Ten years ago, if you’d come up to me and asked me what I thought about controlling people’s minds and manipulating their thoughts, I would have told you that sounds like a very bad thing that I would never agree to supporting. That’s oppressive. It would lead to some kind of frightening, dystopian future! Only horrible dictators and manipulative sociopaths would ever want to control what other people think!
And then I would have gone straight to the gym to workout for no other reason than to try to control my body as an attempt to control what other people thought about me.
In practice, controlling thoughts about me was something I was passionately devoted to in every way imaginable throughout my life. So much of practicing OCD and practicing anxiety disorders was about trying to control what I thought others would think about me. So when it came to body image, in some ways, I didn’t have one. I only had an image of what I thought you thought about my body. And what I thought you thought were all thoughts I didn’t like. So I developed a multitude of life-consuming compulsions to control the thoughts I thought you were thinking.
We’re consistently fed messages that we should control what other people think: Wear clothes that make people think you’re sexy. Get a beach body so people think you’re attractive. Buy expensive creams so people will think you look younger.
A big part of recovery has been learning that trying to control what other people think is a compulsion that only leads to more anxiety and more uncertainty and more compulsions. That really shouldn’t be so surprising. Consider all of the work a totalitarian state has to do in order to control what its citizens think. That’s the level of work you commit to when you want to control what other people think about your body. It’s a commitment to constant paranoia and restriction and fixing failures because, of course, it’s impossible to control what other people think. Choosing to control what other people think about you is choosing anxiety and constant failure.
So when it came to body image, in some ways, I didn’t have one. I only had an image of what I thought you thought about my body. And what I thought you thought were all thoughts I didn’t like. So I developed a multitude of life-consuming compulsions to control the thoughts I thought you were thinking.
When I talk about not trying to control what other people think about how you look, people often say something like: “But if you don’t care about what other people think about how you look, you’ll just be messy, not shower, not shave, not iron your clothes, etc.” At first, that might seem like what would happen, especially if you’ve spent years focused only on taking care of yourself as a reaction to what others think. Because you’ve probably noticed that when you don’t have to see people or you don’t do things that you’d label as important, you don’t take care of yourself. That’s definitely how I was and that also extended to how I would take care of my home–I’ve shared about this in a previous article, “Messy people have OCD, too.” But not taking care of myself was still about other people.
A big component of recovery has been learning to take care of myself for myself. You’ll find that when you start to care for yourself in a way that’s about appreciating yourself and expressing gratitude to yourself, you’ll take care of yourself much more. It becomes easier and takes up less time. It becomes focused on expressing yourself instead of trying to be somebody else. It becomes an enjoyable experience instead of an anxiety-riddled attempt to control the universe and everybody in it.
Every time you look in the mirror, you can choose to be yourself and care for yourself, or you can choose to try to control yourself and other people. One choice involves significantly more work and misery than the other.
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