“Yoga is not about self-improvement, it’s about self-acceptance.” — Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa
Back when I was teaching yoga regularly, I liked to frame my classes around the concept of santosha. In Sanskrit, santosha means “contentment.” It has to do with an acceptance of where you are (and who you are) rather than a focus on where (or who) you want to be. Rather than berating yourself for not being able to to touch your toes or carrying more weight than you’d like, santosha urges yoga practitioners to approach their practice from the exact spot where they find themselves. This approach encourages self-love and discourages comparison, which, as we know, is the thief of joy.
Santosha goes beyond yogic ability. Being able to love the body you’re in means accepting its limitations, including its “flaws.” I’m using quotes here, because sometimes our “flaws” are really just unique features that don’t align with cultural beauty standards. These “flaws” are often things that we can’t change, such as the color and smoothness of our skin, the texture of our hair, the natural shape of our bodies, or any other hereditary trait. Chastizing yourself for these “flaws” is totally unnecessary. Give yourself a hug and try to love even the things you don’t necessarily like about your appearance. However, chastising others for these “flaws” can be abusive, which brings me to negging.
Negging is a type of emotional abuse and manipulation in which the abuser gives a backhanded compliment that is meant to devalue and undermine the confidence of their victim. It encourages the victim to seek the abuser’s approval and admiration, thus giving him more control. You can read all about it here. There’s a whole dark corner of the internet dedicated to teaching men how to successfully neg women. It’s insidious and disgusting, and unfortunately, it works.
We’re hardwired to seek people’s approval, especially if we’re interested in them socially or romantically. Negging can throw even the most confident person off-balance, making them question their sense of self. My abusive ex was a pro at negging, but he didn’t use it right away. He waited until I was already interested, until I was hooked, to start crushing my self-esteem.
Early in our relationship, he found a picture of me online. I had just received my Master’s degree, and I was decked out in my graduation regalia. I had completed a challenging series of courses, successfully defended my thesis, and was ready to take on the world. At least, that’s what I saw in that picture.
“You have zero self-confidence in this picture,” he said. “You’re not a very confident person.”
That one comment knocked me for a loop, as I had always seen myself as confident. But here was this person, who I trusted and was coming to love, telling me that I don’t appear confident to the outside world. Of course, this comment came with promises to help me with my confidence, and since I wanted to improve my standing in his eyes, I listened.
The negging increased from there:
“One of the first things I noticed about you was your runny nose.”
“I’m glad it’s my job to point out the food that gets stuck in your crooked teeth.”
“Those crows feet and grey hairs are really charming on a woman your age.”
“You carry a lot of stress in your ankles, which is why they’re always swollen. I can fix that for you.”
“I love that you’re trying to be environmentally conscientious. You remind me of one of my ex-girlfriends. She was my favorite.”
“I usually prefer strong women, but I somehow fell in love with you.”
“That new makeup looks nice. I can hardly notice your acne.”
Each of these “compliments” were designed to knock me down and make me grateful for his attention. And for a long time, they worked. I wanted to look, act, and sound like the woman that he wanted me to be, because I thought that woman was a better version of myself. I went to great lengths to mold myself into the woman I thought he wanted, and yet the backhanded compliments never really stopped. Actually, they increased as I started to pull away from him, and they continue even now in his harassing messages to me.
It took a long time (and a lot of therapy) to rid my self-concept of his criticisms. Yoga and running helped, as they allowed me to be grateful for the body that I have, a body that works pretty damn well despite its “flaws.” While I don’t necessarily like everything about myself, I now know that my abuser’s negging did not constitute truth, and that his need to tear me down likely says more about his insecurities than my own.