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How I monitor my body image issues & what they signal for me when they re-appear in my recovery

To be a man and to be honest about body image issues is definitely not en vogue.

It is not confidence inspiring.

It is not sexy.

Yet I feel it is a very big issue that lurks in today’s “beauty culture.”

I am someone who openly admits I struggled with major body image issues and downright body dysmorphia in the past (I guess you could call it muscle dysmorphia if you want to be even more specific).

This issue stemmed from a total lack of internal identity leaving me entirely reliant on the validation from others.

I’m sure the fact I was unathletic, small, and weak compared to my peers growing up (which led to getting picked on quite a bit as I still attempted to play sports through high school and hang with the “jock” crowd) had something to do with this as well.

Having this unresolved issue of body dysmorphia that I refused to discuss with anyone led to a very complicated relationship with fitness, my physique, and my food.

I used my outsides to falsely define my insides and assigned my morality to the quality of my workouts, my physique, and my food choices.

Let’s not forget I was a full-blown drug addict alcoholic including the use of athletic drugs, so to say I was punishing myself not only mentally and emotionally, but physically as well is an understatement.

I was (and still am) obsessed with fitness and in particular lifting weights.

This die-hard obsession should have be something that empowered me and gave me confidence, but instead it controlled me and became a way to punish myself.

Obviously I needed to do a lot of work on myself when I came into Recovery, including figuring out how I was going to deal with my body dysmorphia.

Now for me – and this is just for me – this meant getting involved in 12 step fellowships and partaking in therapy.

I decided to NOT return to exercise and in particular lifting weights once I first got clean and sober – no I took time to work on myself and create a foundation of Recovery.

Once I felt a little more secure and a little less self-loathing, I slowly started returning to exercise and in particular lifting weights.

I took it very, very slow; and I didn’t do any type of dieting for well over 2 years and just focused on enjoying working out in my new clean and sober life.

I hadn’t worked out stone cold sober or clean basically ever, so it was a new and fascinating experience.

I have found that over the years of growing in my Recovery that if I start to feel myself become insecure with my physique, or beat myself up over a bad workout, or shame myself after a late night binge of junk food….it’s a big sign my spiritual condition is lacking.

Now, I know “spiritual condition” is pretty vague so let me expound on what I mean.

If I find myself starting to obsess about my physique, or whether or not I had a “perfect” workout, or if I beat myself up for not making the smartest of food choices I need to ask myself several things:

1) Have I been isolating?

When I isolate I tend to start to get stuck in my head more, my perfectionism starts to return in combination with wanting to play the victim. I also lose touch with just HOW GREAT my life is these days if I am left alone with the three stooges – me, myself, and I.

2) Have I been spending too much time looking at others in the fitness industry?

Sure I need to constantly be learning from the newest studies and analyzing trends in fitness to stay up to date with my job of being a personal trainer and online blogger whose mission is to blend fitness with recovery – SPOILER ALERT: most trends are garbage that recycle every 10-15 years or so – but subconsciously if I am spending a lot of top looking at top tier physiques I start to compare myself like I used to compare myself to muscle comics, and of course I will never be satisfied.

3) Have I been in an attitude of gratitude lately?

For me it’s as simple as this – a grateful addict or alcoholic (or whatever you identify by) will NEVER relapse. Yes I hate gratitude lists, but yes they are extremely helpful in keeping me grounded and present in the awesomeness that is my new clean and sober lifestyle. Not only do I simply need to be grateful…I need to have gratitude which involves action. I was taught this distinction in treatment and it’s one that I do my best to remember today:

“Being grateful is seeing dog sh*t on the sidewalk and stepping over that dog sh*t and being happy you didn’t step in it. Having gratitude is spotting that same piece of dog sh*t and picking it up so no one else has to.”

4) How has my self-talk been lately?

How I talk to myself on a daily basis makes all the difference in the world. Am I going to follow a fixed mindset talking pattern (it is what it is there is nothing I can do to fix things or improve) or a growth mindset talking pattern (every challenge is an opportunity to improve and get stronger)? The reality is no matter how ego-centric this seems – I AM THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE WORLD TO ME – if I don’t take care of myself, I am no good to anyone is. Recovery is a selfless, selfish endeavor – I have to be selfish and take care of myself first if I am to be ultimately of service to and help others. Therefore I need to be speaking positively and empathetically to myself while still holding myself accountable.

Like my Recovery, my handle on my body image issues are going to be fluid.

Most days I am fine and don’t have an issue – I can work my butt off and be pretty damn strict with my eating and not feel totally obsessive or controlled by these acts.

Like I said, most days it isn’t an issue – but it does re-surface.

So let’s say I find old behaviors and thought patterns start to creep back in my head.

I ask myself the above questions and that’s when I always realize that I have been falling short in those categories and my answers are not what they should be.

Well, obviously I make my best effort to correct them; but I’ll admit sometimes it just isn’t enough to take corrective action because it takes time for my positive changes to “build up” enough to undo the days or potentially weeks of backsliding prior.

So that’s when I really have to examine where I am.

If I find that my obsession has returned to the point of starting to control me or impact my mental and emotional well-being…well….I don’t have time to mess around – drastic action MUST be done.

A few months ago this had started to happen to me and I was not OK with how it was impacting me on a once again daily basis.

I had been isolated because I was now self-employed and working seemingly non-stop to get my projects off the ground.

I had been spending my little free time on the internet looking at what other successful (and consequently “ripped”) people were doing and spent a lot of time analyzing their tactics and products.

My regular Recovery routine was nowhere near as involved as it normally was and it was starting to catch up to me.

Because I was working so hard at putting together perfect pictures my projects I was starting to become overly-critical of my physique.

Plus, I had been dieting pretty hard for several months and the chronic hunger and calorie restrictions were starting to get to me mentally (oh the mental tricks this does to us!).

So I was worse than striking out – I was 0 for 4.

As a result, when I looked at my physique in the mirror I was way too critical – looking first at my perceived shortcomings instead of the amazing results I was enjoying being entirely drug free for the first time in my life.

I was purposefully attempting to eat excess junk in my daily allotment of calories (something I normally don’t do) and then beating myself up when I did.

In short, I was returning to my previous insanity.

NOT A GOOD LOOK ON ME, ESPECIALLY NOW THAT I AM CLEAN AND SOBER AND SUPPOSED TO BE RECOVERING!

So I knew I needed drastic action and so this is what I did:

1) I immediately quit dieting and quit weighing and tracking my food intake but made an effort to not go into an all-out binge – my guess is I returned to eating 3500-4000 calories per day which yes was more than it should have been but I did my best to make peace about it and not assign morality to this.
2) I immediately quit tracking my workouts but still continued to work out though I didn’t change how I lifted weights.
3) I immediately cut back on my extra cardio sessions and kept them to my morning routine only.
4) I immediately got back into the solution of making my Recovery my first and foremost priority. As I mentioned above, for me this meant more meetings, return to service commitments, and getting on the phone more with others in Recovery.
5) I immediately started saying yes to social invitations instead of staying home to work or just veg out on TV after “a hard day’s work.”

The results weren’t immediate, but by the end of the first week I was feeling much better and at the end of two months of doing those things I felt completely restored to sanity in regards to body image.

So much so I have actually returned to a conservative diet and extra cardio strategy, which I recognize may be insanity in action, but I feel I learned valuable lessons from my recent slip-up.

To ensure I don’t make the same mistakes again I am making meeting attendance and socializing with others in Recovery mandatory, I am practicing more daily meditation and performing “temperature checks” throughout the day with how I am talking to myself, and I am forcing me to say my physique improvements out loud if I start to examine my progress in the mirror.

So far so good.

Sure it’s only been about a week and a half, but I am happy with my progress – yet I know I need to be on my guard to catch any slip ups far sooner than I did last time when it comes to body image and my relationship with fitness.

Remember, becoming and staying fit should be a process that EMPOWERS us – not CONTROLS us or used as a tool to SHAME ourselves into action.

It takes practice to develop this ability similar to developing our fitness ability.

Neither of those just appear overnight.

It takes dedication and consistency.

It happens just one day at a time.

One set at a time.

One rep at a time.

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