Body image is the perception one has about one’s body, and the negative or positive thoughts and feelings derived from this perception. Learning to love myself holistically, with a focus on body confidence, has had a constructive impact on my client work. Turning my attention to my body issues, and being kind to my body, have increased my bodily awareness, which, in turn, has enabled me to notice more non-verbal cues from clients, and increased my empathy for their body issues. My feeling is that there’s a need for counsellors to apply the humanistic values of unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence,1 not only to our emotional selves, but also to our attitudes towards our bodies.

Through my research of the literature on body image and confidence, I found very little material specifically about a counsellor’s body confidence impacting on client work. Robert Shaw notes: ‘When it is written about, it is predominantly the client’s body that becomes the focus of attention; the therapist’s body is marginalised or seen as merely a receptacle for transferential phenomena…’2 These remain examples of counsellors responding to clients’ bodies, not being aware of their own body issues as such.

My relationship with my body

I grew up feeling at ease with my body to interact with and explore the world. My mother’s side of the family all have an athletic and slender physique, and I’ve always needed to eat well in order not to lose weight. However, if I do lose weight through illness or stress, it shows easily, since I already have a light frame. I don’t starve myself – I eat when I want to, when I’m hungry. I’m healthy and strong, and nourish my body as well as I can. I notice that I’m resistant to explaining myself in this way, because I have done it so often in my life, but I realise it’s relevant to my story. 

My poor body image started during a period of depression in late adolescence. I lost weight through anxiety and sadness, and felt criticised by others for this. The messages I absorbed from others during this time were: ‘There’s something wrong with you’; ‘You need to look differently to how you do now’; ‘You look unwell’; ‘You’re not trying hard enough to look good.’ I agreed with them: I was unhealthily thin, but the comments made me feel inferior, and that my body was unsightly and wrong. Since I experienced these feelings during a time at which I was already low in mood, I learned to associate a slim body shape with feeling trapped and unacceptable.

Feeling judged by others for my body affected my self-esteem and made me paranoid about what people thought about my body and therefore my mental state. I internalised these negative messages and they developed into a harsh inner critic that became automatic in response to feelings about my body. I was secretly angry, but felt I couldn’t share my internal world with anyone at the time. I felt too exposed and needed to feel some sense of control in my life. I hid my internal reality and became severed from any authentic feeling.

I came to understand that something needed to change in my attitude towards my body. Through therapy, I realised how quickly my thoughts about my body can become negative. My counsellor mentioned the concept of ‘body shaming’, which I wasn’t familiar with. Body shaming happens when someone is criticised and made to feel bad about their appearance, despite the fact that it’s unrealistic to accept only one type of body. In fact, one of the exciting things about being human is that we all have a different appearance. Body shaming, during those difficult years, damaged my ability to take pleasure in my body shape. I felt that I couldn’t be proud of the body type I’ve inherited, and, on a deeper level, I became disconnected from my female ancestral lineage.

It was empowering for me to realise that no one had the right to say that I was too thin. That commenting negatively on someone’s appearance is ignorant, poisonous and disrespectful. It’s not kind to tell someone that they’re sickeningly slim, or that they’re not a real woman because ‘real women have curves’. Even if the comments weren’t intended to be malicious, they were still insulting. Anyone can experience body image issues, regardless of their body size.

Rather than feel ashamed, am I not allowed to celebrate my body for its receptiveness, resilience and vibrancy? I’ve gradually become more in touch with my anger about this and it has felt healing. I can finally externalise some of my intense inner shame. On this exploration of my body image issues I’ve sometimes been conflicted: I need to work on loving my body, and yet I resent realising how much energy I’ve put into being so preoccupied with negative thoughts about it, and how much it’s affected my confidence.

Nowadays, I’m at a healthy weight and my mental health has improved, but I’m still slim in shape, and still find it challenging if people comment on my size, albeit innocently. I’ve been learning to gently undo what used to be automatic negative thoughts and feelings about my body, which still return when I’m feeling anxious or insecure. I’ve learned that my body’s shape is fairly consistent, and I don’t want to be ashamed of this shape anymore. I’ve realised I can’t please everyone, and that the person I most need to please is myself – this starts with changing my own attitude towards my body, which, in turn, helps me to deflect negative thoughts, whether they be caused by external or internal influences. 

Caring for my body

A number of things have helped me to increase my body confidence:

  • learning and practising mindfulness
  • appreciating all my senses and being grateful for what my body can do
  • listening to and playing music
  • being in nature
  • activities that help me fully enjoy sensations in my body (eg dancing, having a massage, having a bath)
  • getting in touch with difficult emotions stored in my body (eg tension in my chest/heart area, apprehension in my stomach, anger in my head and throat)
  • listening to my body’s needs (eg if I’m tired, I need to rest; if I need to cry, I cry; if I need to stretch, I stretch)
  • letting go of holding on to ‘head stuff’ (eg remembering everything I read; verbalising everything)
  • learning to trust my intuition and my body’s powerful wisdom, to feel things in my body and let those feelings sediment before taking action.

Giving myself time, care and consideration is going to be a continuous process, for my own wellbeing, and to be as fully present as I can with clients. In client work, as in wider life, when something feels consistently ominous or perplexing, I trust that I will listen to myself and try to be as congruent as I can be in my response to it. I now allow myself to experience emotions through my body; for example, screaming or crying with rage. I feel the emotion in my body before I can make sense of it intellectually, and I trust that when my chest feels like it’s about to implode, feeling crushed, my body’s telling me that I’m feeling defeated and afraid; and, conversely, when it expands, my heart is grieving. If my shoulders feel tight, I know that I’m apprehensive or livid.

I want to feel safe and comfortable within my body, in a way that inwardly, as well as outwardly, feels confident and pleasurable. In simple terms, if I can just love it, it will undoubtedly love me back, and I can be integrated as a whole being, accepting of my body. I’m more able to counter my inner critic with reassuring and kind thoughts about my body, knowing how vital this is for my overall wellbeing. I also feel the importance of self-protection when it comes to other people’s comments about my body. I’ve realised I can make a choice about whether to internalise their comments or not; whether they’re coming from a place of criticism or consideration. It’s a work in progress, but my sense of integration between my body and mind, and the love I have for my body, feel stronger with each day that passes.

Clients’ bodies

Some beliefs we have about ourselves are not verbal, and part of a counsellor’s task is to bring a client’s belief systems into a more malleable form in order to understand them. Many of the clients I’ve worked with have felt victimised by their bodies. They haven’t learned to listen to what their body was telling them. I’ve seen this in sexual trauma, where often people detach themselves from their body as the site of traumatic events, and deny or delay their body’s needs. Often their body is simply trying to heal and clamours for attention to parts that have been neglected or harshly used.

We live in an image-obsessed culture, in which people are spending increasing amounts of time and effort on their appearance, constantly comparing their bodies with others. Across societies, people yearn to change their bodies to attain the current standards of ‘perfection’. Inexorable marketing messages from the cosmetic and fashion industries encourage us to believe our bodies aren’t enough, that they must be changed to be acceptable, which leads to confusion and despair.

Clients with body issues aren’t vain; they’re struggling to feel acceptable in a harshly critical environment that fosters discontent with the body. With advances in technology and medicine, it’s become increasingly easy to modify our bodies. We think we can create new bodies rather than accept our natural shape. Some clients I’ve worked with believed that if they changed their size, their problems and conflicts would be solved, and they would feel better about life. They felt that their weight or shape was the main root of all their emotional issues. Some clients feel disappointed when they reach this ideal weight or shape and realise that some issues are more complicated than they thought. Societal pressure to conform to contemporary beauty standards robs our bodies of their due essence and value, and the sense that our body is undesirable causes pain.

It would be valuable for all counsellors to explore how they see their bodies, how much power they feel over their own self-care and body image, and how much their thoughts affect their bodies. This kind of exploration can help us all to feel more grounded and to empathise with clients’ issues with body image and help them to explore how they see their bodies, how much power they feel over their own self-care and body image, and how much their thoughts affect their bodies.

It can be revelatory for people to realise how they habitually address their bodies, and even reject parts of themselves. Is it not incongruent if a counsellor encourages a client to thank their body for the miraculous things it can do, to love it unconditionally, when the counsellor has their own harsh body critic and doesn’t listen to what their own body needs? It’s of utmost importance that counsellors learn to treat their bodies with respect and care. To create security externally, in our lives, but also for our clients, it’s necessary to first and foremost feel confident in our own bodies. If a counsellor doesn’t feel comfortable with the shape and size of their body, and is in conflict with parts or the whole of their body, then it will be difficult to create an environment for the client that’s based on self-respect and kindness.

Through learning to increase my body confidence, I have better body awareness, which in turn has been immensely helpful with picking up on elusive and unnamed bodily messages that my clients communicate non-verbally. Counsellors can experience bodily sensations that don’t feel owned by them, and that turn out to be an echo of the therapeutic relationship; a silent entreaty on the client’s part of an unmet physical need in their upbringing; a way for the client to communicate anguish and wanting to be understood on a bodily level; or a sensation that belongs to the client’s process.3

A counsellor’s body can be the recipient of hidden and unsaid client processes, and, in my opinion, it’s important for counsellors to work on being as contented with their own body as possible, in order to be able to receive these unspoken messages, and to model confidence and integration, in which every part of us can be re-acquainted, acknowledged and perhaps transformed. As John McLeod states, many themes in counselling work include the body, in direct and indirect ways, such as ‘sexuality… concerns about eating, digesting, defecating, being big or small, being attractive or ugly… fertility, being ill, dealing with the loss of functioning of parts of the body and the encounter with death’.4 For clients, these topics bring up questions around the denial or acceptance of their body.

Many people have a troubled and complex relationship with their body, and may hold distress or humiliation about their bodily needs – counsellors are not immune to these issues. Once we’re aware of our bodies and feel more at ease with them, we can feel more animated and focused in our client work, and flourish in our lives generally. If, on some level, a counsellor isn’t fully connected to their body, they are not completely present. As Peter Levine writes: ‘A meaningful life depends upon a sense of aliveness and presence, both of which spring from intimate contact with internal body states.’5 If we can communicate a sense of enjoyment of our own body, less hampered by social expectations and growing towards self-acceptance and self-compassion, we can perhaps inspire confidence in our clients about their own.

Alison Sharman is a humanistic and integrative counsellor who works for a charity specialising in counselling for survivors of sexual abuse and assault, in a school and in private practice. Her research interests include trauma, abuse and body issues. silverspringcounselling.co.uk

References

1. Rogers C. On becoming a person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London: Constable and Robinson; 2004.
2. Shaw R. The embodied psychotherapist: the therapist’s body story. Hove: Brunner-Routledge; 2003.
3. Orbach S. The impossibility of sex: stories of the intimate relationship between therapist and patient. New York: Scribner; 2000.
4. McLeod J. Qualitative research in counselling and psychotherapy. London: Sage; 2001.
5. Levine P. Healing trauma. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True Inc; 2008.