Tempting food was available and stress was high, so you fell off the wagon and exceeded your calorie count. Sound familiar? Or you’ve been following your meal plan all week and still didn’t lose an ounce. Then over the weekend you gave in and enjoyed drinks and nachos with your buddies only to end up half a pound heavier by Monday.
When it’s time to get back on track your motivation has vanished. You feel defeated, frustrated, full of regret. Your self-critic is yelling at you, judging your behavior and hounding you to meal plan and eat mindfully. Do better, it says.
We all have similar conversation around our weight loss journey and don’t realize that sticking to our commitments and losing weight isn’t just dependent on knowing what and how much to eat. Emotional triggers like stress, depression and anxiety can undermine our efforts as well.
Rather than leaning into the familiar, harsh self-talk what would happen if you practiced self-compassion, treating yourself with kindness the way you would a good friend and forgiving yourself when you slipped up? How would it feel to celebrate your wins rather than just punishing yourself for mistakes? What would your journey look like if you viewed each step in a positive light as part of a learning process that eventually enabled you to reach and maintain your goal weight?
Research on Self-compassion and Eating
While you might think practicing self-compassion lowers motivation and makes you more prone to self-indulgence and overeating, research shows the converse is true. Self-compassion supports healthy eating behavior, behavior change, and weight regulation. In contrast, self-criticism undermines motivation.1 Researchers found that higher levels of self-compassion reduce the likelihood of weight gain in stressful environments2 and another study showed that participating in a mindful self-compassion program can support weight loss.3
There are several reasons why self-compassion may support healthy behaviors and weight reduction. Some researchers feel self-compassion works by enhancing mindfulness, which makes you more aware of thoughts, feelings, and actions. Others believe self-compassion enhances weight outcomes by improving mindful and intuitive eating, overcoming dietary disinhibition (the tendency to overeat when tasty food is present), and increasing healthy behavior intentions. Additional research has shown that self-compassion reduces body dissatisfaction and body shame and increases body appreciation,4 which can motivate you to care for your body by eating right.
Not only can self-compassion help you stick to your diet and support weight loss efforts, it also decreases stress, depression, and anxiety while increasing optimism, life-satisfaction and wellbeing.5 Positive people with higher levels of life satisfaction who attempt to lose weight tend to be more successful at maintaining their weight loss than individuals who are more negative and less hopeful.6
Self-Compassion in Action
The good news is that just like an athlete works out to make their muscles stronger, you can build your self-compassion muscle through informal and formal (i.e. mindful self-compassion meditation) self-compassion practices.
Here are 3 steps to get started:
1 Understand what self-compassion is
According to Kristin Neff, self-compassion consists of three interrelated elements:7
- Self-kindness (verses self-judgment)
- Common humanity (verses isolation)
- Mindfulness (verses over-identification)
Incorporating these elements into your life entails being nice to yourself rather than critical (i.e. forgiving yourself when you have a diet lapse), understanding that everyone fails and makes mistakes (we all overeat sometimes) and noticing when you’re stressed (that’s mindfulness).
2 Create a self-care list
The simplest way to practice self-compassion is to list ways you already or would like to care for yourself. Break the list into 5 categories:
- Body: go for a walk, eat a healthy meal, take a bath
- Mind: read, do a puzzle, meditate
- Emotions: talk to a therapist or good friend, listen to music, watch a funny movie
- Spirit: do yoga, spend time in nature
- Relationships: spend time with people who support you
When you notice you are stressed or suffering take out your list and give yourself what you need.
Since self-compassion is an emotional regulatory technique, it can help you overcome emotional eating. When you experience difficult emotions, rather than eating pause and take a breath. Next utilize the acronym HALT to determine how you are feeling. HALT stands for:
If you’re hungry have a healthy meal or snack. Angry, anxious, lonely or tired? Take out your list from Step 2 and pick an activity that can help you feel better.
Learning to be more self-compassionate takes time and can be challenging. For men, difficulties can arise because males in our society are frequently taught not to feel their emotions and that self-compassion is weak.8 But emotions are your internal GPS device and experiencing them is a healthy part of being human. In addition, being compassionate with yourself and others takes courage and shows strength. Women may find self-compassion challenging because they’re often taught to put others first and as a result may feel guilty when they start to work on getting their own needs met.9
If you’re struggling with practicing self-compassion be patient. Offer yourself grace for how hard it can be to treat yourself like a good friend. Set an intention to be kinder to yourself particularly when you are suffering. Your self-compassion muscle will grow and you’ll be better able to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
In the words of self-compassion teacher Christopher Germer, “A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day.” A string of such moments can change the course of your life.