I’ve Lost Weight But Freak Out Over Compliments

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Reader’s Question

Over the past few years, I have lost a lot of weight and have gained many friends. However, I realized that I cannot receive compliments about my new physical self. When someone gives me even one nice compliment, it freaks me out. I know I should love hearing these, but every time I do, I quickly turn away. What is wrong with me?

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds as though your experience illustrates the fact that body image and the physical body are two distinct concepts. Researchers and clinicians frequently refer to body image as the mental representation we each have of our own bodies — how we see ourselves in terms of size, appearance, attractiveness, and so forth. For many people body image and actual physical self are fairly similar, but for many others, there is a distinct discrepancy, especially when the physical body undergoes substantial change.

A distorted or unrealistic body image is often inherent in clinical eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. In that particular disorder, sufferers typically see themselves as larger or fatter than their actual bodies are objectively. That’s not to say that such individuals literally “see” themselves in mirrors or photographs as larger than they are (although some may), but their mental representations of themselves seem rigidly fixed and not reflective of their actual weight or size.

With anorexia nervosa, the distorted body image serves as a continual motivation to lose weight, no matter how thin the person becomes. You did not mention any disordered eating in your case, which is something to be thankful for (and if that is not the case, professional treatment is certainly appropriate). All of that said, it sounds as though your body image has not changed to match your new size and shape, which has changed substantially. So, drawing attention to your appearance may tap into lingering sensitivities or insecurities. In the past, having someone pay attention to your size or shape most likely was an uncomfortable experience.

In general, when we encounter anxiety or discomfort, the natural response is to flee and find relief. So, when someone compliments you and your attention is drawn to the fact that the person is “seeing” and evaluating your physical appearance, it makes sense that such awareness causes anxiety from your old body image. Quickly deflecting or diverting such attention may “work” to some degree in lessening the anxiety, but then that response is reinforced and strengthened as the most likely one when you encounter such anxiety in the future. To make lasting change toward greater comfort with compliments, it’s time to break that association between anxiety and attention for your appearance.

When someone pays you a compliment, simply try saying, “thank you.” That may be difficult enough at first; it’s okay to let the idea of smiling slide for awhile (that can be added with a bit of practice). The key is to anticipate that this will be your new “automatic” response to compliments. Imagine this response and mentally practice so that you’re not caught off guard in an actual experience of an unexpected compliment. You needn’t even think about the compliment or your response at the time, simply go with your new autopilot behavior: smile and “thank you.” It shouldn’t take many instances before compliments no longer produce the discomfort they do now, and your automatic response will indeed become more genuine and reflective of your own comfort with receiving positive attention based on your appearance.

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