Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is considered “a persistent preoccupation with at least one perceived defect or flaw in a person’s physical appearance, which may not be observable to others, or appears only in slight.” It can also be met with what are called body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRB) or mental acts that can include excessively checking mirrors and reassurance-seeking from others.
So what does that really mean? Sounds pretty normal, right? Lots of people are self-conscious or at least have something they’d change about their appearance.
The most common reactions I’d get when caught either compulsively checking mirrors or asking for reassurance were accusations of vanity or compliment fishing. The distinguishing problem in my experience with BDD wasn’t simply wanting people to call me pretty or expecting to feel super hot all the time. The intensity and frequency of thoughts made it difficult to function.
From what I understand of my disorder, when I felt rejected or out of place or not enough, my brain took the information presented to me both in the media and from the mouths of people I knew and decided the only way to be worthy of love was to be stunningly beautiful. This was a standard so high for me, I could not conceive of a way I could look where I would be worthy of love. And as time went on, it escalated from feeling unworthy of love to feeling unworthy of life.
If you can imagine a rule book in your head saying you are too ugly to be alive, you can imagine (or maybe have experienced) the overwhelming pain and anxiety that come along with BDD.
Like I mentioned, for me, it most often manifested to other people as compulsive mirror checking and asking “Do I look OK?” or “Do I look ugly?” There have been many nights and even days when I’ve decided I could not leave my room because I was too ugly to be seen. I’ve opted out of many events — especially in the summertime — because the thoughts were too overpowering.
First of all, I want to say I still have these thoughts sometimes. Not as often or as powerful as they once were, but they have not completely disappeared. So what has helped me cope? The most helpful things I have learned are a combination of what I’ve gathered in therapy and yoga:
1. Acknowledge the pain is something real I am experiencing in that moment.
2. Notice anything stressful or related to trauma that might have happened to bring up these feelings. Is there an underlying fear of something seemingly unrelated that is bringing up these thoughts?
3. Remember that just because these patterns of thoughts are there does not mean they have any validity or basis in reality.
4. Think about what I would say to someone else. It’s an absolutely absurd thing to say someone is too ugly to be worthy of love or life. I would never ever feel that way about someone else.
5. Remind myself the feelings will pass and I do not have to do something drastic or unhealthy to escape them.
6. Sometimes, I just stay in. If I feel like it’s going to be too intense or make me feel worse, I cut myself a break and just let myself hang out. I can always try again later or tomorrow.
BDD is challenging in that it can feel embarrassing to share with others because people might not understand the degree of distress you’re experiencing. But over time with help and support it can get better.
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Thinkstock photo via nathings.