In one of my favourite movies, at the start of the movie, our hero is with his lover, who after a whole day’s romancing and after the inevitable outcome of all that, as they hang around in bed together, asks, “Do you know what you could do to improve?” Our hero, still flush from his exertions, smiles indulgently and asks, “What do you think I should improve?” expecting some sweet romantic nothing. “Your obliques. Right now, you are flabby. You really should work on it.”
They split up soon enough, and as movies go, our hero meets another person and again a whole lot of romance later, the scene repeats itself. This time when the question comes, our hero warily asks, “What?” to hear this time, “Nothing at all. You are perfect as you are!” At the movie hall, a collective “Aww” went up, leaving everyone feeling warm and mushy.
That’s the movies for us. In real life, often it can be quite another story. When someone tells us we are perfect as we are, we often think they don’t know what they are talking about. They are blinded in love, or are saying sweet lies just to get you hooked. Or worse, that they are really undermining you - this person actually wants you to be unattractive to others and therefore is saying you are already perfect, so that you don’t work on yourself, don’t get better and they get to keep you forever.
We are often unable to take a real loving compliment because we just don’t love ourselves enough. We see our imperfections a lot more and so we can’t accept it when someone loves us enough as we are and are brave enough to say that we are actually quite ok.
It isn’t our fault, really. For the most part of our lives we are told to aspire to higher and higher standards of looks, fitness, academics, employment, art and every other aspect of human life. We are not just told that, we are actively told that we will be lovable only when we attain and maintain those standards. Like in the movie I am talking about - if the first lover’s words hit our hero hard, he might not be able to take the second lover’s overtures, and instead of pulling into a grateful, loving embrace, he might quickly say bye and hit the gym, wondering if those obliques he had built up had thawed back into gentle love handles.
We want our lover to be a source of motivation, of strength and support in “becoming the best version of me,” and yet, we also hold the entirely opposite of “I want to be loved as I am.”
Which is it? On the face of it, they seem such opposite things.What if the answer is something different: Can we love ourselves as imperfect, striving people? Can we then allow ourselves to be loved by imperfect people as imperfect people, all striving together?
Perhaps, that is what is really love.
( As written for The New Indian Express)
At the first instance, Cutting and self-harm may not necessarily mean the person is suicidal, though of course, it cannot be ruled out off-hand. Current thinking reflects that cutting behaviour, might be a way of expressing deep emotional pain that they don't have the full capacity to express, explore and process.
Usually, cutting is a secretive, and often obsessive behaviour that is in private. To know if a child might be cutting, look out for changes:: changes in clothing with a preference for full-sleeved shirts, increase in bathroom breaks, avoiding preferred activities and usual social groups or adopting small cliques that stay aloof from others.
When as an adult you come across a teenage person cutting herself, the first thing is to know that this could be serious, and to alert the immediate family for possible counselling and mental health intervention. You can let the teenager know that you have become aware of this behaviour, your concern and your availability to discuss things if they want to, but please do not insist that they disclose. You can help by remaining calm and patient, much more than becoming anxious or panicking.
What you may not want to do:
1. Don't make a hue and cry about it. Don't publicize it or make it a public knowledge. Certainly keep it confidential from other students and peers.
2. Don't demand that the child stop the practice, or threaten with adverse consequences
3. Don't probe, and don't assume highly traumatic events. Don't ask for any details on possible family issues, especially if you know of any dysfunction
4. Don't lecture them on how they should cope with life challenges, what is good for them or how they need to grow up
5. Don't make them feel guilty or shamed. Do not tell them they are hurting you, their family or school by this behaviour
At the same time, this is difficult for an adult to witness and feel helpless. Please don't make it your mission to change things, and if the child is not willing to discuss with you, please don't take it as a personal disappointment or get frustrated.
Even if the child doesn't want to discuss with you, you can still help by:
1. Keeping a watchful eye over the child, reducing alone time of the child
2. Helping the child engage with other activities (without making a project of it)
3. Staying open and available when the child chooses to try and express
4. Keeping the environment as predictable and friendly as possible
What to do when the child starts to talk about it:
When the child does begin to express, you can help by asking simple questions to try and understand. Gently look to help them find other resources for themselves, and to identify positive qualities about life and themselves. Try and maintain a non-judgmental attitude, and try to take an attitude that nothing is too shocking for you.
You need not agree with them or feel the same way, but you can express that you understand how difficult it might be for them. A key benchmark is to see that the child is speaking much more than you. Even if the child is not talking, just being with them in comfortable silence can be great for the child.
Please do not try and please the child so that she doesn't cut herself, as that might lead to manipulative behaviour.
Is this the 'in' thing?
Many children do pick up such behaviour from each other, popular fiction and the internet. Sometimes, they tend to form small groups which sustain each other, and that can have adverse effects on recovery as the support they got from each other when they needed it might be hard to give up.
Look out if small cliques are getting formed with other similar people, and gently reduce grouping possibilities - not by policing them, but by increasing attractive options outside such group.
Be discrete and take help when needed:
Above all, your discretion, watchfulness, patience and availability matter. Please do consult a mental health consultant, or a psychiatrist when needed. They will work with the children and as the children learn more effective communication and coping tools, self-harming behaviour does tend to go away.
Take a minute sometime to observe any infant: No matter what they look like, they are surprised and delighted at their bodies. They coo and gurgle at discovering their toes, finding they can hold, and are constantly engaged with their own body.
What happens to that joyful, positive curiosity about our bodies when we grow?
The answer is that we learn to NOT be body positive. Every day, we are bombarded with images of perfect bodies, smiles, hair and smells in a million marketing commercials, showing those ‘perfect’ people succeeding while in the background ordinary people look on in envy.
Is it really true? Do better looks and six-pack abs actually guarantee you success? Well, there is no concrete proof of that, and in fact, the opposite has been shown to be true: If you don’t feel good about your body as it is, you are likely to be less happier.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying one should not exercise or be well put-together. I am saying you can be fit, healthy and smart no matter what your body is like – no matter your skin colour, hair volume, body type etc.
How to know if you are body positive?
Look at yourself in the mirror:
1. Notice 5 things you really like about your body
2. Notice 5 things you really dislike about your body
If 2 was easier, you have probably taken to heart many of the hurtful messages from the media, society or even in what you tell yourself, and it is time to come back to being body positive.
How to get back to being body positive?
Here are 5 basic things you can practice:
1. Stop commenting on others’ bodies. Assume that everyone knows their body and love how it is
2. Don’t assume anything by how one looks. Fat people aren’t necessarily lazy. Fair skinned people need not be fair in their dealings with others.
3. If someone comments on your body, just accept it. “You have become dark” is only a bad thing, if you let it be
4. Reject the media’s portrayal. Remember: The dark, very hairy & moustached Anil Kapoor was the hottest actor some 20 years ago!
5. And above all: Love your body. Be grateful for it
Enjoy what your body allows you to do. Treat your body with kindness & gentleness like you’d treat a good friend!
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.