It was awkward, trying to avoid someone who was always around. That’s what life feels like when you don’t like what you see in the mirror. I didn’t know how to like what I saw in the mirror, so I did my best to avoid them.
Where you go, there also goes with you your reflection, along with it a thousand tiny reminders of all of your shortcomings. When you don’t like what you see in the mirror it doesn’t matter what other people think of you or tell you about how you look, the face of disappointment that stares back at you feels like it will never change.
Not liking what you see in the mirror feels like a shameful secret. You carry it around with you, hiding your insecurity from the world, feeling guilty about your own vanity, and anxiously avoiding any run-ins with your own reflection.
And they are everywhere.
Unless you have struggled with body dsymorphia, or not liking what you see in the mirror, then you might not have ever noticed, but mirrors are everywhere. Homes, offices, hallways, elevators, schools, bathrooms, malls, cars, windows, puddles, lakes, screen reflections, and more, making avoiding seeing yourself is nearly impossible.
I spent a few years washing my hands sideways. I didn’t want to see myself. I stood to the side of the sink and extending my hands from a position that gave me safety from the mirror. It was awkward, especially in a public bathroom where others could see me, but saving myself from the anxiety of seeing myself was worth it.
There is no predictor to designate those who struggle with body image or body dysmorphia and those who don’t. Body image issues don’t discriminate. The person unable to like themselves in the mirror might be overweight, underweight or the perfect weight. They might be outgoing, introverted, young or old. They are male, and female, and all ethnicities. They are me, they are you, they are someone you love.
On the outside I looked like the all-American girl from next door. Blonde hair, blue eyes, fit, smart and nice. I was a full-scholarship Division I athlete and competed at a world championship level. I was pretty and without any major physical malformations. I had boyfriends and lots of friends.
I found it hard to like what I saw in the mirror.
When I looked in the mirror I felt more than disappointed. I felt shame. I was embarrassed about how many imperfections I had. I started mistrusting the people close to me who said they loved me and that they thought I was beautiful. I convinced myself they were lying.
Mirrors became monsters to me.
The monsters were mean. They ate my confidence. They gouged my self-worth. They scared me into hiding from the world, and from myself. And worse than anything, they made me feel alone. I knew no one else could see what I saw, in the same way a little kid knows that no one can see the invisible monster hiding under their bed. You want people to know about your struggle, but you don’t want them to think you’re crazy, so you stay silent.
As an adult, I speckled my house with small mirrors. No full length ones, of course, as those monsters just give me flashbacks to poorly lit changing rooms and disappointment. I can taste the inadequacy that poured over me just thinking about those mirrors. Shopping excursions typically ended with me feeling drained, depressed and ready to eat my feelings until I felt numb and safe from my reflection. The more I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror, the more I ate to comfort myself, making what I saw in the mirror the next day even more unlikeable. I was constantly mad at myself and failing. And I had to keep it all secret.
A recovering perfectionist, I have been in recovery from my eating disorder for well over ten years, and thriving. But it wasn’t until my daughter was born, just over four years ago, that I knew I had some inner work to do on my relationship with mirrors.
It was the final piece of body confidence that I had swept under the carpet and it was time to do some deep cleaning.
Pretending mirrors didn’t exist wouldn’t work anymore. And I’m glad I was forced into change. In this process there are a few things I learned that helped me really like what I saw in the mirror. I’m not talking about tolerating my reflection. I’m talking about actually liking what I see, on good days and on bad days. I’ve learned to like my face, with and without makeup. I am kind towards my body, both on days when I am lean, and on days I am bloated. I even like my hair, whether it’s in a mom bun, is perfectly curled and on point, or hasn’t been brushed in two days.
I see a reflection of me. I see a friend. I see beauty I was blind to before.
And more than anything, I am convinced that if I can learn how to like what I see in the mirror, so can anyone else. Here are some ways to start the process: (and may I remind you, that no breakthroughs happen overnight, these suggestions take time and intentional work, but they work if you stay the course and refuse to give up … I mean, those monsters are following you no matter what, so you might as well find a way to take the power back into your own hands, right?)
Here are 4 ways to learn how to like what you see in the mirror. Please consider this a starting point; it not exhaustive, but rather a way to start the journey with me cheering you on.
Make mirrors fun again.
As children we are fascinated by our reflections. They are fun. They don’t hold any power other than play. We see our brilliance. They are invitations to unleash our emotions, through silliness, wiggles and funny faces.
Walking hand-in-hand with my toddler son, we often move at a slow pace wherever we are going. My four-year-old daughter loves this and dashes ahead, down the sidewalk to find glass doors to dance with herself while we catch up. Whatever unsuspecting shop she lands upon gets a two-minute wiggle dance, or fashion show, depending upon her humor that day, as she absolutely delights in her reflection. She is friends with herself, and it inspires me.
Instead of putting pressure on yourself to look a certain way in the mirror, give yourself permission to be goofy. Be like a child again, as if you were at a mirror funhouse, with distorted mirrors. Let go. Clear your mind from judgment. Jump up and down. Wiggle all around. Stick your tongue out. Laugh. Literally play with your reflection. Another, less mirror-intensive way to do this is to play with your shadow outside. Run from it, chase it, wiggle it, make it short and change positions to make it tall again.
Both of these exercises are neutral ways to release the pressure you’re putting on yourself to look a certain way. They will show you that your reflection is always changing and by no means should ever be taken as a constant assessment of measurement for your worth.
Learning how to like what you see in the mirror starts with remembering that mirrors are incapable of capturing the real you, they are just representations of you, sometimes accurate, sometimes not, much like your shadow.
Look at the full you, not the chopped up you.
One obvious mistake I used to get entrapped by was only looking at parts of myself, instead of my full self. This is a natural by-product of a critical mind. It happens when we look in a mirror, or when we look at ourselves in a photo. Our eye is drawn to the part of our body we are most critical of, assessing and evaluating it. What we decide about how that part looks ultimately dictates how we feel about ourselves that day.
For me, I looked immediately at my stomach, and my shoulders. My stomach was never as tight and lean as I wanted. The space between my armpits and my breasts horrified me, because it never looked like the images I saw on TV or in magazines of beautiful women. And because I did not look like the women I admired, I did not think I was beautiful. My reflection was a constant reminder of my unworthiness. The width of my shoulders disappointed me. I would dissect and spew hateful words about any extra skin or body fat around these areas.
I had no idea I was doing this to myself. I didn’t realize that I was perpetuating self-hate and negativity. I simply didn’t know there was any other way to look in a mirror than the way I did.
But then things changed for me when I started personal training at a gym. Gyms have large, full-length mirrors everywhere. There’s simply no avoiding them. I needed the job, and it paid well, so I pushed through my discomfort. At first I turned my head or hyper-focused on my clients when training them in front of mirrors, unwilling to catch glimpses of myself. After a few weeks of seeing my full body throughout the day though, I realized that I didn’t need to carry as much shame as I did. I got used to seeing myself and started to see myself with a kind of familiarity.
At the time, I didn’t have full-length mirrors in my house, a decorating decision I now regret. Only having small mirrors in my house perpetuated my fear of seeing myself. More than that, it prevented me from being able to see myself as my full self. You are much more capable of looking at and seeing your full self if you are looking at a full mirror, not a chopped up one.
Recently I said no more. I decided that I needed to take more action in healing my relationship with the mirror, and that action meant a shopping spree.The thought of shopping for mirrors would have previously made me anxious, but with the power of authority removed from the mirror, it was fun.
I bundeled up my daughter and took her in the Jeep on an excursion to Home Goods. It was important to me to pick out a mirror in person, rather than online, so that I could include her in the process. My intention was to create a positive opportunity to talk about mirrors, reflections and how amazingly God crafted us. We walked the aisle of mirrors and laughed at how some mirrors made us look different than others, and how the angles and lighting mattered. She danced a lot. We giggled like little girls and talked about how fun it is to look at ourselves. After only a few minutes we found the perfect set– a six-foot full sized mirror with faded white wooden latticework and an accompanying three-foot mirror to match.
Now in the mornings, I stand in front of my mirror, and Ellie in front of hers, and we speak kind words to our reflections. And every chance I get I make sure to tell her that though she is surely beautiful in the mirror, that the way she looks from my eyes, in real life, is one thousand times more beautiful than a mirror could ever capture. It is true for her. It is true for me. It is true for you.
Lighting and angles are everything.
Changing rooms. Just the thought of them used to make me want to skip meals and do an extra workout. I can still feel myself pulling at my body from the inside out, hoping to change my size or shape enough to measure “worthy” enough in whatever random mirror I was about to measure myself. I turned down uncountable shopping days with the girls to minimize my mirror anxiety and to simply avoid having to be uncomfortably and publicly assessed as unworthy in the all-judging mirror.
Let’s call it what it is. The biggest gap in the fashion industry are the changing rooms that are in stores. There are certainly a few exceptions to this, but as a whole, the mirrors and the lighting in store changing rooms are bad. And not just bad, awful. The mirrors are bloated, the lighting is harsh. It’s a knock to one’s pride to try on clothes, even on days you are feeling confident in your skin.
So, free yourself.
Don’t go into a changing room with the hope for good lighting. If you know what you’re getting into before you go in, you’ll stop putting your worth in what you see when you get there.
You know the lighting will be bad. So don’t think that that’s how you really look.
You know the angle will be bad, and the mirror itself is cheap. So don’t let yourself be mean to yourself what you think you see reflected back at you.
You know that you probably just drank a coffee or had lunch. So don’t focus on your stomach and beat yourself up for looking bloated. It’s normal for your stomach to change throughout the day.
I started to have less anxiety around changing rooms with the above tenants. I clung to them like life-saving truth, but it felt like I was lying to myself. Eventually I decided that I would rather lie to myself than stay stuck feeling awful about myself, so I kept with it.
Another way to learn how to like yourself in the mirror is to blur your eyes when you are looking in the mirror. Blurring what you see teaches you to look at things differently and forces you to see yourself as whole instead of picking yourself apart for pieces of your body. Blurring helps us not go immediately to a place of criticism. I learned how to like what I saw in the mirror by blurring my eyes, and seeing myself as a passerby in the street might see me. Over time, and with practice, I started seeing myself as a whole, and not as a captive sentenced to unworthiness by bad lighting or a bad angle.
Finally, though inconvenient, trying things on at home, in a mirror I knew I liked, also helped. Do know though, that if you choose this option, you’re agreeing to the inconvenience of having to return things. You can also use your phone camera to better assess how you look if you find yourself surrounded by bad mirrors. Taking a quick selfie will give you a more familiar sense of yourself and of how what you are trying on looks without the distortion or anxiety that comes with changing room mirrors.
Speak life to yourself as you would a friend.
I used to pride myself on how “nice” I was to everyone. Being “nice” earned me people’s approval, people’s trust, and peoples’ friendship. I loved being accepted and building others up.
But I had two personalities. I led a double life.
On the outside, I spoke words of life to others. On the inside, to the person with whom I had the most conversation with, I was a bully. Saying that I was “mean” is an understatement. The things I said to myself, on repeat, were beyond mean, they were cruel.
Our words, both to ourselves and to others, either give life or give death. They either build us up or break us down.
If anyone could hear the relationship I had with myself, it would have been called abusive. To talk to or treat anyone else the way I treated myself was abuse. And yet, I didn’t see that I was abusing myself or verbally abusive – I thought I simply had “high standards” for myself and that I was “perfectionist” so it was all okay.
The thing is, what we speak to ourselves is what we experience. If we speak toxic words, self-bullying accusations and words of shame, we will live those out. If we encourage ourselves as we would a friend, we start to see ourselves positively, as we really are.
Start speaking to yourself, and to your reflection, in the way you would speak to a friend. It doesn’t have to be overly enthusiastic or rainbows-and-sunshine-positive, but it does have to be kind. Kindness will open the gateways of personal growth and self-acceptance.
I used kindness, often delivered in neutral statements I said to myself, to help me start seeing myself as someone worthy of kindness. It felt awkward and weird at first, but the more I practiced it, the more natural it became. Now, when I look in the mirror I see myself through the lens of my heart.
When I see things I would have previously beat myself up over, I turn them into a compassionate statement or a moment of gratitude for self-kindness to come. For example, if I look bloated, I tell my body “thank you” for the reminding me that I need to drink more water and to pay more attention to my sodium intake. If my hair is a wreck, I say “thank you” to my body for being a girl and for the gift of ponytails and headbands to hide the unwashed mess. I then make plans that night to prioritize a long shower. If my eyes are swollen and all I can see are the wrinkles on my forehead, I say “thank you” to my body for having “laugh lines” and for sleepless nights that come from getting to be a mom.
In summary, if you want to learn how to like what you see in the mirror, start by giving yourself permission to see yourself as accepted, loved and worthy. Take ownership that you are responsible for seeing yourself with kind eyes, not critical eyes. Believe that God, who is perfect and all-powerful, choose to create you, exactly you, as you are. He does not make mistakes, and how you look is not a mistake.
The mirror, when given too much power, is much like an abusive lover. It will sometimes give you affirmation, and at other times crush your spirit and entire self-worth. I wasted years of my life looking at my own reflection, hoping it would one day give me that acceptance I was craving. The thing is, affirmation and acceptance can’t come from without us unless it first comes from within. I was looking in the wrong place, and it cost me years of happiness.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. It happens with lots of repetition. For me, hundreds of repetitions. Thousands of times where I controlled my thoughts in front of my own reflection, even though my mind wanted to go back to the old critical thoughts that pop up from default mode. Deliberate thinking helped me break the damaged default mode. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. I now like what I see in the mirror. I like taking pictures. I am comfortable on camera and do live video as a central part of my coaching business. I am raising two children to be confident in who they were created to be and I am embracing the wrinkles, sagging and changes that come with aging as beautiful.
The peace I now feel is only possible because I believed in change. I prayed that God would help me see myself through His eyes, and not my broken eyes. I knew that if God made me to be me, then I would need to learn to like being me, and seeing me; I needed to learn to see myself how He sees me. I am the least likely candidate to find freedom from body dysmorphia and from not liking what I see in the mirror. If the least likely candidate can be transformed, so can you.
Cheering you on,
PS: Want more resources to help you see yourself as God sees you? Want to continue growing more confident in the skin you’re in and want to learn how to find freedom from negative body image? Want to stop being stuck in perfectionism and self-bullying? Here are a few places you can start:
How to Let God Transform Your Confidence (Podcast episode)
God Says You’re Wonderful: How to Believe It (Podcast episode)
An Unexpectedly Simply Solution to Better Body Confidence (Podcast episode)
How to Stop Believing That You Don’t Belong (Blog post)
Self-Confidence Secrets Every Girl Should Know (Blog post)
Why Emotional Eating Happens and How to Stop It (Blog post)
Coach with me in my online group membership, The College of Confidence