I have a huge head, and it’s roughly 40% forehead. Whenever I casually refer to this fact, most people kindly try to reassure me that it’s really not that big. But it really is.
You know that point in the early 90s when bike helmets suddenly got smaller? Mine didn’t. My head simply grew like a goldfish to fill the space left by the improvements in helmet technology. Despite my protestations, every single helmet seller I’ve ever encountered has insisted I try on a size Small or Medium, and subsequently suffered the embarrassment of resting it like a fez upon my crown before mumbling something about children’s sizes and scurrying off to find something more realistic. I’m not imagining it.
Over time I’ve come to accept this fact about myself. Rather than wishing it were different, I have mastered some techniques for managing it. I wear my hair falling forward so that it hides the corners, avoid trying on other people’s hats, never let it get between you and the sun on a summer’s day. Most importantly, I bring it up before you can mention it.
When I shared this up at a workshop I was running recently, I had a room full of otherwise intelligent people telling me that it really wasn’t noticeable. I was being humorously self-deprecating to illustrate point, and there was no need for them to offer reassurance. I probably didn’t have to refuse their reassurance, and there was no good reason for them to further verbalise their disagreement. There was certainly no point in me continuing the debate, nor in them banding together to insist. There was also probably no sense in me threatening to go out and buy a measuring tape, and it was perhaps unnecessary for them to suggest that there wasn’t one small enough. And with hindsight, it might have been a bit much for me to have later declared to my friend that everyone in the room was either blind, stupid or a liar.
My friend ever so gently asked me why I even cared. It was a very good point.
Had I not been doing this blog, I probably would have let it go there. I say let it go – I would have acted like I’d let it go. I would have said “that’s a good point, it doesn’t matter.” And then every now and then for the next few years, a question would have popped into my head along the lines of “why on earth did that whole room full of people get together and lie like that about the size of my head just to win an argument?” On those occasions, I would have pondered it with frustration over ice-cream until the feelings faded enough to shelve the unanswerable question for another few months.
But I am doing this blog, and so instead, I decided to try a little CBT.
Mood diaries and the downward arrow
One of the key features of my CBT sessions is mood diaries. There are endless benefits to mood diaries, but today I’m just going to talk about one: finding out why on earth this led to that. When you’re not used to focusing in on your emotions, it’s easy to skip over what it is about a situation that leads to feeling miserable.
I’m feeling humiliated because I have a massive head.
In CBT we try to work out what’s happening between the situation (in possession of a massive head) and the emotion (humiliated). If we pause to reflect on it, we might be able to find some automatic, surface level thoughts that could have sparked our emotions.
I’m feeling humiliated because I have a massive head and I think people notice.
But when it comes to strong emotions, those surface level thoughts don’t adequately explain what we’re feeling. Why might one person feel something so strong in response to a situation that others might not be particularly fussed by?
The downward arrow technique is about asking questions to get deeper and deeper underneath those thoughts, trying to access the meaning behind them. There are loads of different “downward arrow” questions. My personal favourite is very simple: take the previous sentence and add this to it: “if… that would mean”. Keep doing that until you arrive at a sentence that makes the emotion make sense.
People notice my massive head.
If people notice my massive head, that means they will think it is freakish.
If people think it is freakish, that means they will think I am a freak.
If people think I am a freak, that means they will make fun of me.
If people make fun of me, that means I will never fit in.
If I never fit in, that means I will be alone forever.
If I am alone forever, that means I will have to make puppets out of shoes to keep myself company.
If I have to make puppets out of shoes to keep myself company, that means I will have lost it completely.
If I have lost it completely, that means I may as well give up on life.
If I give up on life, that means I will start wearing parachute tracksuits.
And as you can see, eventually you end up with a sentence that makes the emotion make complete sense. I’m not humiliated because someone might notice my massive head, I’m humiliated because my unconscious believes that it’s a minimal leap from there to draping myself in synthetic fabrics.
This process helps to bring the unconscious processes into the consciousness, giving us space to identify and contest the flaws in the logic of that automatic part of the brain. Those flaws of logic are often at the heart of what keeps us stuck in the same unhelpful patterns, time and time again. If I continue to believe that I have a freakish head, then I will continue to go to great lengths to hide it, so I will never find out if people will accept me in spite of my forehead. Thus, I will always believe that I am only an exposed-forehead-corner away from shoe puppets and leisurewear.
Back to the Great Forehead Debate…
Situation: Public dispute about whether my forehead is as big as I think it is
Emotions: Irritation, annoyance, frustration, regret
Wait a second – regret? What was that doing there? If only I had some way of finding out what that was all about…
A room full of people think that my head isn’t as big as I think it is.
If a room full of people think that my head isn’t as big as I think it is, that means that either I am wrong or the whole room is wrong.
If either I am wrong or the whole room is wrong, then statistically it is more likely that I am wrong.
If I am wrong, that means that I needn’t have been so weird about my forehead all these years.
If I needn’t have been so weird about my forehead all these years, that means I have wasted a lot of time and energy hiding something that wasn’t that bad to begin with.
If I have wasted a lot of time and energy hiding something that wasn’t that bad to begin with, that means I could have used that time and energy on something remotely important.
If I could have used that time and energy on something remotely important, that means I could be better at something than I am.
If I could be better at something than I am, that means I really should have taken up golf.
I could be on the LPGA tour by now.
Now, in general, I do not like being wrong. I do begrudgingly accept it when faced with hard evidence, but if there is any uncertainty, I absolutely will not take it lying down. I once moved to another country just to prove to an ex-boyfriend that I was not wrong, and that he could in fact live without me. (I was right. He’s still alive.)
Solid logic was not enough. Without hard evidence, I was not prepared to accept that I might have been wrong all along about my forehead, especially if that mistake was the one thing that had thwarted my chances of going pro.
Written on the forehead
I started my evidence gathering with a list of all the clues that my large forehead was indeed noticeable:
- My brother telling me it was
- Every hat I’ve ever tried on
- Someone in high school trying on a hat of mine and saying “damn, woman.”
- My brother measuring it against large household objects
- An ex-boyfriend trying to track down an old Tefal commercial, saying I had reminded him of it
- The solidarity I felt watching Coneheads
- My brother polishing it and pretending to sneeze
I took it back to my friend. She asked me why it even mattered. Another excellent point.
I’d been asking myself the wrong question all these years. The question should not have been “Can people notice my large forehead?”, but rather “What’s so terrible about people noticing my large forehead?” Or, at the very least, “Why on earth did I watch Coneheads?”
Comparing my options
I had a choice: continue to go to great lengths to keep my forehead covered, or allow it to be exposed to the world occasionally.
What are the costs of continuing to do what I always do?
Time and energy required to start the day with a hairstyle that detracts attention from the size of my forehead, and then hourly checks in available mirrors to make sure the corners of my forehead are covered.
An elaborate system of ties and pins to create a forehead-minimising, exercise-appropriate hairstyle that doesn’t look like I care too much about how I look for my running group. Not only does this take time and energy, but it also means I have to temporarily hate myself for caring so much.
About once a year I spend several hours trying to work out how I would look with a fringe. I’ll try folding my hair into fringe-like shapes, flopping the ends of my hair over to rest across the top of my glasses, and using those ridiculously unhelpful online programs where you superimpose celebrities’ hair over a picture of your own face. Every year, I come to the conclusion that simply owning a lot of Anthropologie dresses does not actually make me Zooey Deschanel, and that it would be a huge mistake to cut myself a fringe.
About once every three years I make the huge mistake of cutting myself a fringe.
What are the costs of letting the world see my forehead?
So far the only observed costs of an exposed forehead had been the irritating (and admittedly amusing) actions of my brother, a couple of embarrassing high school moments, and the cutting words of a man so busy noticing my forehead that he ran out of time to be interesting.
I had no other examples to go from, because I hadn’t given anyone else the opportunity to notice. How could I find out if my copious efforts to hide my forehead were remotely warranted?
It was time to get my forehead out.
The experiment was to go to work with my forehead out in plain view, and record what comments were made when people noticed. The aim was to gather more information so that I’d be in a better position to decide whether the consequences of having my forehead out were bad enough to warrant continuing with my extensive forehead-hiding regime.
9:30 – Arriving head first into work
Colleague 1: “You look 20, I almost didn’t recognise you.”
This was before I’d actually taken my helmet off, so I can’t really attribute the remark to the newly exposed forehead. (This is also not a particularly unusual type of comment for me – I am on the brink of mid-thirties but still occasionally get asked for ID. People insist it is a compliment, but I can assure you, “Youthful” doesn’t often make someone’s top-ten list of qualities they look for in a therapist.)
10:00 – First round of hot brews
Colleagues 2-8: I do a loop around all the clinic rooms offering a round of tea so that I can gauge people’s reactions. No one has commented. Yet.
11:00 – Face-to-forehead clinical supervision
Colleague 9: Was he squinting in intense concentration, or because he was dazzled by the glare from my forehead?
11:30 – The printer jostle
Colleague 10: “You’re looking trim today. You doing anything different?”
It’s an optical illusion. I look trim only in comparison to my forehead.
12:45 – The pop-in
Colleague 7: “You’ve got your hair up! It looks really nice. I knew there was something different and I just worked out what it was. I was in the kitchen and I realised it was because you had your hair up so I thought I’d come and tell you. It’s a compliment, take it. You don’t wear it like that very often and it looks nice.”
Yeah. Well. She would say that.
3:45 – The admin room
Colleague 11: “Your hair looks really nice like that – I like that sweeping thing. I’ve been looking at celebrity hairstyles online – because I’m lonely – and they all do that sweeping thing.”
3:46 – The awkward room
My baffled reaction to the previous comment drew enough attention that I decided to come clean. I confessed that I’d been doing an experiment to see how people would react to my oversized forehead.
Colleague 11: “That’s insane.”
Colleague 7: “You honestly don’t have a Tefal head.”
(Automatic brain: “Wait a second, I never told her about the Tefal comment, why would she even draw the comparison if she hadn’t been thinking it?” Rational brain: “Shut up, dickhead.”)
Colleague 12: “It’s only a problem for you because you think it’s a bad thing. Loads of people have a big forehead and they don’t see it as a negative.”
Okay fine. Maybe, just maybe, I will have to concede that people’s opinions are not as glaringly obvious as my forehead.
© Cognitive Behave Yourself, 2013. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full credit is given to Jane Gregory with a link to the original material. For CBT in North-West London please visit www.hampsteadcbt.com.