Wow, pretty harsh words. Could you imagine if someone you knew said that to you? How devastating would that be?
I have to assume that you would never say anything like this to a friend or your child.
Why then do you say these things to yourself? Way too often I hear similar harsh comments from my coaching clients when they become frustrated after experiencing a lapse in either their eating or exercise goals.
Now, it’s time to quiet the inner critic and get on the road to sustained weight loss.
In the world of coaching and positive psychology, experts are now saying that beating yourself up after overeating or skipping exercise is not helpful and, in fact, can be downright sabotaging. This small whisper grows louder as more and more studies back the notion that individuals who practice self-compassion—the act of being kinder and nicer to yourself—are more successful at reaching and sustaining their weight loss goals.
Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the premier researchers in the field of self-compassion, believes that self-compassion is conducive to motivation. To stay motivated, we need to be in a place of feeling good about ourselves, where we believe we are worthy and deserving of success. This is in contrast to what seems to be way more common, that we act as our own worst critics.
Dr. Neff points out that some people fear that self-compassion is equivalent to being self-indulgent, and self-criticism is actually what keeps dieters in line. However, research is proving just the opposite. Dr. Neff states, ''With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.''
So what exactly is self-compassion? Dr. Neff says there are three components:
Self-kindness. This entails being kind to oneself at moments of pain and personal shortcomings, rather than being overly critical and self-deprecating or trying to ignore those feelings.
Common humanity. This is grasping the realization that pain and suffering are part of the human condition and shared universally. In other words, knowing that you are not the only one that faces challenges, disappointment and pain.
Mindfulness. In order to be self-compassionate, we need to look at our negative emotions in an open and non-judgmental fashion. If you exhibit self-compassion, you neither suppress nor exaggerate your bad feelings. Mindfulness allows you to keep your negative emotions in perspective and recognize that our thoughts and emotions do not define who we are.
Interestingly, individuals who rank high on compassion to others often rank quite low on self-compassion. Why is it so much easier to be kind and understanding of others' shortcomings than our own?
According to Rick Carlson, author of Taming Your Gremlin, there is a voice in our heads that travels with us at all times and defines and interprets our every experience, a narrator that Carlson calls ''the gremlin.'' Carlson says, ''[The gremlin] uses some of your past experiences to hypnotize you into forming and living your life in accordance with self-limiting and sometimes frightening generalizations about you and what existence holds for you.''
Thus, if you have struggled to keep weight off or sustain an exercise program in the past, despite many positive steps forward now, at your first lapse your gremlin tells you that you’re a complete failure. You haven’t been successful in the past, so there’s no reason to believe that you’ll be successful now.
However, our past does not dictate our future. One of the incredible aspects of human beings is our ability to choose. We can change our minds and our actions at any given moment, but to do so, we must quiet the self-critic (gremlin) in our mind and increase our self-compassion.
When we use our past experiences as an opportunity to learn, we can redirect our current behaviors in a more positive direction. Rather than self-deprecating, be open and curious. Begin to ask the right questions, and you’ll come up with a new plan.
What are the events that cause you to overeat? Is it skipping meals, hanging out with friends who love ordering pizza at 1AM, or arguments with your significant other? Take that information and strategize what you need to do differently. Perhaps it’s time to focus on taking a lunch break every day, or heading home before your friends order that pizza. Maybe you need to build a better stress-management toolbox so that you have options to calm your emotions that have nothing to do with eating.
The one thing you must learn not to do, is let your gremlin take over. Energy and motivation to change your habits comes when you are feeling accepting and deserving of yourself, not when you are beating yourself up.
''The best way to lose weight and look your best is to start with loving who you are,'' states psychotherapist Jean Fain, a teaching associate at Harvard Medical School and author of The Self-Compassion Diet. The more you like yourself, the more you feel you deserve to live in a strong, healthy, beautiful body.
Studies show individuals who rank high in self-compassion exhibit enhanced life-satisfaction, happiness, optimism, curiosity and emotional resilience, all of which aregreat traits to possess when trying to lose weight or achieve any lofty goal.
If losing weight is one of your aspirations, learn to quiet the self-critic gremlin in your head and increase self-compassion. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Be patient with yourself. Recognize that changing habits is hard and requires focus and attention. Give up the quick fix mentality, be flexible in your approach and keep trying.
- Accept your body for where it is right now and rejoice in the miracle of all it can do. Recognize that you will be able to do more and feel better over time. That’s the amazing thing about our bodies--they respond positively to healthy living and you get to choose how to better yours.
- Practice self-compassion in response to ''screwing up.'' Focus on the many positive steps you’ve taken so far. Remember: A lapse does not have to lead to collapse. It’s just a slip, and you get to begin again.
- Praise yourself the way you would lavish compliments on friends and loved ones. Start noticing when you do well, rather than only focusing on when you mess up. Tell yourself, ''Way to go! Good job! You’re doing great!''
- Talk back to the negative voice in your head. Catch yourself when you are being overly cruel and critical. Tell yourself that type of talk is not helpful, but harmful. Remind yourself that although you feel badly for skipping exercise or over-eating, you can choose to get right back on track.
- Drop the ''all or nothing'' approach. You are doing the best you can, and some days will be easier than others. Just because you missed a planned workout doesn't mean you've totally blown it. If you caved in to dessert tonight, know that you can choose to be more careful tomorrow.
- Learn from mistakes. When you mess up, rather than beating yourself up, step back and evaluate the situation. Ask yourself ''What information can I gather that will help me avoid that mistake in the future?''
- Avoid labeling foods as ''good'' or ''bad.'' This leads to feelings of deprivation. No food should be looked at as ''never'' allowed. If the bulk of your intake is healthy food, the occasional treat will not derail your success.
- Be flexible and experiment with new ideas and approaches. If what you are doing is not getting you the desired results, be open to trying a different way.
- Seek support from others. Recognize that many individuals are struggling to maintain a healthy weight, and you are not alone. Consider joining an in-person or online weight-loss support group. As you display compassion and understanding to others, you’ll find the same returned to you.
- Practice mindfulness. Individuals who have a mindfulness practice such as journaling, meditation or even sitting in silence a few minutes each day, show increased self-compassion and better control over their food choices.
Carson, Rick, 2003. Taming Your Gremlin. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Fain, Jean, 2011. The Self-Compassion Diet. CO: Sounds True, Inc.
Neff, Kristin, 2011. Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Psychology Today. ''Self-Compassion for Weight Loss: 4 Ideas to Help Build It,'' accessed January 2015. www.psychologytoday.com.
Self-Compassion: A Healthier Way of Relating to Yourself. ''Self-Compassion Homepage,'' accessed January 2015. www.self-compassion.org.
Self-Compassion: A Healthier Way of Relating to Yourself. ''The Three Elements of Self-Compassion,'' accessed January 2015. www.self-compassion.org.