when your life doesn't look like an ad

I had what I call an"ugly phase" this past February. I was due to give birth to my daughter. You're probably thinking it was pregnancy that caused this ugly period, but actually, that wasn't it. Other than a ginormous (my husband's word) belly (which is one of those things you sort of expect when you're expecting), my body seemed relatively intact. Here is what happened.

I was home all day, working very little, alternating between resting and slowly checking nesting items off of my to-do list. I would literally complete one simple task (start a load of laundry) and have to sit down for a few minutes to recover (see belly description above). And (here's the key), I had the TV on for hours a day. The line up started with the Today Show and ended with Dr. Oz in the afternoon. So as I walked around the house and sat for short spells, I caught snippets of segments and...plenty of ads.

Unaware of what provoked my thinking at the time, I noticed myself going to my shopping lists and adding beauty and health care items like eye cream (I wasn't sure what to use but felt certain I needed something) and supplements.

I felt uglier after watching all of this TV. And don't get me started on the makeover my house needed.

Society via the media has expectations not only about how we look, but everything about us: how much money we need, how to spend it, how to decorate our houses, what activities to choose for our kids, what food to eat, how to spend our time...

According to research by James R. Mahalik, Ph.D. at Boston College, society’s top expectations for women are to be: nice, thin, modest, and use all available resources on appearance. To conform to norms, men need to: be in emotional control, put work first, pursue status, and be violent.

These expectations wear us down and set us up for believing we are not enough as we are, that we are the only ones who don't have it all together. They get in the way of our self-confidence. When we believe these expectations are the "norm," they trigger shame.

According to Brene Brown, Ph.D., shame is "the intensely painful feeling or experience that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." It drives us to work hard to keep everything just right on the outside so we will fit in and people will like us. And we all experience it.

Dr. Brown offers an antidote to shame: critical awareness. Think of it as a coaching tool to apply to all of those "have to" and  "should" thoughts. Here's how you do it.

Notice what triggers shame for you. Including "appearance and body image" (an "almost universal" shame trigger), Dr. Brown has identified 12 categories in which women, in particular, struggle with feelings about themselves:  motherhood, family, parenting, money & work, mental & physical health, sex, aging, religion, being stereotyped & labeled, speaking out & surviving trauma.

Reality-check your expectations (those "should" thoughts) in your trigger categories by questioning them.  Dr. Brown lists different sets of questions in her two books, I Thought It Was Just Me and The Gifts of Imperfection. I combined and adapted her questions:

  • How realistic are my expectations, especially considering my life circumstances? Is what I am seeing in the media (magazines, TV, movies, Facebook, photos, music) showing real life or fantasy?
  • Can I be all of these things all of the time?
  • Do the expectations conflict or compete with each other? Can they really exist together?
  • Do these expectations reflect who I want to be (what matters to me) or what others want me to be?
  • How do I try to manage other people's perceptions of me?
How realistic is it for you to lose 60 pounds as quickly as Beyonce did (unless you have nannies, personal trainers, chefs...)?  Can you really simultaneously have small children and pets running around a house that looks like a Pottery Barn catalog? Or work full time and care for your teenagers & aging parents? For a man who has been laid off, how is he supposed to look invulnerable, put  his non-existent job first, and climb the ranks?
We think we should look confident, but how can we feel confident when we internalize expectations that are unrealistic, competing, and of little or no value to us?
And don't forget that it's all supposed to look easy, even if it wears you out on the inside.
I remember Oprah stating at one point, that she decided not to have children because she couldn't be the parent she wanted to be and career woman she was .  She must have realized that she couldn't be both at the same time.
I know critical awareness has helped me feel more compassion toward myself when I am caught up the unrealistic, competing expectations - when I think I should have been able to cook a healthy, homemade dinner, sweep the dog hair from the floor, and paint my toenails (Who am I kidding? That doesn't even make the list these days!) after addressing the higher priorities. I hope you see right through your "shoulds" too.

For more about what gets in the way of confidence and how to let it go, join The Confidence Course. Starts June 12!