Watching a loved one struggle to love themselves can be like trying to solve a math equation that doesn’t quite add up.
While we may see someone who is smart, strong, compassionate, our friends and loved ones may be battling a negative self-image every day that we may not be completely aware of.
Watching a loved one struggle to love themselves can be like trying to solve a math equation that doesn’t quite add up. From the outside, this can be hard to understand, but that’s because self-image isn’t always logical, and it’s not always truthful, either.
When we hear friends speaking negatively about themselves, it’s not our role to become their therapist, but there are skills we can learn to be more supportive and understanding in our response.
Knowing the right way to respond, however, is a tricky thing.
Licensed psychologist Nicole Hawkins, who specializes in body image issues at Center For Change has some advice.
Even if the things our friends are saying about themselves don’t make sense to us, it’s important to note that these ideas are probably coming from a place deep below the surface.
DON’T: Join in.
If your friend says something like, “No one likes me,” or “I’m ugly,” the last thing you think you would probably do is agree with them. But when this kind of negative self-talk is disguised by humor, it’s a lot easier to join in on the joke and contribute to some of these harmful ideas.
DON’T: Shame them.
We should be careful not to shame our friends for the comments they make about themselves.
This can be especially relevant in the context of body image issues. The concept of body love is often brought up as a way of combatting weight stigma, but it can also induce shame for those who are struggling to make peace with their bodies. So instead of telling someone how they should feel about their bodies, you can simply offer space if they want to talk and reiterate that their worth isn’t defined by their body.
DO: Push gently.
Dr. Hawkins talks about the idea of helping to “challenge our friends” because improving your self-image takes dedicated work. That challenge could be directly related to negative self-talk, like challenging ourselves and our friend to say a couple gratitude statements each day. Or, we might encourage our friend to get out and be social, because negative internal self-image can affect the way someone interacts with the outside world.
While you may want to encourage them to get out of their head or into a new space, you also want to listen to their concerns about taking these next steps, as the last thing you want to do is shame them for either not going out or being social.
DO: Be a good model.
Instead of perpetuating the idea that negative self-talk is acceptable, we can work to lead by example. Even if we’re struggling with some aspects of our own self-image, talking about ourselves in healthy ways can have a positive impact on both ourselves and those around us.
“Part of saying a positive affirmation about our body [or ourselves] is by definition that we don’t necessarily believe it, but we want to,” Dr. Hawkins says.
DO: Have direct conversations.
Sometimes, we’re hesitant to bring something up for fear of being too intrusive, or getting too personal, but often, it’s helpful to talk to our friends about our concerns as long as it’s done in a thoughtful way.
Dr. Hawkins always tells her patients to look at the core people in their lives. “We need to be having direct conversations with them,” she says. Those conversations also include setting boundaries for the things that impact your own self-image too. If you notice that someone’s negative self-talk is weighing heavily on you or triggering negative thoughts for you, it’s okay to set those boundaries by asking someone to shift the conversation or being clear about how you’re being affected as well.