Features, Fitness, Psychology, Social Media

Improving Body Image: How Perception Of The Body Is A Reflection Of The Mind

negative body image
Body image issues arise in the mind, not the body.

Let’s begin with a simple truth: the mainstream media, particularly the advertising industry, defines beauty standards. These definitions are deliberately unattainable and perfect, because they fit an agenda. Making us feel bad about how we look works in the favour of profit-making corporations. With multiple billions at stake, it’s unlikely we’ll witness diverse, attainable and imperfect definitions of beauty in the mainstream media, at least in our lifetime.

If power structures won’t change, there’s no choice; the onus is on us to reshape and redefine beauty, by our realistic standards, improving negative body image in the process. But how do we redefine and change our mindsets? How do we reverse and unlearn conditioning that has been drilled into us, our entire lives?

Ideas presented here include: reframing ideas of beauty; becoming aware of (and accepting) ways we instinctively judge others and compare; body shaming vigilance; understanding body image psychology; accepting impermanence; and understanding the illusion of fixed concepts, such as appearance.

This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.

Redefining Beauty And Celebrating Individuality

The cultural concept of beauty is forcefully promoted billboards, TV screens, webpages, beauty products and everywhere since forever, like a cynical, slow-dripping serum of deceit, disguising itself as truth. But it isn’t truth, and the more we actively and consciously reject these images, the more we redefine beauty. A key principle behind this approach is redefining from aesthetic perfection to individuality.

How? We retrain our minds to look at others, and ourselves, the way we look at nature. Because as much as we may see ourselves as separate entities, cut off from the world around us, we are nature, too. Instinctively we embrace the untamed uniqueness of a landscape, sunset, forest, mountain, whatever it may be, and we see beauty. Imagine if we did the same with people? Discussing self-judgement, spiritual guru Ram Dass writes:

“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is.

“The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

Ram Dass references the totality of a person, but his words are easily applied to body image. Just as every tree in the forest is beautiful in its own way, so is every person. Training our eyes to discover beauty — away from a narrow template of physical traits and towards appreciation of uniqueness — is a powerful shift. Once we see non-discriminatory beauty in others, the next step is seeing it in ourselves. But first, we must move away from the mindset of judgement and comparison.

Stop Judging Others, Stop Judging Ourselves

Judgement is comparison with a gavel (that’s a judge’s mallet, by the way — yeah, I Googled it). Evaluating others with a discriminatory eye is the opposite of appreciate the beauty of uniqueness. There’s a reason non-judgement is at the core of spiritual philosophy; the way we perceive the world is reflected in the way we perceive ourselves. Evaluating and judging others frames the human body as an object to be observed. As explained in Instagram’s Influence on Negative Body Image, objectification leads to self-objectification. It’s a vicious cycle.

judgement
Judgement reflects right back at us.

This isn’t specific to conscious, mean-hearted judgement, either. It applies to the habitual, instantaneous thoughts arising when encountering the rich variety of bodies throughout each day. Think you’re immune? I promise you, we all have this inner-judge to some extent. Living in this world, it’s impossible to avoid it completely. Unless you’ve spent your life under a rock, or living in the Big Brother house, you’ll likely have internalised a number of these biases, probably without consciously registering this process.

The next step is a difficult one — it’s time to put your ego aside and dig deep into yourself to discover these unfriendly thought-processes. I’ll go first…

I’m A Judgemental Body-Shamer

I like to think I’m a non-judgemental, caring-kinda-guy. But when actively tuning in to my inner-dialogue, I notice how quickly I react to bodies around me — too fat, not muscular enough, too hairy, too hairless. Noticing this unsavoury thinking loop is disconcerting, because let’s be honest, it comes across as mean and not very pleasant, and I don’t like to think of myself as a mean person.

However, to overcome the dark crevices of a conditioned brain, we must actively accept them by applying a mindful approach — let thoughts arise without indulgence (“Maybe these thoughts are the truth, after all, that person doesn’t fit the definition of beauty I have in mind”) resistance (“I don’t want these thoughts!”) or judgement (“I’m a horrible person”).

Such thoughts spring into our minds, outside of our control. Where do they come from? Jungian psychology suggests the “shadow,” an unconscious dark side of the psyche. I’d argue the shadow is the source of unsavoury, judgemental thoughts. Word of caution on practicing this step: having these thoughts does not make you a bad person. They are your thoughts, they aren’t you. We may not control the thoughts entering our minds, be we can control our reaction.

“We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are,” the brilliant psychologist, Carl Rogers, writes in On Becoming A Person. “Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” In my experience, this is absolutely true. Accepting dark thoughts with compassion and non-judgement allows them to be processed adequately.

Imagine your subconscious as water in a saucepan, below the conscious mind. Difficult thoughts and emotions occasionally bubble to the surface. Repressing or rejecting this process is the equivalent of placing a lid on top the saucepan. What happens? The water boils quicker, the bubbles increase. In acceptance we surrender and allow the water to evaporate. The temperature lowers, the bubbles calm.

The Importance Of Creating Communities

“It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.” — Fabienne, Pulp Fiction

Call me a deluded optimist, but I have a vision of self-aware utopia where we support each other’s wellness, and frame our own definitions of worth, beauty and success. Imagine how incredible it would be if we formed communities that actively promote equality, kindness and universal acceptance. Community, in this sense, doesn’t have to be a city, or even a district. We all have spheres of influence.

A challenging aspect of taking steps towards this utopia is calling out body shaming or objectification, when we can. Screaming obscenities won’t help, but attempting to educate the oblivious or ignorant will. This includes rejecting established structures and damaging stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes and hetero-centric stereotypes.

There are actions we can take, today, to forming such communities. In terms of body image issues, it’s imperative we are open and honest in discussing its significance. It’s imperative we take the challenging step of sharing vulnerability. Scary it may be, but in doing so, we can connect with others and create spaces where we can each thrive.


“In the last year or two I’ve accepted my body more and feel more comfortable about it — mainly owing to the people I spend time with, my friends and partner, and also just knowing myself better as I get older.” — M


In a world where more and more of us are connected in cyberspace but crave real connection, I urge you to have an open, honest and challenging conversation with those close to you about your feelings on this subject. You’ll be surprised how universal these issues are, as I was when asking friends to share their experiences.

The Way We Feel About Our Bodies Is A Reflection Of The Mind

“Our perceptions of outer appearances are profoundly affected by the inner conditioning of our minds.”  — Master Hsing Yun, Lotus in a Stream: Essays in Basic Buddhism.

Psychologist Elizabeth Halsted advocates increasing self-esteem as a catalyst in improving body image. Frequently, negative body images form due to low self-esteem. As Halstead writes on Psychology Today, someone experiencing low self-esteem has self-critical perception of their personality. Consequently, someone may believe people don’t like them, or they have nothing to contribute in social situations. This lead to over-reliance physical appearance “to create a positive effect on others.”

redefining beauty
The onus is on us to redefine beauty.

Halstead identifies the importance of acceptance, instead of self-criticism. In particular, there are three thinking processes commonly associated with body image issues: perfectionism, comparison, and judgement. When I experience a bout of depression and self-critical thoughts swirl around my head in a mind-storm of self-loathing, my appearance gets caught in the crossfire and I begin to pay more attention to it. Increasing concern over my appearance is often the first warning sign for an oncoming bout of low-mood.


“When I decided to stop fighting how my body naturally looks, I managed to let go of a lot of stress.” — F


There’s no question body image is a mental health issue, yet often the first attempt at a solution is changing the way or bodies look, in an outward-in attempt at fixing perception. Which leads on to…

Exercise, Impermanence And Body Composition

“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta

Many people who have a negative body image will attempt to change their body composition, whether through diet, exercise, or even surgery — it’s the reason I initially started to lift weights. Attempting to overcome negative body image purely by changing the body, without an attempt to confront issues of self-esteem, comparison and judgement, is often the precursor to eating disorders, steroid use and body dysmorphia. This comes from the mistaken belief:

“I am unhappy with my body, so I will change it. I want to fit beauty standards I see in the media. Once I reach this standard, I will be worthy. My self-esteem will increase, my body image will be positive, I will be happy.”

Moulding our bodies to fit idealised perfection is near impossible, because all bodies are different. If not genetically predisposed, it’s incredibly difficult to shape our bodies a certain way, whether dramatically slimming down or bulking up. Changing body composition for this reason has the opposite affect by strengthening self-objectification.

Even if “aesthetic perfection” is reached, you’ll be no better off. Why? Because the external is the ego’s playground, and the ego is never satisfied. Don’t believe me? Check out this quote:

“When I look in the mirror, I throw up. I was already so critical of myself, even when I was in top physical shape. I’d look in the mirror after I won one Mr. Olympia after another and think, ‘How did this pile of (bleep) win?’ I never saw perfection. There was always something lacking.”

Those words are from Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is idolised by the bodybuilding community to this day, a beacon of physical “perfection” in his prime, validated by seven Mr. Olympia titles. But he’s never been happy with his body, and at 70-years-old, hates his reflection so much it makes him physically sick.

Ego, Craving And “I’ll Be Happy When… I’m Ripped”

If we identify the body as a source of worth and social status or crave desirability by becoming more “attractive,” the act of sculpting the perfect physique becomes another “I’ll be happy when.” Not that I’m going to psychoanalyse the Terminator, but… if I were going to speculate on his thinking process during his peak years, it’d go like this:

“I have reached physical perfection in the eyes of others, the promised land. But I am still unhappy. I don’t feel worthy of praise. There’s more I can change before I’m fully happy, I will keep striving.”

This is an important point: if you don’t address low self-esteem, changing the way your body looks won’t make one iota of difference to your body image. It’s the ego’s nature to constantly seek and crave. It will always perceive itself lacking. Conversely, the ego takes hold and identifies with physical appearance, undesired changes will cause significant stress, as Arnie discovered. This ranges from the mundane (bad hair days, pimples) to the unavoidable yet significant (ageing, illness).

Improving Body Image With Buddhism And The Middle Way

I’d initially planned one article on body image, related to Instagram. But the topic has taken on a life of its own. The more I explore, research and talk to others, the more I’m convinced this a key issue facing this generation — male and female. So, I’m not done yet. I want to guide you along a path I find never fails to offer insight and solace. I’ll apply the time-tested Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way to body image, in a bid to find a balanced approach to our relationship with our bodies. Until then, I hope this article contains meaningful, applicable solutions for you to try.

< Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body ImageA Buddhist Approach To Improving Body Image >

Features, Fitness, Social Media

Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image

Instagram influence body image
Is Instagram damaging to body image?

It’s official — Instagram is the worst social media site for mental health. All social media sites have a potentially detrimental effect on the way we feel, but Instagram, with its heavy focus on imagery, has a particularly negative impact on one specific area: body image. Instagram isn’t the instigator of body image issues, of course, but instead a heavily-filtered reflection of a culture that objectifies, sexualises and commodifies the human body, while promoting unattainable and unrealistic standards of what beauty is.

Beauty is subjective, yet rarely seen in the beholder’s reflection. Global research by Dove discovered just 4 percent of women find themselves beautiful, while simultaneously, 80 percent acknowledge all women have something beautiful about them. This negative self-perceptions begins a young age, with girls as young as six-years-old having expressed body-related anxiety. If unchecked, such bodily insecurities can turn into Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), causing “persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance,” leading to “severe emotional distress and difficulties in daily functioning.”

Social media sites, particularly Instagram, have been challenged to do more to combat this growing societal concern. But how can we take control and learn to love our bodies, when the forces of society thrive on us feeling insecure in our own skin?

This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.

Advertising And Beauty Standards

“All we’ve ever wanted,
Is to look good naked,
Hope that someone can take it,
God save me rejection,
From my reflection,
I want perfection” — Robbie Williams, Bodies

Say hello to the beauty industry, a persuasive and pervasive money-making machine convincing the masses we need to improve our appearance. More and more of us don’t like the way we look. As a result, this industry — the cousin of fashion — is growing rapidly. At twice the rate of the developed world’s GDP, to be precise. Skin care alone is worth $24 billion per year, make-up $18 billion, haircare $38 billion. A report by the British Youth Council, A Body Confident Future, highlighted the “massive” role such industries have in setting idealised images of beauty. This comes at cost — a third of young people say media influence has made them feel the need to lose weight.

It’s not hard to see why. From a young age, we are all immersed in an environment rigidly defining beauty on their behalf, from adverts to fashion magazines to billboards to Hollywood. Look around you, and you’ll see a variation of all shapes and sizes, with no two bodies the same. Look at the media, and the same perfectly honed (and electronically retouched) body shapes appear, over and over again. Women are expected to defy logic by attaining the “curves in the right places and not much everywhere else” look. Men are expected to do their best impression of Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk, with bulging biceps, washboard abs, a full chest and muscular legs.

Profit — The Reason Your Body Isn’t Good Enough

Sadly, we live in a world where conglomerates like Goldman Sachs question whether curing illness is a sustainable business model. Western culture’s portrayal of conventional beauty is moulded by the same profit-making agenda. Body positivity and revenue don’t fit. If encouraged to age gracefully and embrace wrinkles, would people spend millions on expensive skin care? If encouraged embrace our natural hair, would people use straighteners, or buy hair-thickening shampoo?

Anxiety around appearance isn’t vanity or a case of millions wanting to look nice. Consumer culture consistently tells us we need things to be successful and happy. Advertising no longer sells products, it sells lifestyles. The beauty industry sells us the idea that a beautiful appearance, dictated by their idea of beauty, is the key to success and self-worth. We want to look good because we’ve been told looking good is living a successful life. But the people shaping this falsehood earn money from our endeavours to look “better.”

The Deception And Exclusion Of Mainstream Body Positivity

The Body Positive movement is the mainstream media’s response to body image issues. Body positivity is vital, of course,  but the profit-agenda is still at play. “Brands may pay lip service to the idea of diversity but continue to emphasise the message that some conventional ideals of beauty are important,” according to A Body Confident Future. The movement is defined by ever-so-slightly-altered standards. Or as plus-size fashion blogger Stephanie Yeboah put it, “body positivity seems to only serve those who fit the ‘acceptably fat’ description: white, beautiful by Westernised standards, and small/hourglass shaped.” Anyone outside of these standards — the vast majority — is cast aside.


“I went to a strip club in Nigeria and it was really interesting because I’d never seen women who actually look like me. A lot of the time I just see white bodies, but they were all black women with different shades of brown skin. They had very different body types — some were like mine, some weren’t like mine. I thought, ‘wow, this is amazing!’ It gave me confidence.” (F)


For example, women of colour are still marginalised in all aspects of beauty. This ranges from a lack of make-up options for women with darker skin, to Grazia magazine editing Lupita Nyong’o’s hair to “fit a Eurocentric idea of what beautiful hair looks like.” The Western idea that fair skin is beautiful ripples across the globe, too, resulting in worldwide “rampant darker skin stigma,” or colourism. Colourism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” It’s instigated by institutional racism but isn’t exclusively race-related.

Follow the money and you’ll find the continual rise of a skin bleaching industry expected to acquire $31.2 billion by 2024.

Let’s Talk About Sex(ualisation)

pornhub
Internet changed the pornography star [Credit: PornHub].
It’s impossible to discuss body image in the media without also discussing sex. Using sex to sell degrades the human body, turning it into an object existing for the viewing pleasure of others. This is a facet of a hyper-sexualised culture, perpetuating objectification in all forms of media. Nowhere is this more evident than the porn industry. The internet has made porn more accessible than ever; in 2017, PornHub received 81 million hits. Daily. Across the year, 28.5 billion hits resulted in 68 years worth of porn being uploaded.

Although porn use in general shouldn’t be a cause of shame, the majority of online videos depict inauthentic, friction-heavy and genital-focused intercourse. By portraying unrealistic gender stereotypes, it influences how men and women feel they should look and behave in an intimate setting. It’s an industry with an underlying, venomous and sometimes violent attitude toward preserving the status quo of gender inequality. Women are shown as submissive bystanders, existing to serve male desire. Although porn feels distant from mainstream media, they share the same destructive aspects, the latter in a diluted form.

The Beauty Myth

Author Naomi Wolf deconstructs objectification and beauty in The Beauty Myth, a titular theory “prescribing behaviour and not appearance.” In her framework, beauty needs to first be approved by men in order to be validated. According to Wolf, this dynamic limits women’s freedom because their behaviour, as well as appearance, is scrutinised — including the way they walk, talk, dress, and interact.

The Iron Maiden is a term Wolf applies to societal expectations and assumptions about the female body. Wolf argues unattainable images of beauty are used to punish women. Any female not conforming is made to feel “monstrous,” despite being physically functional:

“A man’s thigh is for walking, but a woman’s is for walking and looking ‘beautiful.’ If women can walk but believe our limbs look wrong, we feel that our bodies cannot do what they are meant to do; we feel as genuinely deformed and disabled as the unwilling Victorian hypochondriac felt ill.”

Though written in 1991, the myth is still relevant. A 2014 report by the UK’s Government Equalities Office, The Watched Body, highlights how women in leadership roles are expected to adhere to perceived feminine traits in order to be respected. A 1997 study referred to this as the objection theory, where women are frequently “looked at as objects by society, with a sexual focus being placed on their bodies rather than on their abilities.”

Men, Muscle Mass And Eating Disorders

Body images issues aren’t exclusive to women, though. Men used to be conditioned for nonchalance, a squirt of Old Spice and a hurried sink wash. But a shift in masculine stereotypes has seen the male population become more concerned their bodies’ appearance. Last year it was reported eating disorders had risen 70 percent in men, in only a six year period. In another study, 45 percent of men said they’ve experienced a period of “bigorexia,” an obsession with muscle building. Although gender bias with body image issues can make it more difficult for men to speak openly about their insecurities, the insecurities are certainly there.

“Pressure for body perfection is on the rise for men of all ages, which is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder,” Dr William Rhys Jones, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty, told the Guardian. “Images of unhealthy male body ideals in the media place unnecessary pressure on vulnerable people who strive for acceptance through the way they look.” These unhealthy images for men focus on an increasingly muscular, low fat physique.


“Body image has been an issue for me since secondary school, especially playing rugby and other sports in an all-boys school. I often felt inferior or weaker, and the pressure was quite high to workout and get big, which I didn’t achieve to the same extent as most.” — M


Hollywood is often a reliable reflection of its time, including changing definitions of beauty. Look no further than the superhero genre, the most lucrative and popular in modern cinema. The likes of Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Chris Evans (Captain America), Henry Cavill (Superman), Ben Affleck (Batman), Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Chris Pratt (Star-Lord) saturate the media with images of their bulked up physiques. Away from superheroes, contrast Daniel Craig’s physique as James Bond with Roger Moore or Sean Connery, or Dwayne Johnson or Zac Efron with David Hasselhoff in Baywatch.

There’s also a growing trend of using these examples — attained by 24/7 devotion and support from the world’s leading nutritionists and personal trainers — as ways to inspire the Average Joe to pick up some iron. News outlets shared inside scoops on the A-list’s workout routines and diet, while social media is awash with behind-the-scenes clips. Apparently it’s easy, if only you know how.

The Rise Of Bigorexia

It’s not only acting royalty who promote unrealistic mass. Reality television — tabloid in TV form — presents objectification and beauty standards without restraint. Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in addiction at the University of York, apportioned blame in the rise of male body image issues on show’s such as Love Island, combined with social media. “In some ways young men have been catching up with young women over the last few years, they are more sensitive and vigilant about how they should look and this is becoming more acute,” he told The Telegraph. “I think it is to do with appearance and masculinity, and the messages we absorb through social media.”


“I really dislike wearing shorts in public because I genuinely feel like my legs from the knee down are weird. The internet creates a world where we compare, compare, compare, and so when I go out in summer and men are all wearing shorts, I can’t help but compare my legs to other’s. Most of the time it leads to some kind of negative feeling.” — M


Back in the day a little Burt Reynolds chest fuzz or Sean Connery’s realistically slim physique were seen as attractive. Now, muscle is mistaken for “manliness.” Consequently, a growing number of men experience muscle dysmorphia, the mistaken belief they aren’t muscular enough. It affects 10 percent of gym-going men in the UK (and, important to note, some women too). It’s natural to automatically assume vanity is the root cause, but muscle dysmorphia is defined instead as shame over one’s appearance. According to a 2016 study, men experiencing muscle dysmorphia mistakenly believe mass is an outward showing of inner strength, an indicator of success, sexual prowess, and so on. The result? In 2017, steroid use quadrupled amongst 16-24-year-olds in the UK. It’s the only drug with increased usage.

My Struggle With Body Image And Muscularity

body image
Chubby-cheeked, ready to “man up” and… self-objectification?

I’ve always fixated on my body. When I was really young, I was chubby-cheeked and curly haired. Looking at photographs, I look cute (even if I say so myself), but at the time I stressed about being fat. Before going on holiday with family friends who were naturally slimmer, I’d stand in front of the mirror in my trunks and pinch the fat around my body, willing it to go away and wishing I looked different. In my teens I was concerned for different reasons — I was a late bloomer. I was embarrassed as my peers developed hair in strange places, an outward sign of adulthood, while I was left behind.

To make matters more confusing, my body composition changed dramatically when I was 15. Not via exercise or a healthy diet, but glandular fever. Bedridden for weeks, my throat filled with a thousand paper cuts, I couldn’t eat and lost around three stone (40+ lbs). Now I felt stickly thin. I felt I lacked muscular definition and strength. I wanted to feel manly. I was insecure, and my insecurity was validated when people would comment on my weight loss. Apparently, it seems socially acceptable to call a guy skinny, despite this being a common insecurity in men.

Weightlifting was the remedy. With trepidation and high anxiety, I signed up to my local gym when I was 18. On my first session, I looked around at brawny, tattooed Bristolians bicep curling my body weight. I attempted to bench press just the bar to “ease into it.” It was too heavy. No one warned me the bar was forged from Valyrian steel. Anyway, I persisted and eventually gained muscle. I’ve continued to train regularly, and my weight has shifted up and down. Even now, I frequently compare myself to men who are much bigger or stronger or more ripped than I am, like chasing my shadow with Men’s Health under one arm, a protein shake under the other and a sense of despair as to why I couldn’t pack on 30lb of lean mass in 30 days or look like Tyler Durden in six weeks.

Instagram’s Influence On Body Image

“I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop,

Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor,

Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks” — Kendrick Lamar, HUMBLE

What about Instagram’s influence on body image? Due to its user-driven dynamic, there’s an expectation Instagram is authentic. Ideally, social media should be the antithesis of the illusions portrayed in the mainstream. Just normal people uploading normal images of their normal lives. Well, not quite. The feverish quest for profit finds its way into anything if there’s opportunity to advertise. Instagram is no different. ‘Grammers with a substantial following earn a tidy sum promoting products via the medium. Fitness “influencers,” for example, regularly make six figures for campaigns shared on their profiles. Those with six-packs and six-figure followings frequently earn $5,000 or more for a single sponsored post.


“When I’m in a good mood, I have no urge to look at Instagram. But when I’m having a day where I feel down, I’ll spend time stuck in the scroll-loop. Inevitably, I end up comparing myself to the women I see online, and I feel even worse.” — F


Though plenty use Instagram to challenge conventional standards, beauty standards have infiltrated social media. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian (who has 110 million followers) regularly receive millions of likes, but they present heavily-doctored snippets of meticulously pruned unrealities. Often, they’ll post airbrushed photographs. Sometimes, they get caught. These airbrushed images mix with photos of friends and family, with no distinction other than a blue tick. Further still, they aren’t images taken on the catwalk or during a photoshoot — they’re “authentic,” behind-the-scenes selfies with everyday, humanising captions. This camouflage erodes the boundaries between the glitz and glamour and us muggles.

I suspect Instagram’s influence on negative body image is enhanced because the nature of the platform catches people off-guard. If you pick up a copy of Vogue, you’re prepared for what you’re about to see. Using Instagram’s perceived authenticity to spread the same unattainable standards of beauty is arguably more sinister, more deceitful.

Instagram and Self-Objectification

This desire to conform to beauty standards is tantalising and has a drip-down effect into everything we do. Unwittingly, as we assimilate the media’s powerful messages, we internalise and reproduce those same ideas. Uploading images to social media conforming with beauty standards is a form of self-objectification. This occurs when objectification is internalised and the person views their body as an object to be evaluated. This is far from a superficial issue, either. There’s a whole host of evidence highlighting the damaging impact self-objectification has on one’s well being, including body shame, appearance anxiety, eating disorders and depression. In men, it has been identified as a precursor to steroid use.

This isn’t a modern phenomenon, but social media accentuates the process. Most of us will be guilty of doctoring our appearance on Instagram, whether in the form of filters, choosing an image from a selection of many, or using set angles and lighting that is flattering on the body. I’m guilty on all of these counts. Additionally, each and every like becomes a signal of approval, and for some, Instagram becomes an avenue to temporarily boost feelings of negative body image. In presenting ourselves as objects, virtual feedback provides validation and a fragile sense of worth.


“I’m aware Instagram can be damaging, so I’m careful with who I follow. Even though I’ve never searched for fitness or health, the discover section is ridiculous, it’s just filled with women with perfect bodies. I wasn’t even choosing to look for it, but it appeared and made me feel crap.” — F


Fitspiration is a trend often falling into this category. Its aim is to provide motivation for exercise and encourage a healthy lifestyle, but most posts emphasise aesthetics over health. Studies show browsing #fitspo posts on Instagram, for as little as 30 minutes, increases self-objectification. Further, another study discovered women who shared their own “Fitspo” photographs scored higher in charts monitoring a drive for thinness and compulsive exercise. Eighteen percent of the same group were at risk of developing an eating disorder.

Comparison And Negative Body Image

Body image issues rise in the space between how our bodies really are, and the projection of what our bodies should be. On top of mainstream media, social media — in particular Instagram — leads to information overload and incessant streams of people with seemingly perfect bodies. It creates a vicious cycle of comparison and negative self-perception.


“People not only compare their own bodies, but attribute perceived social value with the likes and followers that come with having a ‘sick’ body. The inverse of that is, someone who thinks they don’t have a ‘sick’ body then thinks they aren’t as valuable as a person. This obviously isn’t true, but we’re all susceptible to feeling shit about ourselves because of it.” — M


It’s possible to change our bodies through diet and exercise, to try and reach levels of perfection. But such is the nature of comparison, no physical change will ever bring lasting contentment. Losing weight or gaining muscle becomes an “I’ll be happy when.” The body is always changing, from the moment we’re born, to the moment we die. We are flesh and bone, a constant flux of regenerating cells. We get pimples, shadows under our eyes, hair in random places. Beauty standards defy human nature because they are designed to be unattainable.

Has Instagram influenced your body image? Let me know your experience in the comments section below.

Next up:


Features, Social Media

Social Media And Mental Health: Data Isn’t The Only Reason To Consider #DeleteFacebook

social media wellbeing
You need to consider the impact of social media on your mental health.

The Guardian has again worked its whistleblowing magic, exposing the role of Cambridge Analytica in illegally obtaining masses of personal data from 50 million Facebook profiles. This data was then used by Trump’s digital political campaign to target the U.S electorate. It’s not good news for Mark Zuckerberg — as Facebook’s stock falls, the momentum of an online petition to #DeleteFacebook rises, endorsed by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, Elon Musk and other prominent names.

For the conspiratorial amongst us, it’s clear online data has been targeted by the elite for some time, as exposed by the likes of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Instead of focusing on why this industrial breach of privacy should be cause to #DeleteFacebook, this article will assess whether you should boycott social media for the sake of your mental health.

It’s easy to mindlessly swipe and scroll without considering the consequences on your wellbeing. Does it make you feel anxious, depressed, jealous, agitated? Does it have a detrimental impact on your self-esteem or body image? Do you find yourself checking your phone habitually, as if there’s a psychic connection, and you and your phone are unified, half-human, half-Android?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re certainly not alone. There’s a growing field of evidence highlighting the negative influence social media has over our lives and our mental health, from making us feel a bit jaded to full-on, self-destructive addiction. There are benefits, but as a bad-news-first kinda guy, let’s take a look at the drawbacks before offering some resolution to digital doom and gloom.

Our Survey Says… Depression, Anxiety, Isolation!

Heaps of scientific studies conclude social media often makes us feel rubbish. There’s a direct correlation between the number of social media platforms people use, and symptoms of depression and anxiety. A study by the University of Missouri noted when participants browsed Facebook, they experienced feelings of envy due to negative comparisons to those in their newsfeed — leading to feelings of depression. How many of us have stalked our ex’s new partner, making a mental checklist of how many ways they’re cooler and have better stubble and nicer clothes? Just me? Moving on…

Last year, The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) published a report on the role of social media in young people’s lives. Instagram and Snapchat had the most detrimental effect for those aged 14 to 24. “Both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people,” noted Shirley Cramer, the Chief Executive at RSPH. Not only do we compare our lives with others, we compare our bodies to unattainable, and heavily photoshopped images.

With a concoction of negative body image, FOMO, comparison and feelings of envy, anxiety and depression, it’s not surprising studies have linked the time spent online with perceived social isolation. This isolation is “perceived” as it isn’t objectionably true; even people with fulfilling relationships and social lives can end up feeling very much alone after prolonged periods online.

Distraction And Multitasking

Managing distraction and instant gratification is integral aspects to spiritual practice. Meditation and mindfulness emphasise the importance of paying focused attention on the present, noting the moment you become distracted. Not only do our thoughts take us away from the present, but the craving and impulse to check our phones distracts us, too. Think you can have a cheeky browse on Pinterest while conversing with your BFF? Think again — there’s no such thing as multitasking.

The neocortex is the part of our brain responsible for thinking and focus, but it can only focus on one thing at a time. When we believe we’re multitasking, we’re instead rapidly turning our focus from one task to another. This isn’t a skillful practice; MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller notes we pay a “cognitive cost” when attempting to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.

Numerous studies identify this cost as anything from a significant drop in IQ to, disturbingly, reduced density in the anterior cingulate cortex — the area of the brain responsible for empathy and cognitive and emotional control. The vast majority of us are distracted by our smartphones, like 97% of college students who admitted to losing focus in class. Such multitasking isn’t only damaging in a working or learning environment, either. Scrolling Dwayne Johnson’s Twitter while watching Netflix or opening a new tab to ask Google questions you wouldn’t raise with your therapist are two examples that have the same negative impact on the brain.

Your Smartphone Is Draining Your Brain’s Energy

Our phones aren’t only influencing our brains while we are transfixed on them. A study by The University of Texas tested participant’s concentration after dividing them into three groups. One group had their phones turned off and facing down on their desk. Another group placed their phones in a pocket or a bag. The third group placed their phones in another room. Unsurprisingly, the third group performed significantly better.

Scientists linked reduced concentration with colloquially termed “brain drain.” This is the result of the subconscious constantly expelling energy when trying to not check your phone — like how you think of a pink elephant when someone says “don’t think of a pink elephant.” We all form phone-checking habits to some degree, causing our subconscious to murmur away whenever our phone is in close proximity. Presumably, for every sip of coffee I take, my subconscious is using all its energy to suppress the thought: “log onto Facebook and tell everyone how delicious this flat white is, hipster scum.”

brain drain
Not looking at your phone causes “brain drain.”

To make matters even more complicated, when we eventually pick up our phones, our brains release the reward hormone dopamine. The same occurs with each ping, notification or match. Then begins a vicious cycle of instant gratification: we have an impulse to check our phone, we check it, we get a dopamine hit, we repeat. Worryingly, the more we seek instant gratification, the more impulsive we become in all areas of life. When we reach a stage where we struggle to control our impulses and need to constantly satisfy them, we move into the realm of addiction.

Addiction And Instant Gratification

“Got the phone. You’re never alone with a phone. Look at that, no calls. Everyone I know doesn’t want to talk to me.”  — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show (a regular voice of wisdom).

When was the last time you were waiting for a bus and didn’t check your phone? Or the last time you didn’t immediately glance at your device when left alone for a few minutes in a social situation?  Most of us have formed the habit of constantly checking to see if we’ve been notified or messaged. These habits aren’t entirely our fault — Silicon Valley has cunningly exploited psychological insights to make social media as addictive and tantalising as possible. Apps prey on our core needs, such as connection, and use them against us. Ever wonder why Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use Apple products? Clue: it wasn’t because he preferred Android.

Most of us have fallen victim to these addictive qualities to some degree. There have been numerous times where I jolt to lucidity and notice I’m mindlessly scrolling through the Instagram feed of my ex three-relationships-past in a fog of melancholy and regret and self-pity, without conscious recollection of how I got there, like the middle of a dream. Sometimes I actively indulge in this brain-numbing activity as a means of procrastination. I doubt I’m alone.

This never-quenchable desire to jack into the Matrix of social media fulfils all the criteria of other forms of addiction — the consistent craving, the mistaken belief one more hit is what we need, a slump in mood when we realise we aren’t satisfied. This level of addiction is real; when excessive internet users stop browsing, they experience withdrawal symptoms. As with all addictions, the behavior is a symptom, not a cause. It’s a form of escape from undesired emotions — be it feelings of lack, restlessness, fear, anxiety, depression, or simply boredom. I’ve also noticed such browsing habits as a form of self-harm. I know looking at my ex’s Instagram makes me feel sad, but I sometimes actively look, indulging in the unpleasant emotion that comes with it.

Escapism, in the manner mentioned above, is the opposite of appreciation. It’s impossible to appreciate when you’re negatively comparing yourself or cyber-teleporting to social media land. Whether we realise it or not, if we constantly find ourselves checking our screen whenever our present moment isn’t satisfying us, on some level, we’re seeking salvation. We’re acting on the impulsive of “my current situation is boring me, it isn’t fun or enjoyable, I need to escape and find something to make me happy.” That happiness, concealed in a like or a comment or social validation, is delivered as a fleeting, superficial hit of dopamine. It’s not the answer.

It Ain’t All Bad… Thankfully

Uhhhh, are you feeling disillusioned? Worry not. Catastrophising the negatives of modern tech wouldn’t be telling the full story, and I told you, I’m a bad-news-first kinda guy. Maybe you don’t need to #DeleteFacebook after all — social media also has some big benefits. Like everything in life, a lot depends on the way we use the tools, and not the tools themselves. For example, the study on feelings of envy and depression when using Facebook also discovered that, when used with the intention to actively connect with others, social media can have a positive effect. Hurray!

Although I’ve listed numerous studies suggesting a multitude of ways social media is no good for our wellbeing, it can have a positive influence on those suffering from severe mental health issues. Those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts have used social media to form communities with those experiencing the same symptoms. In the midst of a depressive episode, it feels as if you’re the only person on Earth feeling that way. The emotional support, reduction in stigma and safe space to share difficult emotions with those who relate is invaluable.

Facebook Helped Me Talk About Depression

I can vouch for this sense of community. When I started university, I’d suffered from depression and anxiety for some years. Though I’d started to understand it, I was still afraid of openly discussing it, other than mentioning it to a few close friends when suitably intoxicated. It was — as it is for many people, particularly men — something I’d kept secret. I felt weak. I felt ashamed. I felt I was somehow a failure. I felt I was pathetic. Everyone else seemed happy, why didn’t I? However, Facebook helped me become comfortable opening up about how I was feeling. Consequently I realised the sense of shame and isolation was the depression talking. It wasn’t truth.

A few years ago, on World Mental Health Day, I posted this Facebook status:

facebook-depression
Facebook can help us understand the way others feel.

I was terrified. Could I post something for all my university peers, friends and family to see, after wasting years of mental energy hiding behind a facade? I still had regular panic attacks around this time, and I was concerned others would tune in to my anxiety, making it worse. Or noticing whenever I was having a bad day, giving me nowhere to hide.

Shaking, I published my “confession.” I was overwhelmed by the words of encouragement and support in response. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear in relief and a weight lifted. It showed me the power of social media for the good, and the power of sharing my experience with depression. Without posting that status, Mind That Ego wouldn’t exist.

I’m not alone, either. Studies have shown that adolescents using social media experience an increase in both cognitive empathy (I understand your situation) and affective empathy (also known as emotional empathy, i.e., my feelings reflect the way you are feeling). This is pretty significant, isn’t it?! For all the talk of the illusion of connection online, if we control the way we use social media, it can enhance the way we relate to each other.

You Are Not Alone

For all its superficiality, there is the opportunity to use social media for genuine connection. As well as mental health communities, those suffering chronic illness find support on social media. Platforms like Facebook are “invaluable for people with health conditions to know that they are not alone, that there are other people who have gone through this and got better,” according to Professor John Powell from Oxford University. The same applies to marginalised groups, too.

Providing the space for such groups to share and feel comfortable doing so has another surprising benefit. While researching this article, I stumbled across another profound reminder social media can indeed be a force for good. A UCLA-led study used Twitter as a tool to research the health needs of transgender and gender non-conforming communities, an area of research traditionally difficult as stigma can prevent transgender people from disclosing their gender identity. By collecting data using transgender-related hashtags, Twitter can be transformed into a tool to support marginalised groups, whose voices struggle to be heard.

To #DeleteFacebook Or Not To #DeleteFacebook

So, what’s the final answer? Ultimately, it comes down your personal relationship with it. Social media isn’t the dreaded boogeyman or life-enhancer; it falls somewhere in between. But what is clear is the need to sit back and reflect on the impact it has on our lives. In what areas does it serve us? Where is it causing us unnecessary harm? What can we change?

I believe that with a little habit changing and closer inspection, we can all find the sweet spot where technology and social media becomes an ally, not an enemy. To conclude, here are a few steps to kick start your positive relationship with social media:

  • Assess your social media habits, honestly. Is your browsing behaviour making you feel a bit shit?
  • Change bad habits. If you scroll Instagram and feel your self-esteem seep away with every image of a chiselled, #Photoshop model on a beach, you have two options — delete the app, or change the way you use it. For the latter, try to actively follow body-positive or socially inspiring accounts that make you feel good. Here’s a list to get you started. This applies to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (COUGH FOLLOW MIND THAT EGO COUGH).
  • Do you have good habits? Great! Increase the time on your device cultivating these habits, whether using relaxation apps or watching educational videos on YouTube (note: cat videos are rarely educational, sorry).
  • Be accountable. Yes, Silicon Valley exploits us, but we can empower ourselves. Don’t passively wish for the days where your only distraction was snake on your Nokia 3210. Take responsibility and use social media for positive activities, such as connecting with friends, arranging events, joining communities.
  • Schedule social media time, don’t let it schedule you. If you don’t feel ready to #DeleteFacebook, instead manage the time you spend online. Be active, not passive — schedule times to log on and connect, and try and avoid passively browsing as a means of distraction.

 

Spirituality

Beyond Belief And Thinking — Is God Love, And How Can We Experience It?

Is God love?
Is Love the collective force of the universe?

This post isn’t planned or researched. No notes jotted, no research saturated in neon highlighter ink, no books reread. I have no idea how I’ll do such an elaborate topic justice, but could I ever do this topic justice, really? It’s humanity’s greatest question, a question that divides, incites, reassures, and ignites, and will never be succinctly answered in this world: does God exist? And if so, what is its nature? The only way to address the topic is through my experience.

Let me begin by immediately addressing the thorn-crown-wearing-elephant-in-the-room. I appreciate the word alone, God, sparks an immediate, visceral response. When I talk of God, I don’t mean an entity, a bearded being in the sky. I don’t mean the societal construct of God, derived from the often dogmatic, power-controlling structures of organised religion. No, God is the term I use to describe the universal, conscious energy behind all matter.

God In The Paradigm Of Thought

Trying to understand God in the paradigm of thought is like measuring temperature with one of those flexible rulers everyone had at secondary school; it’s not an appropriate tool. Conceptualising God on the level of thinking leads to the requirement of belief. Rationally weighing up the arguments for and against God’s existence takes belief to come to the conclusion “God exists” or “God doesn’t exist.” I see belief as required when attempting intellectual, thought-based understanding of the metaphysical — where there is a lack of evidence. Belief by this definition is the mental process of rationalising a concept.

This isn’t exclusive to God or the meaning of life. Most of us, myself included, spend a huge amount of time not perceiving reality as is, but filtering external stimuli to best fit the mind-made constructs about how the world should be. We conceptualise on a daily basis thanks to the power and frequency of thought. Our experience is subjective, playing second fiddle to the 70,000 thoughts rattling around the brain and the kaleidoscopic variety of emotions running through the body. The likes, dislikes, judgements, preconceived ideas, limiting beliefs, so on. Combined, this is what Buddhists call Māyā — the illusion.

Contemporary religions* filter spirituality and the metaphysical through the same process, creating a construct of what, or how, God should be. My aversion to this construct made me a staunch, unashamed atheist. I had absolutely no belief in what I was told the nature of God was. It didn’t work for me, or make any sense, especially when compared to the rationality of science. My attempt at thinking my way into the realm of God left me with one definitive answer — it’s all bullshit.

* As a side note, at their essence, all religions tend to agree on the central ideas of what God is, the same message portrayed in differing metaphor.

Moving From Intellect To Experience

Unfortunately, the “it’s all bullshit” mindset didn’t work out for me. All of us have an innate craving to connect to something bigger than ourselves. A lack of this connection leads to many afflictions, for me a pervasive and inescapable depression. The “it’s all bullshit” motto led me to attempt to satiate the craving of connection in the material world, in external pleasures, fleeting fulfilment and chemical highs. But I was coming up short. The intellectual conclusion, “it’s all bullshit,” clearly wasn’t serving me.

But what happens when we move from the intellect to a place of direct experience? This occurred, unwittingly, when I started meditating. At its most basic level, meditation is a way of stepping back from our thoughts and feelings by focusing elsewhere, typically on the breath. In doing so, we access the place behind thoughts and feelings. When the thinking mind’s vice-like grip relaxes, an inner peace and tranquility can be experienced. In essence, meditation moves us from the realm of concept to the realm of experience.

It’s a liberating place to be. It’s a place where all of the concepts we have about ourselves, the world, and the universe we exist in, dissolve, like snow melting in the blazing sunshine of pure awareness. Peculiarly, my atheistic, “it’s all bullshit” construct melted with it. I moved beyond the place where I rationalised there was no such thing, to a place of direct experience in union with a higher power (I promise you I try my best to avoid phrases like “union with a higher power” but, sometimes, they can’t be avoided).

Beautifully, that higher power was an enhanced and unblemished version of an energy I’d experienced before — love.

The Direct Experience of God

Before I continue, I want to be crystal clear that in describing God, I’m attempting to define the realm of experience within the realm of concept, using language, an inadequate tool. It’s like trying to ctrl + c the binary code of a video game into notepad, hoping to play the game but faced with an abundance of 0s and 1s. The fabric of direct experience is too grandiose for language. But here goes…

To experience God is to experience a presence, a pureness, an awareness. It is to experience a divine link to a dimension beyond the ego and the material, a dimension so assured and righteous, it cannot be explained by knowledge. In moments of clarity, submerged in lukewarm lucidity, a peaceful, palpable sensation is experienced, like jacking into a direct IV drip of love in its undiluted form, “the good shit.”

I want to add an important caveat: throughout the process of my, uhum, “spiritual journey,” my experience has always preceded any attempt to rationalise or understand. But the beauty is, when looking for explanation, I realised how universal and common such experiences are. These shared qualities are at the core of all religions, not just those originating in the East. During a time before long-distance travel or communication, many separate communities shared the same experience, and drew the same conclusions.

Challenging The Concept of Love

I touch on unconditional love in deconstructing the myth of romantic love. Spiritual practice has given me access to the unlimited source of love that doesn’t require an intellectual deconstruction to be validated. It just is. But how does this atheist go from experiencing love during meditation, to the conclusion love is the universal force behind everything?

Well love is universal. Every so often, outside of our control, we see through the veil of Māyā. Removed from the mind’s filter, the celestial sacredness of the world around us is experienced. It rises to the surface in the moments we can’t quite describe, an inextricable beauty, a place beyond the mind, beyond language: staring into our beloved’s eyes, mesmerised by a sunset, a last-minute Wembley winner, a moment of unexpected compassion or shared humanity, or a moment of spontaneous appreciation. These are glimpses of the world’s sacred nature and our place in it.

“God is love” sounds like a fridge magnet you’d find in any respectable retail outlet in Glastonbury during the summer solstice, but that’s the downside of tackling this topic with language. Language is an immensely valuable tool but it can never describe the spiritual experience adequately. The great spiritual teachers are able to write in a way that instead pokes and prods the smouldering ember within you, the place where you just know these things to be true, as if a pool of knowledge lurks deep within the self, and all you have to do is abseil down to bathe in it. But they can never describe the experience. That’s for us to discover by ourselves.

There’s also the risk that, rather than poking and prodding the smouldering ember, words, sentences and beliefs will form a semantic shield, blocking the openness required for direct experience.

Approaching The Universe With Humility

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” — Carl Sagan.

I find great solace in the sweet spot between the direct experience of spirituality, and our understanding of how the material universe operates. In this respect, science, and in particular quantum physics, can be a highly spiritual pursuit — but it requires humility. What we don’t know is just as important as what we know. We know the evolution of the cosmos, from atom to expansive universe, came from the same source. We know through thermodynamics that energy cannot be created or destroyed, and all the energy within the universe is all that ever has been, a message religions have echoed in metaphor for millenia.

Further still, it’s exciting to see slightly outlandish theories beginning to gain credibility. This includes panpsychism, the theory that everything in the material world, down to an individual atom, has some form of consciousness,  mirroring the spiritual notion of a universal consciousness behind all matter. In his theory of biocentrism, highly respected scientist Robert Lanza’s proposes life itself creates the universe, not the other way around; congruent with ideas such as manifestation. Shit like this gives me chills, and the beauty is, it completely fits with spirituality.

As well as the poetic quote above, Carl Sagan also once said we are “atoms contemplating atoms.” Indeed we are, and that in itself is a miracle. But what’s the mystery behind those atoms? If God is love, love is the unseen energy behind contemplating atoms, the universal, conscious, nurturing force behind all matter, responsible for the creation, expansion, evolution. And it’s here, ready for you to experience, to distill into your life, to give you the connection so often sought in the material world, to provide you with new meaning.

It did for me, and it sure beats “it’s all bullshit.”

Features, Relationships

The Myth Of Romantic Love, From A Hopeless Romantic

romantic love.
The myth of romantic love is part of our culture. [Credit: Louise Pomfret]
500 Days of Summer is one of my favourite films. Its best scene shows Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dancing through the streets with a beaming smile, slapping hands of strangers as “You Make my Dreams Come True” plays in the background. Tom is ecstatic; he’s consummated his relationship with the woman he’s infatuated with, Summer (Zooey Deschanel). His celebratory jive personifies something commonly felt — the giddying, joyous insanity of falling in love.

I’ll hold my hands up and admit I’m a hopeless romantic. Or at least I was. A particularly despairing breakup genuinely felt like the end of the world, and I remember a recurring thought popping into my head. How can I be happy without her? This contrasted everything I’d cultivated during my spiritual practice, including self-love, self-compassion and self-acceptance. Suddenly, I realised how much of my well being was placed on something, or someone, outside of myself.

Though heartbreak to some degree is unavoidable, I felt there was much to learn about romantic love, particularly from a spiritual perspective. And there was. What I learned and have since practiced has been of huge value to me, and I believe it can be of huge value to you. But before we break down romantic love and all its imperfections, I want to share my story.

Romantic Love — My Biggest “I’ll Be Happy When”

I’ve always thrived on having a significant other. It was my number one priority, the most important thing. I truly believed in the one and I chased it. In my teens I had a turbulent four-year relationship that defined my understanding of romantic love through direct experience. At university, I met one of the most incredible women I’ve ever had the privilege of bumping into (literally, in a club at god-knows-what hour), leading to a three-year relationship I’ll forever treasure — it was meaningful, boundlessly supportive and unconditionally loving.

Not long after moving to Berlin, I met someone who shook the tectonic plates of my being, flooding my veins with tsunamis of hormonal intoxication. In the following 18 months, I felt anything was possible, that love conquers all, that by loving her I was my best self. Whatever I was chasing, I found it in this relationship — an abundant feeling that floored me and made me feel frantically alive. A pupil-dilating, nothing-else-matters, unbridled passion.

Between these long-term relationships, I had what I’d define as mini-relationships. Dare I say it, I experienced the sickly sweet taste of romantic love in some of those relationships too. Sometimes fleeting, sometimes immediate. But it was there, and it was real. As real as Tom shimmying through the sunshine in post-coitus delight.

Each of these relationships shared similar DNA. Little did I know at the time I was looking in the wrong place, looking for the wrong thing. Though they contained many positive elements, I was searching for something, outside of myself, to give me meaning. Romance had become my biggest “I’ll be happy when,” and I was in denial. The warning signs for my end-of-the-world breakup were imminent.

When I discovered the myth of romantic love, my experience then made sense.

The Common Misconception Of Love

“It’s OK, everyone says it. I say I love Häagen-Dazs and my broadband provider, and I like Sophie more than them.” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show

There’s nothing quite as misunderstood as love. So much so, it’s almost impossible to define adequately. It’s mysterious, subjective, omnipotent, active. However you define it, love is part of the fabric of society. Or “the single most potent force in the universe,” as Roger Walsh says in Essential Spirituality. It’s the most human of human traits, a positive influence on evolution and fundamentally the best thing in the world. But it’s misunderstood.

Walsh highlights how most of us experience love as helpless victims. It’s something powerful taking over us without our consent. Walsh refers to this type of love as false-love, coming from a place of inadequacy and fear. False-love (romantic love, infatuation or attachment) is a form of craving, another “I’ll be happy when.” It’s what I was chasing all those years, unaware I was doing so because I didn’t feel adequate. I didn’t love myself, so I searched for that love from others as a way of feeling complete. Walsh summarises this misconception better than I ever could:

“One of the great tragedies of our times is that our culture has confused love with addiction. Of course, there are also more mature forms of love, and healthy relationships and families depend on them. Mature love is based more on sufficiency and wholeness than deficiency and fear. But fear-based infatuation and craving for affection are so common and fill so much of the media that we sometimes assume this is all love can be.”

In The Road Less Travelled, American psychologist M. Scott Peck agrees. He defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Peck highlights the importance of true love (mature love, unconditional love) being a willing, deliberate act. Further still, Peck argues romantic love impedes spiritual growth. To understand why, we need to look at the process of falling in love.

Falling in Love

Peck provides two reasons why falling in love isn’t true love. First, falling in love is exclusively linked to sexual attraction. Second, it is temporary. Ricky-of-the-past, as we shall refer to him, sought this temporary, fleeting sensation as if it were the elixir of life. It’s hardly surprising as this is one of the most addictive, potent forces known to the human race. Falling in love changes your worldview, it breaks down barriers.

And here’s the interesting thing — Peck and other esteemed psychologists refer to the process of falling in love as the temporary collapse of ego boundaries. Our ego boundaries are the limits of self. A newborn child has no ego boundaries; it sees the world as part of itself. It’s only when we mature these boundaries fall into place, giving us a sense of identity separating “I” from “everything else.” The downside to separation is that, as social animals, all of us want to feel like we connect, like there’s more than ourselves, that we’re not alone in this world.

Nothing erodes ego boundaries so ferociously as falling in love. The collapse of ego boundaries creates the illusion of your beloved becoming a part of you. Loneliness becomes a thing of the past as two become one (as cultural sages The Spice Girls acknowledge). Everything seems possible, every experience shared in blissful union. To your brain, the feeling of ecstasy created by falling in love is a real as, well, ingesting ecstasy or snorting cocaine.

Love Is A Drug, And It’s Addictive

“Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love.” — Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love.”

Prominent anthropologist Helen Fisher has spent her career exploring what happens to the brain when falling in love. Her 2005 study used an functional MRI scanner to analyse the brains of people who were wildly in love. The study concluded that romantic love is not an emotion but a motivation system, distinct from the sex drive, aiding mate-choice. Whereas the sex drive applies to multiple partners, the romantic love drive focuses all of our energies onto one lucky partner.

Fisher and her team at Rutgers University further break the brain’s chemical makeup of love into three distinct sections: lust, attraction and attachment. Lust is the sexual drive to pass on our genes, the chemicals released here are testosterone and estrogen. Attraction is the same as”falling in love.” Here, dopamine — the brain’s reward system — is released in huge doses.

Curiously, dopamine is linked to all kinds of addiction. The area of the brain most active when falling in love also ignites when taking cocaine or binge-eating. In essence, romantic love is a very real a chemical addiction… to another human being.

The final category, attachment, is the sense of connection. The key chemical here is oxytocin, released to help humans bond together — it’s released during sex, when a woman breastfeeds, during childbirth. It’s also known as the hug hormone. Combined with lust and attraction, oxytocin exacerbates the mind-fuck concoction of hormones released in the brain when falling in love.

Falling Out Of Love Is When True Love Begins

The collapse of ego boundaries is fleeting. People “fall out of love,” the honeymoon period ends, and ego boundaries return. Once they do, there’s a sudden realisation that you and your beloved are individual. You each have your own wants, needs and desires. For Ricky-of-the-past, this experience made me feel the relationship was a failure. I felt the need to chase the feeling of falling again. But this is out of our control, as Peck states:

“Discipline and will can only control the experience, they cannot create it. We can choose how to respond to the experience of falling in love, but we cannot choose the experience itself.”

Due to the potency of falling in love, falling out of love is sometimes seen as the beginning of the end. But Peck believes this is the opposite. Once ego boundaries have returned and delirium has settled, true love can begin. It’s the point where we have to make a conscious, willing choice to enact love.

True love is being capable of supporting oneself emotionally and feeling whole alone, but choosing to be with another. Peck concludes:

“All couples learn that true acceptance of their own and each other’s individuality and separateness is the only foundation upon which a mature marriage can be based, and real love can grow.”

A healthy, fulfilling and possibly life-long relationship is based in the foundation of two people choosing to be together while nurturing their own and their partner’s spiritual growth. If this sounds a lot like friendship, that’s because it is. If it sounds like the conclusion of a healthy relationship is essentially long-term friends with benefits, you wouldn’t be too wide of the mark.

The majority of relationships don’t evolve into true love, though. Due to the addictive quality of falling in love and the collapse of ego boundaries, many relationships easily regress to codependency. Dependency, or attachment, is not a form of love.

The Confusion Between Dependency and Love

“I can’t live, if living is without you.” — Harry Nilsson, “Without You.”

I’ll be brutally honest. Years ago, when experiencing depression, anxiety and perpetual existential dread, I had within me a overwhelming sense I wasn’t complete, that I was lacking. This is common. For most of us, when we experience this sense of lack, which can be so palpable and drip into everything we do, we look outside of ourselves to fill it — sex, drugs, adulation, adrenaline, success, Facebook likes… or someone else’s love or attention. We become dependent on these things to give us a sense of worth, to make us feel whole, to complete us. It’s the sense of wholeness I found in relationships that led to an emotional dependency, a sense of seeking validation from my romantic partner.

Love dog
Love is a mad dog from hell. [Credit: Louise Pomfret]
Peck defines dependency in relationships as the inability to feel whole or function without the certainty of being cared for by another. More subtly, dependency occurs when your partner fuses with your sense of identity or self-worth. Dependency is linked to all sorts of suffering, and impedes spiritual growth. So why is this unhealthy trait confused with love, and even celebrated?

The Myth of Romantic Love In Culture

“I love you. You… you complete me.” — Jerry Maguire (1996)

Aside from the hangover left by the debauched orgy of hormones partying like it’s 1999 in the brain, the painful underbelly of romantic love, and all the unhealthy habits it brings, is enhanced by the myth that is perpetrated by our culture. The love songs, the movies, the poems, the art. This is by no means a modern creation. It stretches all the way back to Greek mythology. In Plato’s Symposium, playwright of the time Aristophanes presented the story of soul mates. The story says that humans were originally androgynous. Afraid they’d eventually threaten the Gods, Zeus split them in half. The two halves then spent the rest of their lives searching for the other.

Regardless of the concept of the one, the components of the myth and the way it has permeated our culture is responsible for creating unrealistic expectations of what romance is. I know my expectations have been high in the past. I watch too many movies. As Peck says:

“Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth.”

What’s The Answer?

Romantic love is often confused with unconditional love because it has similar traits. Though a cheap imitation, it pulls back the veil that deceives us into thinking we are separate, it allows us sip of the rich nectar of oneness, it gives us a free-trial of what the world can look like. Simply put, romantic love makes us realise the mundane, the day-to-day, the confines of mind and monotony of the daily grind isn’t all there is. It makes us believe in miracles and sample the mystery of the universe, and for that reason alone can be considered sacred.

“Whereas addictive love is based on a painful sense of lack and need, this greater love is based on overflowing fullness and joy. Spiritual love has no desire to get but to give, no goal except to awaken itself within others, no need except to share itself. Being unconditional, it never fails or falters; being boundless, it embraces everyone.” — Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality.

Romantic love remains mysterious and spellbinding. We know the brain’s chemical response, but not why that special someone triggers it. We don’t know why a glance or a touch or a smile or a shared moment can shake us to the core. The point being, romantic love isn’t something to be feared, but something to be understood. Best of all, it’s important to remember it contains a fraction of the power of unconditional love.

A love that when cultivated is assured, eternal, everywhere, available, now.

How has the myth of romantic love affected your life? Let me know in the comments.