So this morning I heard a song in my trampoline exercise class (which is fabulous, as you can imagine) with a chorus of “Only you can make me feel beautiful.” Me being me, I started thinking about all the times that people tell others how beautiful they are.
First and foremost, one of the hallmarks of individuation is being able to know who you are and what you think about yourself, not being moved from who you are by feedback from others. Gestalt therapy notes one of the issues leading to neurosis is a lack of clear boundaries between “me” and “not me.” In our internet articles, magazines, books, and movies, it is emphasized how “sexy” confidence is and how we have to be our own people. However, this overt message contrasts with the covert messages in the products of popular culture; in this case, music and movies are the most obvious examples.
A lot of responsibility is placed on our partners for our feelings. We assure people that we can see beyond the outside and we like what we see. We place our very survival on another person simply being around. The number of these messages is tremendous and transcends genres and generations.
Aside from the obvious neediness and lack of our own lives here, there are a few intersections with mental health theory which may not be so stark. Firstly, women (and men, to a lesser extent) are stuck waiting for their perfect partner. I can’t be beautiful unless someone’s telling me I am. I can’t feel beautiful if my partner doesn’t constantly assure me I am. I can’t feel beautiful and be single. I can’t feel beautiful when my partner isn’t making me feel I am.
The other aspect has to do with a defensive reaction, something we’ve talked extensively about and that motivational interviewing therapy is built to reduce. When we’re told something, that we should do something or we are a certain way, a lot of us have a knee jerk reaction, a defense, that NO WAY reaction. Even when it’s a “good” thing or “good” behavior we’re being pushed into. The problem is the push.
Does telling someone they’re beautiful defeat the purpose? I know when someone tells me they’re having a bad hair day, and I tell them it looks fine, most of the time they dig in their heels to convince me I’m wrong and they’re right. In psychology circles, it’s known as the confirmation bias and surprisingly (or not), it confirms we’d rather be right than happy. We’d rather confirm I’m right about being ugly than be wrong and be beautiful.
The point isn’t to stop telling our partners they are beautiful or to stop accepting complements, but that we first need to change our self-concept and correct the stories we tell ourselves. Only when we see ourselves as beautiful can we hear and appreciate others telling us the same.