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When Concern over Appearance becomes a Neurosis

Written by Jonathan Paul LMSW
Published on June 20, 2016

The truth is that we are sent mixed messages when it comes to self-image. On the one hand we are told to take care of ourselves. We are told to make sure we are well groomed and look nice. We are told to wear the right outfit to the job interview and taught about the importance of making good first impressions based on our physical appearance. Yet on the other hand, we are told that looking in the mirror too much is unhealthy and that caring too much about physical appearance is vane.

In Greek mythology, the tale of Narcissus depicts the story of a young man known for his beauty, who disdains those that love him. Nemesis, the Goddess of revenge, learns of Narcissus’ self-adoration and lures him to a pool where he ultimately finds his own reflection in the water. Narcissus then falls in love with his mirrored-image, so much so that he loses his will to live, gazing into the pool until his dying day. Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s own physical appearance.

Although the story of Narcissus might be an extreme example of self-obsession, is it not so uncommon for people to be consumed with their own self-image? In a culture where we grew up believing that “image is everything” doesn’t it seem to be the norm to sneak a peek in the elevator mirror on the way up to the office, or to catch a reflection of one’s self in shop windows walking along the avenue? What is the distinction between a healthy amount of mirror gazing versus the amount that might indicate a greater more complicated syndrome of obsession over one’s own image? Was Narcissus just vain? Or was he suffering from a severe case of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, ultimately leading to his death?

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a mental health disorder where you cant stop obsessing about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your physical appearance. To others this flaw is generally not noticeable or hardly able to be seen. You might feel so ashamed and worried about this flaw that you may avoid social situations. You will most likely, quite intensely, ruminate over your appearance and body image. This obsession often translates into frequent mirror checking, grooming or seeking reassurance from others that the flaw is not real. The perceived flaw and secondary compulsive behaviors cause you quite a bit of distress and impact your ability to function at work, school or in social settings. You will frequently find yourself late to appointments because grooming and dressing results in trance-like obsessive states, where mirror checking causes you to lose track of time.

People suffering from Body Dysmorphia often fear the stigma of vanity and keep their obsessive rituals very private. These people are not vain, but rather in the grips of a pervasive and debilitating syndrome that involves extreme concern about the way they feel others perceive them. The good news is that there is treatment and if what you’re reading here sounds familiar to something you or a loved one suffers from, there is hope. O’Connor Professional Group can help you find the appropriate treatment and care for this debilitating disorder. Please do not hesitate to contact us. We understand and empathize with you. No one should have to silently suffer from this illness. You are not alone, and we can help.


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