggles. If we spoke, I’d be more than a little hard on her because without meaning to, her preoccupation is doing a lot of damage that she’s likely less than honest with herself about.

I often introduce folks to the sociological term, “ethnocentrism.” It means to judge the beliefs, values, and practices of others through the lens of one’s own beliefs and values. Karen does not fail to understand Bruce’s truth; she fails to accept it. While it is not her intention to invalidate her husband’s feelings, that is exactly what she’s doing.

The key to harmony in their marriage is for Karen to stop projecting her view of herself unto others. While she may feel that her weight is unacceptable, she has allowed the voice of her inner critic to override the voice of compassion and love. I completely concur with Jackie that an awful lot of social factors contribute to this painfully common dynamic. I also know that Karen’s rejection of self makes it all but impossible for her to accept her husband’s appreciation, affection, and love.

We can say that Karen’s value of her weight is superficial, but I would rather take note of what else she took pride in as a size 4. Did Karen see herself as intelligent then? If so I would challenge her that her I.Q. did not drop as the number on her scale increased. In truth, Karen may well be less reliable than she was in the past, but likely only in the sense that her preoccupation renders her emotionally unavailable to her husband.

Two challenges for Karen:

  • Do a bit of writing. Sit down, stretch your imagination and try to see yourself through your husband’s eyes. Does he love the mother you are? Does he appreciate your body for the care it gave/gives to your three children? Is it possible that treating yourself as he does would make your goals more attainable?
  • Look in a mirror, but do not look at your body. Instead, look only into your own eyes. Tell me what you see there? Do you see a woman who is tired? Is she tired of fighting with herself? Does she need to incorporate the encouragement and support of those who believe in her? Will you allow that?

Jackie:

Jim’s challenges are the missing piece for Karen. She could go farther and farther down the road of self-flagellation because she thinks losing weight is going to fix everything. She doesn’t give herself a chance to make progress. She thinks anything less than 100% adherence to her diet is proof that everything negative she believes about herself is true. She was looking for accountability for the wrong things.

Karen needs to listen to the people whose opinion of her matters. Most of all she needs to love herself and her body enough to stop dieting to pay for her imagined sins. She needs to eat well to give her body the care it deserves and reinforce her positive self-beliefs in an environment of group support.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.