Pregnancy and Postpartum

Struggling with body image during pregnancy

struggling with body image. weight scale. prenatal appointments and weighing in

The worst part of prenatal visits? Going to your healthcare provider’s office and stepping on that scale at Every. Single. Appointment. As if you need any reminder that your weight is increasing at an alarming rate. You know this. You feel huge. No other pregnant mom looks as big as you do. You shouldn’t have eaten that extra serving. Why won’t these pants fit anymore? … Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? Struggling with body image is a huge frustration during and after pregnancy.

Being pregnant can be incredibly challenging if you’re struggling with body image or disordered eating. Yes, rationally you’re aware that this peanut growing inside of you is taking up a lot of real estate. You’ve read all of the instagram posts about body positivity, and know you “shouldn’t” be feeling this way. But, all of that aside, you still feel lousy when you see your reflection or step on the scale. So what can you do? If you’re struggling with body image, here are some thoughts to consider:

Re-assess “normal weight gain” in pregnancy

When you’re pregnant, your body is truly being taken over. Your metabolism shifts, your energy wanes, stretch marks suddenly appear. It’s natural, and it’s hard. When you’ve spent a long time meticulously taking care of your weight and appearance, these drastic changes to your body feel jarring. Check in with yourself about how you are seeing these changes. Is there shame and personalization involved? Are you feeling at fault for gaining “too much”?

body mass index (BMI) and impact on body image. Addressing BMI during pregnancy. healthy weight gain guidlines

Unfortunately, we have been given guidelines that it’s “normal and healthy” to gain 15-30 pounds during pregnancy. But this number is based on BMI, which research continues to point out is a flawed system for assessing health. Your recommended weight gain varies on so many factors. This number shifts based on whether your BMI was over or under prior to pregnancy. Your weight gain will vary if you are having twins. The number on the scale will look different if you’re struggling with hyperemesis gravidarum or if you’re managing your nausea by eating differently. In reality, only a third of pregnancies stay with the recommended weight gain, while about 50% gain beyond this number.

Speaking for my own body, with my first son I gained 45 pounds during my pregnancy, whereas I gained 20 with my second. I didn’t do anything differently. Bodies changes and babies are different. It isn’t personal. You’re not doing it wrong. That number on the scale doesn’t say anything about you or how well you are doing this pregnancy.

It will not be forever

This is not your forever shape or size. I do not have a crystal ball to confirm you will go back to your pre-baby weight, and I won’t deny that perhaps you’ve gained weight. However, the size you are while pregnant does not stay on forever. Whether it’s 6 weeks postpartum or 6 months postpartum, your body will change after delivery. Remind yourself as many times as needed that it took you 9 months to help your baby develop. Give your body at least 9 months to settle back to what it considers is the “new normal”.

Find safe others

Talking to safe person about body image. Struggling with body image during pregnancy.

It’s easy to feel isolated with our crummy feelings. Body positivity is an amazing trend that our culture is trying to lean into; however, it doesn’t leave much space to acknowledge when we are struggling. When we feel ashamed or alone in our thoughts, it can be debilitating. We become worried that others will judge us, shame us or minimize our feelings. If you have judgmental folks like this in your life, they are not the ones to turn to right now.

Find those who truly appreciate how hard this is for you. They know that you want to be healthy AND they respect that body image is something you’re struggling with today. This person doesn’t need to know how to fix the situation. Instead, they just need to let you know that you’re heard, you’re loved, and you will always be safe with them irrespective of how your body looks.

Use movement

using movement to help address prenatal weight anxiety. walking to help with pregnancy and body image

During pregnancy, find ways to move whenever possible. Let go of the standards that you used to meet whether it was a certain distance, speed, repetitions, or weight level. Focus instead on what movements means to you. For me, movement provides me opportunities to let go of stress, it helps my body feel strong, and it helps me feel energized. Once I stopped trying to meet my old standards, it felt easier to accept that this is what exercise could do for me today.

Our Society and Thin Privilege

I won’t deny that being thin and beautiful doesn’t have privileges (read more about thin privilege). Thin privilege allows for your weight to not define you and how you move through your environment and world. There is an awful amount of discrimination with fat phobia. People living in a larger body have been overlooked, groaned at, or mocked because of their weight. In these situations, being thin means they will finally receive respect and courtesy from other people. Being thin means the ability to walk into a store and actually be able to buy clothes. If you’ve been subjected to others’ fat phobia, you may have coped by maintaining a certain weight. Pregnancy has thrown this weight plan out the window.

If being pregnant or weight gain puts you into a space of losing your self-respect or self-worth, that’s not okay. It’s not okay for society to put you in this position or for you to suffer simply because of the way your body naturally flows. So how do we learn to externalize this? How do we shift from assuming there is something wrong with us to there is something biased and unfair about the culture we live in?

Tips for boosting body image:

tips for improving body image. shifting the way we think about our bodies. diet culture. comparing.
  • Diversify what you see: Follow influencers of all shapes and sizes. Follow those who look like you and don’t look like you.
  • Stop the comparison game: Envy is a tough emotion to contend with, and it leaves us feeling lacking. Start by checking the facts: do you know for sure that this person truly has more than you? Do these factors make them better or happier than you?
  • Highlight your own positive attributes: Notice what is awesome about you, and spend time acknowledging these positive traits. e.g. expressing pride in your career or grades, appreciating the health of your relationships
  • Become critical of toxic diet culture: We all know it’s out there. Start by challenging these constantly shifting body ideals. Unfollow or speak up about the companies and individuals that make you feel bad about your body.
  • Focus on what your body is doing for you: What are your thighs, arms, and belly meant to do? What are their functions? Focusing on their role as a function vs.

What are you avoiding by focusing on body image and food?

Sometimes body image acts as a (horrible, awful, exasperating) scapegoat for our actual struggles. By focusing on that number on the scale, you may find that you can avoid addressing other things. You spend hours staring at the fridge, planning meals, going to the gym, organizing your closet with “comfy” clothes, that you don’t have time to deal with the real stuff.

We all cope in different ways. Previously, you may have turned to a glass of wine, a cigarette, or going out dancing to get rid of all your stress. Now that you’re pregnant, these coping mechanisms aren’t as available. Food, on the other hand, is always there and doesn’t take as much effort. It soothes our stressors and pains. But, using food as a coping mechanism offers a temporary solution. It doesn’t allow us to address the actual cause of stress and turmoil in your life.

So ask yourself, if you didn’t spend all this time on body image and food, what would you be left with? Would you suddenly have to address your loneliness? Are you more aware of your anxieties about work, the state of your finances, or your struggling relationships? If we looked at negative body image as a coping mechanism (again, not vouching that it’s a nice or effective one), we realize it’s trying to prevent you from dealing with a deeper vulnerability.

Addressing the original trauma: When did this struggle with body image start?

body image and teenager. Struggling with body image in pregnancy. trauma from childhood

Body image rarely shows up in pregnancy without some form of history. Consider when else in your life have you struggled with this issue. Have you been painfully aware of your appearance since adolescence? Have you managed to shove aside any struggles with your appearance by exercising and maintaining a “healthy” diet? When did you make the connection between your appearance and your self-worth? How was this message taught to you?

When it comes to body image struggles, pregnancy makes things worse. However, it’s not the culprit. After your little one is born, things may feel manageable with dieting and exercise, but it’s a fragile set up. Anytime that weight starts to increase, that same panic may come back.

If this has been your experience, then it’s important to recognize that there is some earlier trauma to be addressed. Your body image struggles could have slowly formed while participating in gym class, listening to your mom comment about her (or your) weight, looking at skinny actresses and models, or a myriad of events. These moments stayed with you. That vulnerable part of you still worries about your appearance, fitting in, or whether you will be considered “worthy.” This is where therapy can be helpful in processing these earlier emotional burdens.

Reach out

If you or a loved one is struggling with body image during pregnancy, reach out. Therapy is a safe space to voice your concerns and work through these difficulties. Schedule a free consult call to see if we would be a good fit.

Take care,

Kasi

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

Mental Health

Overcoming shame

Your system holds a lot of shame. There is shame about who you are as a person. You feel that you do not belong and are unloveable. You have been rejected by others. There’s no way you’ll put yourself out there again. You carry shame about earlier decisions. Because you acted this way, you feel raw and exposed. There is a constant sense of dread that reminds you, “Never again will I make that mistake.” You hold a lot of shame about failures. You’ve messed up, said the wrong thing, wrote the wrong answer. Your stomach goes in knots just thinking about it. You feel ashamed about inaction. It repeats incessantly that you should have done something, acted differently, or reacted faster. You feel ashamed about who you are as a parent. You keep thinking your kids would do better with someone else. When all of this is hurtling towards you, how do you overcome shame?

Dealing with Shame

Overcoming shame. Why it is so hard to deal with shame.

It’s hard to acknowledge our shame. We worry that others will judge and reject us for our deepest insecurities, so we don’t speak up. Because shame is so uncomfortable, we tend to push it away. We avoid addressing it, only to have it repeatedly show up. We feel awful, alone, and hopeless in this pattern.

Thanks to Brené Brown, most of us have are familiar with the benefits of addressing shame and vulnerability. In theory, we know one of the best ways out of shame is to be nice to ourselves and accept that we are imperfect human beings. Dealing with shame involves validation, self-compassion and seeking connection with others. That’s the simpler answer. The more complicated answer involves addressing all of the parts of us that block this work. To overcome shame, we have to deal with many other internal layers (e.g. our inner critics, our avoidant parts, our self-hatred, our panic, and other struggling emotions).

Getting to know our parts:

Internal Family Systems therapy recognizes that our mind is compartmentalized into protective categories or “parts”. There are three different parts inside of us: Managers, Firefighters and Exiles. In order to overcome shame, we need to understand how these parts play a unique role in improving and delaying our healing.

Exiles

Overcoming shame. How our early experiences create exiled parts. Internal Family Systems therapy. IFS and shame

During traumatic and painful events, our minds suffer. We struggle to get through these horrible events. As time goes on, we start to carry negative beliefs about ourselves based on what we experienced. We suddenly feel we are insignificant, weak, unattractive, incompetent and don’t belong. These wounded parts of our personality are what IFS refers to as “exiles.” Exiles absorb the impact of traumatic and difficult events. Exiled parts carry our vulnerable emotions and beliefs. They learn to feel ashamed of themselves, that there is something fundamentally bad and flawed about them. Shame is not an innate feeling. We are not born feeling ashamed of ourselves. It is something we’ve learned based on our environment and experiences.

Sitting with our shameful exiles can feel unbearable, so we form some protection. We do whatever we can to prevent these parts from becoming triggered. We do whatever we can to shut them down quickly if they are triggered.

Managers

Manager parts. IFS and overcoming shame. Internal family systems therapy. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling support in Kitchener, ON

“Managers” are the first layer of protection. These parts help us stay safe by doing whatever is possible to stop our exiled parts from getting triggered. For example, if your exiles believe that you are unattractive, your manager parts may pester you to work out daily or wear makeup. If your exiles cannot trust your own judgement, then you may have manager parts that constantly seek reassurance from others. Worried about being stupid? Your manager parts prevent you from every trying or moving up the career path so your intelligence will never be assessed.

Manager parts focus on preventing us from feeling hurt, wounded, ashamed, or any other exiled emotion. They do this by pushing us, criticizing us, reminding us to keep going, doing more and never becoming vulnerable again.

Firefighters

firefighter parts.IFS and overcoming shame. protective layers to deal with shame

The second layer of protection is referred to as “firefighters.” When our exiled parts are freaking out inside, our firefighters know it’s important to contain that flame. So they react. They work on quick fixes to settle the fire down. They use distractions and various forms of self-soothing when our system gets triggered. For example: someone calls you unattractive, your firefighters seek comfort in a nice bottle or three of wine. You realize you made a mistake at work, your firefighter parts draw attention away by yelling at other colleagues. Your exiled part is triggered for overeating, your firefighters compensate by purging and over-exercise. Firefighter parts are aware that the pain has come up, and they focus on getting rid of that pain as quickly as possible through any means possible.

Shame Starts Young

When we are young, we long to be loved and accepted. We want to belong and feel significant. When our parents meet these needs, we’ve struck gold. Our system can relax when we make mistakes. We don’t personalize it, and we move on fairly quickly.

For those of us who have not “struck gold”, our system gets hijacked following a mistake. We fear reproach, criticism, disappointment, anger, or any form of negative feedback from our caregivers. As kids, we don’t have a whole lot of resources, so we internalize these messages. We start to believe that there is something wrong with us: We are a screw up, we are incompetent, we do not deserve good things. This moment creates our exiled parts.

How our parts become intertwined in the shame pattern

exiled parts. Internal Family systems therapy and overcoming shame. IFS

Despite knowing that we will continue to be hurt and rejected, we can’t help but reach out to our caregivers. What other choice do we have at a young age? Our exiled parts are always looking for a better ending. They want redemption. They want our parents to somehow stop their patterns of anger and criticism, and instead, turn to us with love and warmth.

Our manager parts are also paying attention to these attempts. Our managers learn what is and is not effective in keeping your exiled parts from getting in trouble and feeling ashamed. They are aware of what pisses off your parents, and triggers your exiles to feel ashamed once again. For example, if you know that being slim and attractive gets your mom’s approval, your managers will continue to berate you to go to the gym and start another diet. Ironically, these managers shame us for making the wrong choices in order to get us to learn. You don’t need your mom to continue to shame you, your manager parts will repeat her words for you.

endless cycle between manager and firefighter parts. IFS and handling shame.

Unfortunately, our exiled parts keep trying. Your mother may present as biting and cold, but this doesn’t stop your exiled part. You continue to invite her to outings, provide thoughtful mother’s day gifts and call every Sunday. When you are hurt and rejected by her lack of interest, your firefighters come in trying to extinguish the pain. They encourage you to drink, hook up with a random person, lash out at your partner, or any other means in hopes of releasing this shame. And, once again, our managers (e.g. that harsh inner critic) attack for making poor decisions.

Working with our protective parts to overcome shame

ogres, onions and protective layers. Dealing with shame metaphor

Forgive me for using a Shrek reference here. IFS reminds me of Shrek’s comments that ogres are like onions: we all have layers. There are layers and layers of protection we use to keep our exiled parts safe. We can’t deal with shame if we do not address the managers and firefighters that maintain our shame cycle. As Donkey wisely reminds Shrek: “”You’re so wrapped up in layers, onion boy, you’re afraid of your own feelings!” We get so caught in protecting ourselves, we get scared to actually help our exiled parts.

To overcome shame, we have to first work with our protective parts. It’s hard to show love and self-compassion if a harsh critical voice keeps dismissing your kindness. You may have difficulty forgiving yourself if a firefighter part continues to binge drink. Shame rarely works alone; it always come with protection. So to overcome shame, we have to work with your entire system. We have to gain trust and permission from these protective parts to give you some space so that you can work with your exiles.

Internal Family Systems Therapy and your shame

In therapy, I focus on creating a safe space for your entire system to show up. This includes all the parts of you that are eager to get started, as well as the parts of you that dread working on these issues. This is normal. When we have experienced shame or been shamed by others, our system launches into a protective stance. It’s braced for rejection and judgement, even in the context of a safe therapy setting. It’s important to take the time to build that therapeutic trust before launching in to your most vulnerable concerns.

Shame deserves self-compassion, belonging and validation. Healing comes from witnessing these painful moments, learning to see the safety in today, and trust in your own capacity to handle things differently. The resources you had back then are not what you have available today. Your exiles and protective layers aren’t always aware of that. They often see you still stuck in that place of trauma, and react accordingly.

Reach out

If you are struggling with shame, and would like to work with your internal system, reach out. Schedule a free consult to see if this is a good fit for you.

All the best,

Kasi


Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

Mental Health · Trauma

Working with unwanted feelings

When I am feeling anxious, unhappy or generally lousy, I hate the idea of mindfully noticing these unwanted feelings. There is intense resistance to “sitting with” or accepting my emotions. During these low moments, I have zero understanding or time for my feelings. My only goal is to get rid of them. I imagine many others feel the same way. When it comes to our harsher feelings, they can be intense, and often cruel. These parts of our personality know exactly what to say to make us want to crumble.  

I struggled for the longest time with Internal Family Systems therapy in telling me that my emotions, my critical voice, or my less healthier coping behaviours are not bad. IFS encourages that every part of us is welcome (to learn more about IFS and parts work, read this post). I struggled to accept this viewpoint when I felt every part of me was, in fact, not welcome. Parts of me could be a jerk some days, and there was no way I was going to cater to that nonsense. For those with anxiety, depression, or other mental health struggles, I’m sure you can relate to how badly you want to get rid of these unwanted feelings.

My own turning point

regal pan pizza on box
Photo by Creative Vix on Pexels.com

For me, my willingness to change my perspective came from recognizing that pushing away my unwanted feelings wasn’t actually getting rid of the pain. When I wanted to deny my urge to eat another slice of pizza, that part got louder. When I pretended I wasn’t feeling angry with my family, that part made sure it vented in my head. Wishing parts away rarely works in getting rid of the pain, or having them stay quiet.

It’s too hard

I get that it’s really hard to do therapy. It’s hard to sit with our emotions. It’s hard to create space for these distressing parts of our personalities to talk and voice their feelings. Can you imagine allowing those parts of you that are suicidal or have urges to self-harm to actually be given the space to talk? Understandably, there is fear in letting these voices have space because, what if it creates more distress, more extreme behaviours, or more danger? 

I had these fears as well. I didn’t want to hear any of my anxieties. They were annoying and they would make me feel lousy all day. Who would sign up for that willingly? However, IFS teaches us a way to work with these parts of our personality safely so that they do not take over. There is a way to do the work carefully and slowly, so that other parts of your system do not get overwhelmed. We can continue to hear these parts of our personality, understand their fears and intents, build a better relationship with them, and negotiate for space or a shift in coping strategies.

There’s no way I can get better

Working with unwanted feelings. Kasi Shan Therapy: Kitchener ON, Online counselling.
Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

Sometimes, we’ve lived with these unwanted emotions and behaviours for years. Some of the clients I’ve seen have gone to various therapists and tried different coping strategies to help with their healing. Understandably, if they feel stuck, they are pretty certain this is an unchangeable and fixed part of their living experience. They are confident that nothing will help, and there’s scepticism that healing can happen.

I felt this way as well. For the longest time, I’d focused on traditional talk therapy, using modalities like CBT and DBT. These are incredible counselling approaches that work for many folks. Coping skills, working through exposure treatment, and recognizing unhelpful thinking patterns are effective for treating many struggles. However, when we focus on treating just our thoughts, we are forgetting the rest of our body.  Our body, ironically, is what carries traumas.

Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.

-Bessel van der kolk, “The body keeps the score”

You experience feelings throughout your body. Sure, you can challenge your thoughts, you can try new behaviours, you can learn ways to cope. But for many of us, this isn’t enough. Knowing how to do a thought record isn’t enough. We want our emotions to catch up to what we know. In order to do that, our therapy styles cannot just focus on thoughts, but has to include experiential change. This means constantly returning our awareness back to the body and the system to see how it is affected by these interventions. Healing involves taking the time to notice our physical sensations, and understand what these subtle cues are trying to communicate.

This is the only way I can survive

Working with unwanted feelings. Kasi Shan Therapy: Kitchener ON, Online counselling.
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Sometimes it can feel scary to let go of our current coping mechanisms. If you know that the only way you can manage your challenging family is by having a few glasses of wine at the end of the day, it is going to feel incredibly hard to give that up. I have clients who are cautious of telling others about self-harming behaviours because they fear repercussion or worry they will be shamed into stopping. The thought of changing our patterns can prevent many of us from starting the work.

For anyone who has hesitated to reach out for help because of the need to stop a specific coping mechanism, please know that this does not have to be the case. My job is not to tell you to stop drinking. I understand that there is a part of you that feels drinking is the only way in which you can survive this current hardship. However, if we were able to explore the underlying fears related to your family, would you have to keep drinking? What are you actually protecting by drinking? If you were no longer feeling threatened by this fear, would you need to keep coping in this way? Drinking patterns, and other coping mechanisms, can slow down if underlying fears are addressed. Once your system no longer feels threatened, it no longer has to survive by turning to wine.

I don’t want to know

Working with unwanted feelings. Kasi Shan Therapy: Kitchener ON, Online counselling.
SIphotography on Canva

A common reason that I see clients hesitating to do trauma work is that it will involve looking at the past. One of our strongest survival mechanisms is denial. Going back to a painful period in time can feel like we’re asking for trouble. It hurts to revisit difficult memories. We may feel cautious of how we will see our loved ones after exploring what those memories mean and how they have impacted us.

With EMDR, IFS, or any other trauma-based treatment, the goal is not to discover a big, bad secret from the past. However, with trauma-based treatments, we can become aware of details that we’ve kept hidden from our conscious awareness. When these details come to light, we have options. Clients can chose to share these details with me, or they can keep this awareness inside. Clients can decide whether this knowledge requires intervention. There are options to bring in new coping mechanisms or more self-compassion. We can work towards understanding the impact of these moments and unburdening our system of these wounds. Finally, clients can chose to keep doing what they’re doing and pretend this awareness does not exist. There is no set agenda for how we move forward. We know the pain is there, and we shift to addressing this pain, only when you are okay to go there.

Reach out

utah778 on Canva

Part of me was nervous about writing this article. I can talk nonchalantly about being a perfectionist, but acknowledging that I can also have messy feelings is hard. The fear of others’ judgements prevents us from reaching out (even though our system is desperate for help and relief). At the end of the day, hiding has not helped us feel better. Talking to a therapist who you feel is safe and effective is one way towards healing. If you have any experiences with the above battles and wish to talk, please don’t hesitate to reach out. 

Warm regards,

Kasi