How to Change Your Mind
My psychological issues run the gamut. I have generalized anxiety, generalized depression, social anxiety, abandonment issues, and mild body dysmorphic disorder.
I’m like this because of years of bullying and abuse, not to mention, you know, my brain.
Doing basic aspects of life, such as grocery shopping, requires extra steps or effort. I don’t like engaging with strangers. I don’t like looking at myself in the mirror. I don’t like driving in stressful situations.
Recently, though, I’ve started taking an antidepressant and doing a lot of work on my perception. Now, I don’t want to say I hypnotized myself, because that’s bogus.
Rather, I un-hypnotized myself.
Hypnotize Me, Baby
In cultural anthropology, psychology, and the interdisciplinary fields of inquiry between, several complementary concepts describe how we acquire and absorb new information and incorporate it into our model of self, as well as our model of the world.
Beginning with our first experience outside the womb, we’re constantly offered information about the way the world looks, what behaviors are expected or frowned upon, how language should be used, and other details that are ultra-cultural, but affect our perception. A prime example is gender socialization: boy babies and girl babies are offered different toys, spoken to in different ways, and dressed in different clothes. As they grow older, they’re told that “boys don’t cry” and “girls are sugar and spice and everything nice.”
Socialization doesn’t stop. You continue to perceive the world and conceptualize it, and yourself, according to an influx of highly biased information. Eventually, your brain will reject contradictory data, or shoehorn it into existing models. Which brings us to…
As scientists recently have shown, the brain’s neural network is akin to a computer network — or the other way around. Like any information system, it has structures to organize its data. Imagine your phone or laptop or whatever you’re reading Medium on. Its operating system supports apps, bundles of code that serve a specific purpose, while interfacing with one another. Your brain is similar. You have schemas for every aspect of your daily life — how you interact with people, which side of the road or walkway you orient toward, how you see yourself in the mirror.
I dislike the terms “broaden your perspective” or “open your mind,” because in truth, our minds are already pretty capable, and it’s a myth that we only use 10% of our brain and the other 90% would give us superpowers if only we could access it. I’m reluctant to use such a cheesy term, but to “maximize one’s potential” and “self-actualize” — in essence, to feel more content and balanced, one must engage in a process of “unlearning” their socialization and biases. This also, in my opinion, improves empathy and thus one’s capability as a citizen of the world.
Now, I am not suggesting that unlearning is a magical cure for mental illness. Hardly. I did plenty of self-work and still suffered for years, until I started taking this medication. It certainly helped that I improved my diet and exercising, but those things are not cures.
Why Positivity Culture is A Problem
Positivity culture is the set of books, sayings, bumper stickers, and bumper sticker sayings that encourage limitless…
However, unlearning is becoming, for me, a new possibility in the wake of treatment. It’s helping me shed some of my biased preconceptions and self-concepts.
I Feel Pretty, Oh So Pretty
Have you ever had a day where you just felt great and also felt like you looked really great? Your hair looks shiny and bouncy, your skin looks fresh, your muscles look toned, you just look — good.
For me, those days were few and far between. And plenty of people, even those that most observers would describe as “hot” or “beautiful,” experience days when they feel that everything is wrong with their physical appearance. Don’t be tempted to dismiss this as “superficiality.” Our conception of our external self is linked to that of our inner self — in fact, I’m going to dump the false dichotomy right now. It relies upon the unscientific concept of a soul, that our inner self is a larger, immortal entity locked into a mortal-coil shell. We’re not vampires, and it’s damaging to split our self-concepts that way. In fact, our self is generated by our brain, which is housed in our body. We are our bodies. Our bodies nourish us, carry us, are us. Why on Earth would anyone dismiss it as disposable or otherwise unimportant?
And yet we hear things like, “Beauty is skin deep,” and “inner beauty,” which contradict each other. We’re fed a constant stream of information about what beauty is or isn’t, while being told that we’re superficial if we care about how we look — all while being inextricably entrapped by our bodies everyday. These are the cultural aspects of body dysmorphic and eating disorders.
I won’t speak for those with eating disorders, because I do not have one, but I will say that for those with eating disorders whom I know personally, their self-talk and perceived problems did not match my perception of them. I met one young woman who struck me as particularly nice and lovely — and drop dead gorgeous. I was stunned when she started talking about her disorders that caused her to deprive herself of food, cut herself, bind her body to look thin, and otherwise harm herself. To me, she seemed extraordinarily beautiful. And I realized that my own bias was acting up: I couldn’t really empathize with her pain if I believed that pretty people were immune to suffering.
My own body dysmorphia has had flare-ups throughout the years. I hated most photos of myself and for many years had a compulsion to pick at my skin and nails. I dyed my hair countless times because it never looked right to me, then, due to stress and vitamin B12 deficiency, lost much of it. Because I constantly heard that women with short hair were undesirable and ugly, I felt a lot of shame for my hair issues. I also never felt like I was the right shape: I used to be quite skinny and made fun of it for it, and I hid my stick body in baggy clothes or used push-up pads. When I put on weight and suddenly felt like a pear, I started using shapers. Now that I’ve put on a lot of muscle as an aerialist, I feel bulky and disproportionate.
In time, I started to realize that how my brain perceived my reflection might be a little… off. People complimented my hair and skin on days when I felt ugliest. When I finally got professional photos done, I didn’t recognize myself. It occurred to me that, proper lighting and technique aside, I might not look the way my brain was telling me I looked. I started forcing myself to look, attempting to empty my mind as much as possible before looking, and comparing myself to the photos.
My self-perception actually changed. The image I produced in my brain came closer to reality — as objective as reality can be, anyway. Now, I feel pretty more days than I used to. Most importantly, I feel more secure and empowered in my body, not so much as if it’s an unimportant shell that I’m trapped in.
I’ve had my share of unpleasant encounters with strangers, and those experiences, along with my anxiety, make me nervous about interacting with people I don’t know. My schema about people in public told me that strangers might grope me, scream at me, or steal from me. Thus, I kept to myself, kept my eyes down, kept my ears plugged with earbuds.
Of course, some parts of the country have different norms for stranger interaction. In some places, it’s rude to not greet a stranger. In others, it’s intrusive to speak to someone who’s minding their own business. In many regions, it’s some combination thereof.
Recently, though, I started to get better about talking to strangers. I have always been good about chatting with cashiers, because I was one, and I know how much a friendly customer can brighten an otherwise shitty day. But I avoided fellow customers at all costs, and even people I knew if I didn’t feel like talking.
I questioned why I did this, because I felt lonely way too often. Like most people, I wanted human contact, so why deprive myself of friendly contact with people I’d likely never see again? Once I started overcoming my nerves and chatting with strangers, I felt a boost of confidence and contentment, like I’d cracked some great secret of the human experience.
Unlearning is hard. It involves taking risks, examining your own biases, and making a conscious effort to rewire your brain. But ultimately, unlearning some of socialization’s negative effects, such as limiting or toxic gender stereotypes, an aversion to one’s own body, or avoidance of human connection, might make you healthier and happier. And unlearning racist or sexist biases will certainly make you a better member of society.
Ask yourself: What makes you feel bad or uncomfortable on a daily basis, and what in your brain might be stirring up that feeling? Start there, and you can begin the process of unlearning.
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