Making way for Self-Compassion

Self-compassion wasn't part of the "Value-Tales" books I read as a kid, but it should have been, along with Kindness, Courage, and other life affirming values. We know the importance of being kind and compassionate towards others, but few of us understand the value of directing compassion and kindness inward. Compassion towards ourselves conflicts with values of stoicism, with having a stiff upper lip and being told to discipline our powerful emotions. But, research and experience demonstrate that a healthy dose of self-compassion can actually help us break vicious cycles and build emotional resilience so that we can move forward. As an added bonus, it also makes us more compassionate towards others.

Here’s an example. Imagine a woman, Katherine, who is a chronic dieter and whose weight cycles up and down depending on where she is in her eating patterns. She’s unhappy with her weight. Her self-esteem is impacted by her habit of comparing herself to the women around her or to women in the media. All of the messages she’s getting are that she’s too big and she’s tired of it. So she puts all of her energy into weight loss. She restricts her food. And she loses weight. But, eventually her metabolism slows and she plateaus. She continues to restrict, even though she's hungry and tired. She’s ignoring her fatigue and hunger signals because she’s focused on her goal: her self-esteem is tied up in how much she weighs and she wants to feel good about herself. Then, one day, she has a really hard day – maybe it’s a hard day at work, maybe she has a huge argument with a loved one, or maybe she just wakes up in a bad mood and can’t shake it. Where does her mind go? She’s seeking comfort. She’s upset. And, like so many of us, she uses food to help soothe those emotions. Before you know it, she’s eaten more than she has in weeks. Later, the guilt sets in. Her critical voice starts to yell inside her head, how could you eat all that you idiot, you've ruined everything you worked for! Before you know it, she feels lower than ever before. She recommits to restrictive eating, but her self-esteem and her confidence have taken a hit. Multiply this cycle by many times, and you start to see a downward spiral into destructive self-judgment, low confidence, and ultimately, more weight gain.

If Katherine knew more about self-compassion, she could interrupt this cycle in a couple of different ways. For one, self-esteem is great when things are going well, but you can run into trouble when things go south. That’s because self-esteem often tends to rest on comparison.  It can end up being a process of directly comparing yourself to others, or comparing yourself to expectations you/society/your parents have of you. When you measure up, you feel great. When things don’t go well and your self-esteem is threatened, your own value of yourself (your self-worth) takes a hit, and your critical voice ratchets up to condemn not only your mistakes but also you as a worthy human being.

What if Katherine’s value of herself wasn’t tied up in self-esteem? What if it wasn’t entirely dependent on how she performed or how much she weighed? Instead, she can decide to love herself simply for being herself, with all her failings and her good qualities. How radical! On the occasions that Katherine binges, she could say to herself: Yes, I messed up. I feel awful. I still love myself and I am worthy even though I mess up sometimes. What would help me to feel better in this moment? What do I really need? If Katherine could see herself as a worthy human being, then she is worthy of eating normally and that means she has an opportunity to break the cycle.

When Katherine has a hard day, for any reason, self-compassion can help pick her up before she resorts to overeating. If Katherine is down on herself, if her critical voice is so strong that it overpowers her self-love, then she has every reason to engage in overeating – because she’s not worthy of feeling good about herself. But, if Katherine can stop, recognize and validate her pain, she can side-step the downward spiral. What if she could say, I’m feeling blue. My whole body feels tense and tired. My boss came down really hard on me today. No wonder I feel this way. What can I offer myself right now that would help me to feel better? What choice can I make that I will feel good about later? What do I really need? If the answer is food, that’s ok. If her compassionate voice is awake and she’s listening, it will help her to stop when she’s had enough. It will help her find the next thing that will truly soothe her pain so she can move forward.

Self compassion can take a bit of practice. There is a lot more to learn and to say about this multi-faceted idea which can bring us more in touch with ourselves and closer to our vision of our best health. If you are interested in learning more about these ideas, and how to put them into practice for yourself, I hope you’ll consider coaching with me. You can also learn more about self-compassion from author Kristin Neff, a leading researcher in the field, and you can take her self-compassion quiz at selfcompassion.org.