I used to hate how I looked.
I used to walk into the bathroom, stare at myself in the mirror, and violently squeeze my belly fat. I'd say to myself, "You're such a fat piece of sh*t", as I stepped into my nightly shower.
Sad, right? 😢
My low confidence, low self-esteem, and body image issues originated when I was a kid.
As a kid, I used to cram 20 sit-ups just minutes before a swim day so it would look like I had abs. I was always the last person to take off my shirt because I didn't want anyone to see my stomach.
I've failed to work out consistently more times than I can count. I've tried to restrict my junk food like having "No Taco Bell April" and somehow, I found myself at the drive-through line at 11pm ordering a Crunch Wrap Supreme.
No matter what I did, I never had abs. Even when I was active and fit while playing sports in high school, I still believed I was fat and unlovable.
I'm in my mid-20s now and told my good friend this backstory. She literally put her hands on my dimples, looked me in the eyes, and said, "You are not fat. You look great."
I didn't believe her.
Above everything else, I knew this problem was more than just my physical body. It was my inner child. The perfectionist in me wants to be the best. My shame, insecurity, and lack of self-worth.
Over the past several years, I've worked to get rid of this evil self-talk by starting at the core. I went to therapy for the first time in my life. I initiated many vulnerable conversations with trusted friends and mentors. I read and reread The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown.
Because the most effective way to have a body you love won't always come from having a trendy diet and the perfect workout plan.
It might just be the battle against yourself.
Therapy for Low Self Esteem and Self-Love
I walked into my first therapy session on November 19, 2019.
My therapist specialized in body image and self-worth issues, mostly for women. But I thought this problem was universal and the lessons would probably apply.
We feel each other out for the first half of the session and so far, I think she's pretty awesome. We get to the topic of body image and dug in.
I won't share everything we talked about but just imagine me pouring my heart out and sharing stories that I've never told anyone before.
Here you go, stranger. Fix me!
Eventually, she asks if she can try an activity on me. I say sure.
She stands up to get a small mirror and asks me to hold the handle. She asks me to look in the mirror and say, "Tam, I love you."
I turn to the mirror to see my reflection and I quickly look away.
I told her I couldn't do it. She asks, "Why not?"
"Because I don't think I deserve it."
I saw my therapist consistently over the next year or so to work through my issues and change how I talk to myself.
The sessions were difficult and uncomfortable. But I knew this is what I needed to do to not only solve my problem but grow into the man that I would be proud of.
Fast forward to today, I feel genuinely happy with who I am and how I look. It is like night and day different than when I first walked into therapy. It cost a pricey penny but in my opinion, investing in yourself has always been worth it for me.
To save you some time, money, and sadness, here are the biggest lessons I've learned about improving your self-worth and body image that may be helpful.
Stop squeezing your physical body
I had this bad habit of squeezing my lower belly fat before I stepped into the shower. I'd also put both hands around my belly after a big meal. I'd sometimes do that weird thing where you twist your forearm so you can see all the fat that sticks out. All of that stopped now.
I forgot the exact science she told me but basically, these actions are harmful. It signals your brain to associate these triggers with shame and disgust. After just one month of deliberately keeping my hands away, I went from hating my body to being closer to neutral. I'd look in the mirror before a shower and think, it's just a body. I didn't love myself overnight or anything dramatic. But it was a huge improvement and I was hooked on whatever these sessions were doing.
Focus on what you like about yourself
My therapist asked what physical qualities I like about myself. I liked my eyes. My smile. My dimples. Great!
So instead of focusing on my belly fat before a shower, she instructed me to look in the mirror, and focus on my eyes, smile, and dimples. This sounded too simple when I first heard it but I found it to be very effective.
I often see myself through the lens of what's wrong with me or how can I improve. I regularly diminish my wins and magnify my losses. I think about all the things that I don't have.
What I didn't realize was that it would be healthier to see myself through the lens of all the amazing qualities that I do have.
It turns out that there are a lot of awesome things about me that I never pay attention to. Who would have thought? 😜
Is your story true?
Everywhere I looked, it felt like I always saw couples with a tall, strong, model-looking white guy holding hands with his cute girlfriend. Here I was, single as hell. I assumed that I needed to be tall, strong, and White in order to date cute women.
My therapist reflected back that I had these boyfriend goggles on that is aimed to see this exact pattern. Similar to that feeling when you get a new Prius and suddenly, there are Priuses everywhere you go.
Once I took off these goggles, I saw couples who had a wide range of looks and personalities. I also FORGET that I went on 20 or so dates while I went solo traveling and found that many women do like me!
I went on more dates throughout that first year of therapy and hit it off with a few women who liked me just for me. External validation is not usually the answer but it felt confirming to know that more people (outside of my friends) saw the qualities that I was beginning to be more proud of.
Confide in trusted friends
I don't like asking for help.
I don't want to be a burden on others and in general, I don't want to be seen as weak or not in control. But I knew I had to drop my ego and reach out to someone to help me through this deep-rooted issue.
Luckily, I had friends already who are amazing at holding space. I shared a lot of things that I've never told anyone before, stuff they never knew about me even though we've been friends for years.
They listened to me with no judgment and literally held me in long hugs. I felt safe, protected, and supported. Yes, I cried a lot.
After sharing these conversations and normalizing what I was going through, my chest felt lighter. I felt free. I felt alive. I felt loved.
I felt worthy.
Trust the process
There was no magic switch to loving myself. It was a slow grind that I had to put deliberate effort into every day.
- Showing up to therapy and being open to looking at what I've run away from over the years.
- The daily practice of looking in the mirror and focusing on what I love about myself.
- Seeing everyone around me as beautiful and flawed beings themselves, fighting an inner battle that I know nothing about.
- To have deep conversations with my closest friends and eventually, more people, and now, writing this essay publicly.
- Journaling a lot and asking: Is this true? Where is this story coming from?
- Writing in my Five Minute Journal to witness all the amazing things that I'm grateful for.
- Going out and taking action. Asking that cute girl out that I see all the time in my dance studio. Saying no to relationships that are coming from a place of desperation and neediness.
Life after therapy
I'm at the point now where I can confidently look in the mirror and say, "Tam, I love you man!"
I never imagined that I would truly be happy just being me. Dating has been easier. My friendships have improved after having these vulnerable conversations. This whole ordeal feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
Therapy has been a game-changer. Besides all the nuggets of wisdom that you learn about yourself, it feels cathartic to have a professional focus on just you for one hour. If you have the resources, I highly recommend giving therapy a try.
I apparently got lucky and got along with the first therapist I met with. You can read Esther Perel's essay on how to find the right therapist for you. I went to a local clinic that my friends founded in Toronto called Shift Collab which I really love.
But you can go through your insurance provider (if therapy is included) or find someone online through services like BetterHelp (I haven't tried it personally but from all the ads they have targeted me for, it looks promising).
Now that I loved myself for who I am and can more confidently date women just being me, my new body goals are not to look good, but to feel good.
This change in mindset has helped improve my low self-esteem, low confidence, and toxic body image issues. I am worthy. I am enough.
I love myself.
Tam Pham's Blog
I write about my adventures, learnings, and reflections on living my weird, unconventional life. Subscribe below!