How to be grateful for your body (even when it feels impossible)

Folks often ask me questions like: How do I accept my body just as it is? How can I be grateful for what my body can do rather than being angry about what it can’t do?

Body acceptance in our culture is a tall order even on the best of days, but it becomes even more complicated when we are in pain, or disabled, or have limitations that are affecting our quality of life.

When our bodies won’t cooperate

For a very long time, was angry at my body because it wouldn’t “do what I said.” Before I quit dieting, back when I was pursuing intentional weight loss, my body wouldn’t shrink like other folks’ would, and it made me angry. Later, I had really bad chronic back pain for several years. And again I was angry. My body wouldn’t “get its’ sh*t together” and it made me furious and disappointed.

I hated and blamed my body for my unhappiness. The body is easy to blame. It is much easier for us to notice the negative things, the things going wrong, rather than all the things we DO have or what the body CAN do. But why?

It’s a phenomenon called negativity bias. Basically, the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. Our instincts keep us alert to the bad things in life because they could pose a threat.

This is useful if a sabertooth tiger is chasing you, but not so much if you’re just trying to go through your day and suddenly one crappy event triggers a spiral of negative thoughts and harmful self-talk. Negativity bias makes it easy for us to focus on what we don’t have. Things like the body that’s the shape or size that we want. A body without pain. A body that’s more mobile or younger. So how do we find gratitude in the midst of our pain?

Acknowledge and honor your emotions

You won't feel better by feeling less by Ambivalently Yours

You won’t feel better by feeling less by Ambivalently Yours

It’s normal to have strong emotions when we are in pain or feel limited. It’s normal to feel angry when something doesn’t go our way. So first of all, don’t be so hard on yourself. If you’re beating yourself up because you have negative feelings about your body, you’re only compounding your pain. Being angry at your body for something that you can’t control will be detrimental to your happiness.

Have you ever expressed feelings to a friend or parent or an employer and instead of being listened to and empathized with, you were told, “Well, you shouldn’t feel that way. Don’t be so sensitive.” It doesn’t feel good, right? You want to be seen. You want to be heard. And hearing, “Stop feeling that way” doesn’t make you stop feeling that way. It just makes you feel bad in a different way.

Stopping the negative spiral and changing directions

Being mad at your body for being in pain is just like somebody telling you, “You shouldn’t feel that way. Stop being so angry or sensitive or hurt.” Being angry at your body for something that’s out of your control is just unfair and inhumane.

When you find yourself in that thought spiral or thinking angry thoughts, as soon as you catch it, stop and say out loud, “I don’t want to feel this way.” Just give yourself that verbal reminder to stop and change your thought process.

Then right away, practice gratitude. I know that might sound cheesy. But I promise you, I’m not trying to be pie in the sky and tell you, “Everything is perfect just the way it is.” It’s not perfect. You’re in pain, that’s real. But if you can focus on the good in a situation, that can really get you out of that spiral that’s making you miserable.

I challenge you to start to be curious about what’s going right. What’s going right in this crappy moment when you’re in pain and everything sucks. What is my body able to do that I’m grateful for? What’s happening in my life that is going right? And focus on that instead of continuing in the spiral of anger that’s got you miserable.

Demonstrate your worth with self-care

Another key to recognizing that your body is worthy, just as it is, is to establish some baseline measures of self-care that you can practice every day. We don’t usually hate things that we take care of (and we don’t take care of things we hate). So, self-care demonstrates to yourself (and to others) that you’re worthy of attention and you’re worthy of care. I find it a lot harder to be totally pissed off all the time at my body if I am tending to my needs and taking care of myself.

Seek out baseline measures of self-care: drinking enough water, eating nourishing food, getting enough sleep, practices that help your stress levels down (breathing practices, yoga, meditation), seeking out pleasurable sensations, taking a multi-vitamin, keeping your body clean. Be curious and discover your baseline measures of self-care that tell you, “I’m well. I’m being as well as I can be in the body that I’ve been given.”

When you invest time caring for your body in very basic, practical ways such as, “How much water did I drink today? Maybe I’m going to stop what I’m doing, I’m going to go into the kitchen and get myself a glass of water because that’s nourishing to my body,” it’s an excellent way to demonstrate to yourself that your body is worthy of care.

Even if your body isn’t in the best shape of your life. Even if you’re not the most well you’ve ever been. By taking on this mindset, you’re giving your body the same care you would as if it were in the best shape of your life, or the most well you’ve ever been.

Make a list of what you appreciate about your body

Finally, I encourage you to make a list of what you appreciate about your body. Nothing is too big or too small to go on this list. It helps to put items on this list in the format, “I appreciate my [body thing] because it [accomplishes X / causes X pleasurable circumstance].” Here are a few of mine as examples

  • I appreciate my strong, muscular legs because they carry me wherever I have to go and allow me to continually build strength in my yoga practice.
  • I appreciate my softness because my husband loves to snuggle up to me and grab on tight.
  • I appreciate my face because it’s exactly halfway between my mom and my dad’s looks and I like being reminded of them when I see myself.
  • I appreciate my teeth because they’ve always been naturally healthy and strong and I haven’t had any dental problems.
  • I appreciate my eyes because they’re expressive and show me all the beauty in the world.

Now, make your list. If body acceptance is something you’re actively working on, you could keep this list with you or put it in a place you’ll see it often.

Finding gratitude for a normal, flawed, human body that isn’t “ideal” is a challenge. It takes practice. So, on days when your body seems more like a burden than a gift, remember that sometimes breathing is not only enough, but actually the only thing that matters.

You are alive.

May you feel your aliveness and may it be enough.