Have you ever thought about the connection between self-compassion and finding peace with food and your body?
Most people who come to me for help, are usually full of self-loathing. Every now and again someone with a healthy level of self-compassion walks through the door, but it’s rare. That used to be me. I recall many support calls with a friend (also a coach) in which she was genuinely shocked at the cutting, punishing vitriol that came out of my own mouth. I revisit that very rarely nowadays, thankfully! Now, when working with clients who are very hard on themselves, and the same harsh criticisms come out of their mouths, I can feel a pain in my chest and stomach when I hear those words, as if they were directing them at me. When we’re in it, we don’t notice the impact it has on us because we’re habituated to it. That doesn’t mean it’s not having an effect.
What stops us from giving ourselves compassion?
There’s a misconception that if we’re kind to ourselves it means we’re letting ourselves off the hook and that we’ll never change our behaviour.
Somehow we’ve come to believe that kindness to ourselves will work against us. This is just not true. Take puppies and children. I’ll start with puppies. When you’re training a new puppy, what’s most effective is a reward based system. Shouting and rubbing their noses in their own excrement is outdated and recognised as abuse. And all it does is make the dog frightened of you. It doesn’t teach them anything other than fear. Children aren’t that different. Shouting at and punishing small children when they’re trying to learn, just gets in the way. They shut down and go into a protective state – they don’t become curious about what they did, and eager to understand how to do it differently – their primary motivation is to avoid the pain (physical or emotional).
Being hard on yourself is a painful place to be. If you can’t be kind to yourself then it’s as though there’s no refuge – because wherever you go, there you are – taunting yourself, being mean to yourself. You can’t get away from it… unless you distract yourself with compulsive behaviours – which only lasts as long as you’re zoning out from yourself – OR – develop your capacity for self-compassion.
Kristin Neff, a recognised self-compassion researcher from Austin, defines self-compassion as having 3 components:
- mindful awareness – which means paying attention to what is happening right here, right now, with as much acceptance and as little judgement as possible
- loving kindness – this is treating yourself with love and kindness, no matter what: regardless of your weight; how you got there; what you think you should or should not have done – you extend yourself the hand of friendship and understanding
- common humanity – this is an acknowledgement that you’re not alone! Suffering is part of life.
There have been a number of studies on self-compassion – and not one has discovered any downsides!
Want to hear about the benefits? As you’re reading this list, keep this in mind:
Criticism (including self-criticism) engages the threat-defense system. This elevates cortisol and adrenaline – your stress hormones. Compassion (including self-compassion) engages the mammalian care-giving system which gives rise to Oxytocin (the ‘bonding and belonging’ hormone) and opiates.
It is just amazing what a practice in self-compassion can do for you!
These have been gathered from a seminar I attended with Kristen Neff, from her book, as well as Unpacking Weight Science podcast, episode 6. Citations available on request!
- Reductions in depression, anxiety, stress, perfectionism and shame
- Improvements in attention and concentration
- Improvements in life-satisfaction, self-confidence, happiness, optimism and immune function
- Improvements in body image
- Reduction in binge eating behaviours
- Associated with low disordered eating behaviours
- Decreases in emotional overeating
- Decreases in backlash eating after breaking food rules (though Peaceful Eating isn’t about adhering to food rules!)
- Increases all sorts of health-promoting behaviours, like doctor’s visits, safe sex, exercising and more
So, are you convinced yet?
Good! Want to give it a go? Here is a short exercise from Christopher Gerber that you can try.
I suggest 2 things:
- A daily self-compassion practice (try 3 weeks) – you can use this Compassionate Body Scan Meditation.
- Every time you notice you’re being hard on yourself, take a breath, and say to yourself, ‘oh, that was a self-loathing thought,’ and then redirect your thoughts to ones of kindness towards yourself.