I Feel Ugly Out in Public

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Reader’s Question

Why is it that, when I’m by myself and look in the mirror I feel a little pretty, but when I’m out in public or post my picture online, I feel ugly — so disgusting — and like a lot of people don’t like or care about me? I try, and sometimes I have to be social, but usually I feel like an outcast. Is there any hope for me?

Psychologist’s Reply

I’m a big believer in hope. It’s what keeps us going when things don’t feel like they’re going our way. So yes, there is certainly hope for you and hopefully (heh), you’ll hold onto it with both hands.

Body image concerns are very complicated. When we are by ourselves, we can focus on what is right with our appearance, but when we go out in public (virtual or otherwise), how we look is on display. Thus, the public exhibition aspect may be the source of the discrepancy between how you feel when you’re alone and how you feel when you’re among others. One circumstance allows for positive feeling while the other situation can lead to feeling judged.

The thoughts and feelings you describe are very common ones. I think most people, even those considered conventionally beautiful, feel some degree of worry about how others will respond to us. Our culture puts a great deal of emphasis on how we look, so it natural that we all have concern about how people perceive us. However, this is where we get into trouble because this emphasis (dare I say obsession?) on body image leads to all sorts of unhealthy behaviors. Body image difficulties can cause everything from eating disorders and excessive plastic surgery, to body mutilation (like lopping off toes in order to fit into certain shoes), and low self-esteem.

The key to dealing with this damaging cultural issue is to do what we call cognitive restructuring, or changing the way you think about it. The first step is becoming more positive about your body and appearance. You mentioned that you feel a little pretty, so I would start there and expand on that feeling. Instead of looking for flaws, search for what is right. One of the problems with the body obsession is that we focus on the superficial. In trying to reverse this, look for the underlying depth to your body. Figure out the parts of you that are strong, structurally sound or just plain good. Perhaps you have muscular calves, shiny hair, good bone structure, excellent hearing or soulful eyes. Think about what your body does for you on a daily basis, and focus on that.

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The second step is letting go of the concern about what others think about you. Your job is to look as presentable as you want to be and then forget about it. The fact is that you can never truly know what others are thinking, so it is useless to try. Assume that they are thinking something good about you (chances are good that this is true) and move forward. One way to do this is to keep the focus on what you are doing, instead of worrying about what they are thinking. For example, if you are giving a presentation, don’t get distracted by wondering how you look, but focus on the message you need to impart. Similarly, if you are having a conversation with someone, don’t be concerned about whether they find you attractive, but instead think about the topic and how you feel about the discussion. This change in focus (thinking about how you feel versus worrying about others) will also help you feel less like an outcast.

Doing cognitive restructuring is a challenging process, but it does provide results. However, please know that it takes time and effort. So, keep that hope close to you and let it keep you motivated to grow and change.

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