Friday, 7 June 2013

Why I struggle with appearance based compliments

I really struggle with compliments, particularly those based around appearance. A huge part of this is related to self esteem. All compliments bother me simply because I find it really hard to believe them. I never feel like I'm good enough so it's hard to accept compliments at face value. I am working on that though, particularly when it comes to accepting them gracefully. 

With appearance based compliments, I struggle for other reasons too. Firstly there is Body Dysmporphic Disorder (BDD). BDD is horrible. On the one hand, I know that what I see when I look at myself is not what other people see. On the other, what I see is my reality. I might logically understand that I have a very distorted view of myself, but that understanding hasn't thus far translated into being able to change how I perceive myself. 

For me, my body is all out of proportion. It just doesn't fit together properly and looks all wrong. My face is so full of flaws it has quite literally made me sick to look at it before now. Simply put, there is no physical aspect of myself that I really like except possibly my eyes. Though saying dislike is not a strong enough word, it doesn't go far enough in explaining my lived experience of this disorder. It's not as simple as not liking what I see, it is a feeling that I am so ugly it's not possible for other people to feel anything but disgust when they look at me. It's bad enough to prevent me leaving the house at times, just for fear of other people's reactions. There are days where I honestly believe people will be so revolted by me they will at best laugh and point, at worst harm me. There are days when I feel that if someone has to look at me, it will ruin their day.

So, in light of that it's pretty damn hard to accept a compliment. If someone compliments me on how I look, the first thing that pops into my head is 'they're lying.' The second is 'why'. Then I have to give myself a stern talking to and try to remind myself that I have a disorder and my reality is not theirs.

There's another aspect related to this too. For me to leave the house takes a lot of effort. I've generally speaking gone to a lot of effort to make myself look as good as possible but once I'm out I try to avoid thinking about my looks at all. It's hard, but I do things like ban myself from looking in the mirror when I go to the loos, or carrying a mirror around with me. I try to lose myself in whatever company I'm keeping and whatever activity I'm doing. When someone tells me I look nice I am then forced to think about how I look. Once I've worked my ways past the 'they're lying, why' thing, I then reach the 'is it possible I actually do look alright' part. This seems so implausible to me that I have to then check. It's a compulsion and one I find it takes a lot of determination and energy to fight. Many days, I don't succeed.

Once I've looked in the mirror, I can't stop. I find myself making excuses to go to where a mirror is so I can start at myself and try to figure out what it was that someone saw and liked. This inevitably leads to me not finding anything to like and then feeling distressed and upset. On a good day, I will spend the rest of the day checking my appearance, fixing my hair and make-up and altering my clothes to make sure they are hiding my biggest problem areas. On a bad day I have to go home as I can't cope with being outside looking the way I do.

Then there are the times I've made a special effort, such as going out clubbing, to a party, a nice dinner or a wedding. On those occasions I crave and need compliments. I will repeatedly ask my partner if I look OK and need almost constant reassurance that I do. Not that I can believe it for long, but it helps briefly. I once burst into tears on a lovely girl in the ladies loos because she told me she liked my hair, which I had been convinced all night looked wrong. After events like this, I count up the amount of unsought compliments I was given, particularly by strangers. Each time I get less than my current 'personal best' I hate myself for not having done enough to look bearable. It's tiring work.

Finally, there is the simple fact that the compliment IS based around appearance. I struggled every day to focus on other things, things I recognise as more important. I might not feel comfortable about compliments on my work, my writing, my ability to be a good friend but they are to my way of thinking far more valuable. They are about who I am as a person, rather than simply what I look like. When people compliment me on what I look like, rather than what I am doing then it reinforces the idea that my appearance is the most - possibly only - important thing about me. 

I find that it bothers me less when people say 'Hey, I just wanted to tell you I really appreciate how much you helped me out the other day. Incidentally, you're looking fab today.' Than if they approach me just to tell me I look nice. It makes me feel a bit more valued, simply because as well as liking how I look, they seem to like me as a person too. Which is far more important to me. 

I still haven't figured out this whole messy area of compliments, but I intend to keep working on it. Right now I have mastered the art of smiling and saying thank you, even if inside it has set my stomach churning with anxiety. Maybe one day, I'll be able to smile, say thank you and feel good that someone likes something about me. Here's hoping!

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