By Pamela Peeke, MD
“I’m such a loser. I can’t get it together. I’m always caving and binging and shooting myself in the foot. I start out OK and then in no time everything falls apart. I’m so ashamed of the way I look and live. This is all my fault. I feel hopeless.” Sound familiar? At some point most of us experiences this dark place of feeling helpless, hopeless and defeated. It’s a place of shame, blame and guilt. Often, our response is to escape into mindlessness once again, dissociated mind from body, eating whatever and whenever, praying for that magical moment when we snap out of it and flip back on track into self-discipline. Do you want to hop off this emotional roller coaster and head down a new path toward the achievement of sustainable better health and weight management?
Here’s how. Balance self-discipline with self-compassion. Self-compassion means treating oneself with kindness and support when things don’t go well.
The first time I mentioned this to one of my patients years ago, she gave me a puzzled look. “How do I do that?” I asked her to think about the last time she expressed compassion for someone in her life. In this case it was her best friend who’d lost her job and was experiencing tough financial challenges. “That’s easy. I kept reminding her of what a wonderful woman she is, and that she’d get through this with the love and support of her family and friends. And then I’d show up and just do things for her, be her companion, and someone she could lean on.” Then she smiled. “Oh now I’m getting it. I’m supposed to do that for me. But, I’ve never really done that before. It feels odd.” Indeed it does. The bottom line is that we’re better at giving then getting. But it’s through the daily practice of self-compassion that you can increase your chance for success at anything from weathering a family crisis, to shedding extra mental and physical pounds and keeping them off long term.
And there’s research to prove that self-compassion works.
A 2007 Wake Forest University study found that when researchers asked young women who were dieting not to feel bad about eating doughnuts during a taste test (“I hope you won’t be hard on yourself—everyone eats unhealthily sometimes.”), those participants unconsciously chose to eat less candy later. Those dieters who hadn’t been encouraged to be self-compassionate and demonstrated more self-criticism overate the candy.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that using functional MRI scans when studying Buddhist monks meditating on loving-kindness when exposed to stressful scenarios, the areas of the brain associated with empathy and maternal love (insula and temporal parietal junction) were stimulated. The brain can be programmed to go to a place of compassion in the face of any kind of stress, decreasing depression and anxiety, and helping to adapt and adjust without resorting to impulsive self-destructive behaviors.
Dr. Kristin Neff of the University of Texas has created a validated test to assess your own level of self-compassion. And it’s an eye-opener. Raise your hand if you’re constantly judging and criticizing yourself when things don’t go well in your life? Take a moment to complete the test to see where you stand.
Here’s how to get the ball rolling and self-compassion flowing throughout your day.
Watch out for Fat Talk: Think of the internal dialogue that flows through your head on a daily basis: “You look horrible in this.” “You have no control, you’re a loser and a fat slob.” This is the kind of self-talk we pollute our brains with every day. What about this commentary is helpful? Nothing. When you’ve had this automatic fat talk habit for so long, you start believing it. Don’t! For the next 24 hours, monitor all of your self-speak and write down all of your typical put-downs. It may be a shocker to see how you’ve been treating yourself.
Switch to Self-Compassionate Talk: Self-compassion is about treating yourself with the same respect, honor, loyalty, trust, and love you bestow on your family and friends. You’re learning how to coach yourself as you confront your daily stresses. Here are a few shifts from self-critical to self-compassionate when stress hits:
“I’m stupid.” is replaced by “Oh well, mistakes happen. Let me try again.”
“I suck at this.” is replaced by “I’m just learning—I’m a work in progress.”
“I can’t believe I let myself go again.” is replaced by “No one is perfect—I am human and I’m going to start again to help myself.”
“I look like a fat pig at the gym.” is replaced by “I’m starting my journey at this gym and will simply do my best, stay focused, make some friends, and be patient because I know I can do this.”
“I feel like such a large, lumpy, undisciplined loser.” is replaced by “I’m a warm and wonderful friend and human being. I’m not a loser. I’m a winner because I’m showing up and trying to improve myself.”
When you don’t practice self-compassion, you are more critical of yourself, more apt to seek perfection and be angrier and competitive with others. You’re more likely to judge yourself solely on external, changing metrics. Your scale and size rule you. Your whole self-worth is unstable.
Self-compassion is the ability to be kind and understanding to yourself when you’re suffering or when you feel inadequate in some way. Self-compassion helps you key into your shared humanity, allowing you to see that pain, mistakes and failure are natural, unavoidable parts of being a human being. Unlike dissociation, self-compassion is not about running away from your feelings—it’s about facing them honestly, without resorting to self-pity or excess drama. You will gift yourself with unconditional love and compassion. This is one of the most powerful weapons against one of the most significant speed bumps along your weight management and healthy lifestyle journey— the harsh self-judgment and criticism that paralyzes you and leaves you feeling hopeless.
Loving-kindness combined with a reasonable plan of action for nutrition and fitness, is the recipe for long term healthy living success.