The other day, I was listening to a patient explain to me why he was ugly and no one could possibly find him attractive.
This was news to me, because so far as I could tell he was a very handsome guy – film star handsome. It was a puzzling case.
Let’s talk about beauty – plain old physical appearance.
The first steadfast rule is summed up by the old cliche – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
If you’ve never thought about what that really means, let’s do it here.
The fact is there is no standard for beauty. That’s a myth. The gossip mags and entertainment shows on television hold up one star after another as the ideal, but it’s not true. Only you decide to whom you are attracted, and your taste doesn’t have to match anyone else’s.
Different eras have held widely varying ideas about what is beautiful. Even now, Americans are only beginning to open their eyes to the beauty of different ethnicities whose images were almost entirely absent from the popular media for centuries.
Just as you have a right to decide whom you think is beautiful – other people have that right, too. And it is quite possible someone might decide his ideal of beauty is…you.
My patient had been told by various people that he was handsome, and some had even attempted to pursue him, but he’d always dismissed their interest. He couldn’t accept that other people didn’t see what he saw when he looked in the mirror: he was too short, had bad skin, bad teeth, a bump on his nose. Even as he enumerated these terrible flaws, I strained to see what he was talking about. I looked – and saw a handsome guy.
The problem wasn’t with how this guy looked. It was with the messages he was given as a child.
His parents had him when they were very young, and their marriage soon broke up. The father, caught up in a nasty divorce battle, fought for custody of my patient and won it, only to dump the boy on resentful relatives. My patient grew up receiving the message that his presence was a nuisance – that people wished he wasn’t there. He learned that he was nothing special – certainly no one whom anyone would notice or be attracted to.
My patient went on to succeed in his career, against the odds. Despite his parents’ disinterest, he worked hard in school and rose to an impressive position in the business world. But he still felt ugly – nothing special. His physical appearance became a container for all the feelings his parents put in him about himself.
In our session, I reminded him that his parents were old now, and far away – he hardly saw them anymore. Nowadays he was the one in charge of parenting the little boy inside him. And he was doing a lousy job of it.
I asked him when he first became ugly.
I asked him whether he was ugly back when he was a little boy. Was he ugly at 6? At 10? At 12? When did the ugliness first arrive?
He shrugged, and said he’d always felt that way.
I asked him if there was such a thing as an ugly little boy.
He said, no, probably not.
So were you ugly when you were 7?
He said he didn’t know – probably.
I said of course not. There is no such thing as an ugly 7 year old. In fact there is no such thing as an ugly child. No child is ugly because every child is unique and beautiful.
So why are you treating this child with such cruelty – telling him such terrible things about who he is?
The messages my patient was addressing to his child were the same ones his parents sent him. A psychotherapist calls these messages “negative introjects” – voices that were put inside you as a child, messages that keep playing years later, like:
You are a nuisance. You are nothing special. You are always in the way. We wish you weren’t here.
I asked him to create some healthier messages for his child self.
He looked at me blankly. Like what?
Well, let’s pretend your mother wasn’t absent from your life when you were little. Let’s pretend she took you up in her lap when you were a boy and said something like:
You are my little one, my precious little fellow. You are handsome and good and you make me proud. You are my boy, my special boy. You are beautiful. You are my treasure.
Tears started to run down my patient’s face.
She never said anything like that.
I know. But you can say it. You don’t have to feel ugly. There’s nothing ugly in you and nothing ugly about you. You deserve love because you are beautiful. Inside and out.
Please don’t tell your child he is ugly. He isn’t. He’s you, and he deserves your love, so he can learn to accept love from the world outside. It’s critical to his happiness. Please be a better parent to that little child.