Many of us are too hard on ourselves. No more so than in the area of eating habits, lifestyle choices and body weight. Whether it is lamenting over the fact that we no longer fit into those pre-pregnancy jeans, or that we now have areas of our bodies that wobble more than they did last year, or that we lack the willpower of Michelle Bridges, there appears to be a consistent attitude when it comes to how we relate to ourselves. We are our toughest critics.
This pattern of thinking creates more harm than good. It can actually work against us to reinforce not only our negative self-view and worsen confidence but it can actually perpetuate the behaviour we are trying to avoid. Negative thinking about ourselves can lock us in a state of being unable to change; both physically and emotionally.
Take a patient of mine named Sarah, who came to see me stating that she was unable to lose weight following the birth of her son 5 years ago. She proceeded to point to areas of her body that she disliked most with a look of great disgust. Sarah mentioned that her poor self-image meant that she felt uncomfortable in social situations and refused to be touched by her husband. To try to lose the extra kilos of body weight Sarah had tried ‘everything’ including expensive weight-loss pills, personal trainers, various diets, and had even resorted to dangerously taking too much of her thyroid medication in an attempt to
speed up her metabolism.
Although I empathised with Sarah, I suggested that possibly there was another way to help her lose the weight without having to try so hard. I suggested to her that her constant self-denigration had created a state of anxiety and stress in her body. This state in turn had increased stress hormone levels. Stress hormones act as a diabetic agent – they increase blood sugar levels, prevent weight loss, cause abdominal weight gain in particular, and lower metabolism. Her body was fighting her best efforts to lose weight. Her body was doing what it was programmed to do – survive – and therefore store body fat. To reverse this process Sarah would have to learn to live in a state of reduced stress levels and the first step in doing so was to extend to herself a little compassion. Self-compassion is key to long term positive change.
So What Exactly Is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is a relatively new term in psychology circles and essentially refers to cutting yourself some slack. As Dr Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas, put it in her latest TedX talk, ‘… Instead of mercilessly judging and criticising yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect? You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable.’
There will be situations in our lives that we dislike and even frustrate us. This is the common human experience. But by extending a little grace to ourselves we can learn to continue to move forward without getting stuck in a vicious cycle of shame and self-defeating behaviour.
When I mentioned this to Sarah, she seemed opposed initially to the idea of self-compassion. She was afraid that if she loosened the reins on herself she would, by her own terms, ‘…get even fatter’. But after a little convincing she was courageous enough, and perhaps so frustrated at her own attempts, that she decided to give it a try. By reducing her need to strive for perfection with regards to her eating habits Sarah noticed that she was no longer succumbing to binge eating. She was able to make better choices with regards to her eating without getting stuck in the cycle of deprivation. By reducing her need to strive for perfection with regards to exercise she no longer felt the need to train for two hours every day. This reduction in excessive activity not only reduced the stress levels in her body but she found that she had extra time to spend with her husband and son. Overall, after just a few short months Sarah was a much happier and healthier person. She had stopped focussing on her body weight as a measure of self-worth and had started to focus on other much more important aspects of her life. Namely her relationship with herself and her significant others.
Sarah’s story highlights how important self-compassion is in the process of making positive lifestyle and health changes. However, before you can extend to yourself some compassion it is important to understand what distinguishes self-compassion from other areas of positive psychology.
Dr Cris Beer
Holistic Medical Doctor