Self Compassion: A Vital Part of a Healthy Lifestyle

Author: Emma Rose Andrus

What is self compassion?  Dr. Kristin Neff writes that compassion,“means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly.”  Learning to be more compassionate with myself has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had in my life.  It was the first step I took towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle.  

When we are compassionate and forgiving to others, no one bats an eyelash because this is accepted behavior.  However, many people are hesitant, or even resistant, to treating themselves with the same care, respect, and forgiveness that we offer to others.

When I was a teenager, self compassion was in short supply, as I’m sure it is for many teenagers.  I had always been a bit chubby, but when I lost my mother and sister early in my teenage years, I gained sixty pounds in less than a year.  My self esteem was terrible, and I blamed myself for my weight gain, thinking I was fat, ugly, or worthless.  I would never think those things of another human being, whatever their size, yet the way I treated myself and talked to myself was downright cruel.  The sad part is, it’s not uncommon for people to think about themselves exactly the way I thought of myself in those days.  

Thank goodness the days of thinking poorly of myself are over, and now I treat myself with respect and kindness regardless of my pants size.

So how did we get here as a society?  What makes it socially acceptable for us to treat ourselves with such contempt?  I don’t believe this sort of behavior is just a personal one.  Our society as a whole is obsessed with weight and size, and applies moral values to certain weights and sizes. We view thin bodies as beautiful, morally virtuous, successful, and think of thin people as being intelligent or having good self control.  Fat bodies are viewed as the opposite, even though many heavier people are much more careful about what they eat than many thin people.  We do the same thing with food, too, saying that certain foods are ‘good’, and others ‘bad’.  We, in turn, become ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when we eat those foods.  In her article, “How Negative Self-Talk Makes You Fat,” Lisa Turner writes of a client whose parents berated about her eating habits at meal-times as a child, saying “‘Why are you eating so much? You’re already so fat! You’re only going to get fatter!’”  The shame made their negativity into a self-fulfilling prophecy, which led to the woman overeating and gaining weight.

There is no moral value to our bodies or the food we eat.  

Accepting this is a huge step in overcoming negative self-talk and becoming more self-compassionate.  

One of the key stressors is not being self compassionate – this chronic stress over time will challenge our health.  It is important to understand how biology makes us gain weight in the first place. Cortisol is a hormone our bodies produce naturally during times of stress especially chronic stress, which causes our bodies to store fat around our mid-sections.  

This can create a catch-22 as we gain weight from being stressed, and in turn become more stressed about gaining weight.  

Negative self-talk reinforces this stress, making it even more difficult to lose weight.  

Lisa Turner also writes that a,“study published in the journal NeuroImage, found that study participants who engaged in self-criticism showed more brain activity in the regions associated with depression, anxiety and eating disorders.”  

Self-criticism is a form of negative reinforcement, which is becoming increasingly understood as an ineffective form of motivation.  

Kevin Arnasun of Motive8Fitness explains that “Negative reinforcement is a ‘punisher’ and serves to decrease specific behaviors.”  He goes on to state that while it may work for a few, for the rest of us negative reinforcement merely serves to increase our stress levels. As we’ve already discussed, this is counterproductive when it comes to weight management.

 

How do we turn negative self-talk into self-compassion?  By challenging our negative thoughts.  Turner suggests spending one hour per day practicing mindfulness and awareness of negative self-talk.  “Take a step back from the voice, and listen to it with curiosity. Give it lots of space to express, but stay non-committal. For some people, 15 minutes of this practice is plenty.”  

Through this, we are able to separate ourselves from the self-critical chorus in our heads, taking away some of its power.  

 

Lisa Turner, “How Negative Self Talk Makes You Fat,”  Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-turner/negative-self-image-be-ni_b_626598.html

“The Power of Positive Thinking:  How Your Attitude Affects Weight Loss,”  Fit Day  http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/the-power-of-positive-thinking-how-your-attitude-affects-weight-loss.html

Keven Arnasun, “Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement in Fitness,”  Motive8Fitness  http://www.motive8fitness.ca/motivation/positive-vs-negative-reinforcement-fitness/

Dr. Kristin Neff, “Definition of Self Compassion,” Self-Compassion http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/