Emotional Core

“I hate looking at pictures of myself. My stomach pooches out all the time. Should I do sit ups? How else can I get rid of the flab?”

After making the statement above, my client Amy declared she wasn’t going to be in any pictures until her core got stronger.

I was initially perplexed to hear this statement from her because she radiates happiness in every picture I’ve seen of her.

After probing a bit more about the no-picture thing, I uncovered the real source of her discomfort.

An older neighbor made a comment in passing to Amy about how her posture was kind of slouched and how she really needed to “suck it in so people will see what a beautiful girl you are.”

After being blindsided by her neighbor’s frenemy-like comment, Amy wanted to make sure something like that never happened again.

So, she decided she needed to work on making her core stronger.

After hearing all of this, I agreed Amy’s core needed to get stronger, and I didn’t think her physical core was the real area of weakness.

It was her emotional core.

Your physical core is the group of muscles in your torso between your ribs and hips that help stabilize your body when you are performing hard or challenging tasks.

Your emotional core is a group of skills — your “emotional muscles” — that help stabilize you emotionally when you are in a painful or challenging situation.

Amy lacked the “emotional muscle” strength to dig below the surface of the hurt feelings to figure out why the comment bothered her so much. Instead, she tried to “fix” herself to shield herself from future comments like that.

I work with two groups of clients — peri-menopausal women and women recovering from eating disorders — some of whom are very concerned with the appearance of their stomach, and often use questions about “core strengthening” to address any perceived faults in this area.

But underneath the questions, I find that a huge motivator for wanting to increase their core strength is a desire to find worthiness and self-acceptance through their physical appearance, and protect themselves from the pain they feel when a part of them is judged as not good enough.

Amy needed to strengthen her emotional core by developing the skills that would allow her to stay present in the midst of discomfort long enough to uncover the root of the problem.

Here are the steps I used to help Amy stabilize herself and discover what was really going on:

1. Step into the role of scientist.

To begin, I had Amy say out loud “I am scientist now.”

Scientists are trained to gather data impartially, meaning they don’t have a judgement attached to how the data “should” be. They just observe what happens in their experiment and record it.

As an observer of her feelings, Amy was able to explore more about why this comment bothered her so much without bursting into tears or getting overwhelmed by the pain.

2. Use “The 5 Whys” to uncover the root cause of the problem.

As a scientist, you need a way to collect data about your feelings. A simple, but effective tool I like is called “The 5 Whys”.

The founder of Toyota Industries, Sakichi Toyoda, developed this technique to uncover the source of problems in his automobile manufacturing plant. He realized that if you kept asking “why” when a problem showed up, within 5 questions or so the “whys” would expose the root cause of the problem.

It’s tempting in a situation like this to look at Amy’s neighbor’s comment and say, “I know exactly why she was upset. Her neighbor’s comment was RUDE!”, and then leave it at that.

And while I do believe the comment was rude, the deeper reason Amy got upset was not because it was rude.

It’s because a part of her wondered if her neighbor might be right.

Deep fears like this lose some or all of their power when we acknowledge them. To do that, you have to stick with the process of asking “Why?” , even when it’s really hard, until the deep fear or belief shows up.

Here’s how this exercise played out with Amy:

Me: Why did your neighbor’s comment upset you?

Amy: Because it was rude and judgmental.

Me: Why?

Amy: Because she was basically telling me I was ugly.

Me: Why does that matter?

Amy: Because I want a perfect body.

Me: Why?

Amy: Because if I’m not perfect then no one will want me and I’ll be alone forever.

This last answer was the root cause of Amy’s suffering. It was the belief that was causing her to obsess about her body appearance because it tied her physical appearance to her emotional well-being.

In order to resolve the suffering, Amy needed to unlink these two things in her mind. That’s what we addressed in the next step.

3. Explore the opposite possibility of the painful belief.  

To unlink these two things, I first asked Amy to look for any examples in her life where she loved or felt connected to other people who weren’t perfect.

She said “There are lots of people in my life who aren’t perfect. But you know, I kind of don’t care about that. I don’t really think about it when I’m with them.”

Next I asked Amy to try and think of times when she felt loved even when she didn’t look or act perfect.

She paused for a long time.

Then she remarked “My best friend knows everything about me. She has seen me at the lowest points in my life. And she doesn’t seem to mind when I’m stressed out or cranky because I’m tired. I feel like I can really be myself with her. And I feel really good when I’m around her.”

By recognizing that her belief about needing to be perfect to be loved wasn’t always true, Amy was opening herself to new ways to find love and acceptance. Specifically, ways that didn’t require her to live up to an external standard of perfection.

4. Create a new intention statement to guide you as you move forward.

When we let go of an old belief, there is a space inside of you where that belief used to be, kind of like a space in the ground after you pull a weed.

In that space, it helps to create an intention to “grow” a new belief in the space occupied by the old one.

Letting go of old beliefs is hard.

And often times we hold on to our old beliefs because it’s very unnerving to think about what we would do without the belief, even when we recognize we don’t like it and it’s not helping us anymore.

Getting rid of an old belief is like erasing the address from your GPS…if you don’t enter a new address, your mind (and body) don’t know where to go.

Having the ability to hang tough in an emotionally charged situations allows you time to  get to the root of the problem. These four steps will help you to stabilize yourself during hard times:

  1. Become a scientist.
  2. Use The 5 Whys.
  3. Explore the opposite possibility of your painful belief.
  4. Create an intention statement to help you move forward.

What other things have helped you stabilize yourself during tough times?

PS- If you know someone who is going through a tough time, please share this with them!