Home It's All Mental Self-Compassion: A Key Factor In Weight Loss

Self-Compassion: A Key Factor In Weight Loss

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I caught a glimpse of something in the NYTimes that I think is pretty relevant, here:

Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family?

That simple question is the basis for a burgeoning new area of psychological research called self-compassion — how kindly people view themselves. People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.

The research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.

This idea does seem at odds with the advice dispensed by many doctors and self-help books, which suggest that willpower and self-discipline are the keys to better health. But Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, says self-compassion is not to be confused with self-indulgence or lower standards.

“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent,” said Dr. Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. “They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

Imagine your reaction to a child struggling in school or eating too much junk food. Many parents would offer support, like tutoring or making an effort to find healthful foods the child will enjoy. But when adults find themselves in a similar situation — struggling at work, or overeating and gaining weight — many fall into a cycle of self-criticism and negativity. That leaves them feeling even less motivated to change.

“Self-compassion is really conducive to motivation,” Dr. Neff said. “The reason you don’t let your children eat five big tubs of ice cream is because you care about them. With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”

I cannot express enough how important this concept of self-compassion truly is. It’s why I say “I don’t diet.” It’s why my plan for developing a strong sense of body image includes thinking of how I’d treat my four year old daughter if I caught her saying the same things about her body that I used to say about mine. It’s why I don’t believe in “cheat meals.”

When it comes to weight loss, self-compassion – instead of negative talk and chastising oneself for lacking “will power” – is the key because self-compassion allows for us to make mistakes and, thereafter, learn lessons from those mistakes. Even in the days when I was eating 7-layer dip for breakfast, I knew I was wrong but I allowed myself to make the mistake and accept what consequences would come from it… and I never ate it again. Not “I never ate it for breakfast again,” but “I never ate it again. Period.”

Self-discipline might be the way to weight loss, but the missing factor in everyone’s understanding of self-discipline is that people who have never had self-discipline have to learn it somehow. It’s not simply “the frontal part of the brain region that fat people have never tapped into.” It is a learned trait… and that learning has to start somewhere that doesn’t include “going cold turkey.”

The article goes on from here:

A 2007 study by researchers at Wake Forest University suggested that even a minor self-compassion intervention could influence eating habits. As part of the study, 84 female college students were asked to take part in what they thought was a food-tasting experiment. At the beginning of the study, the women were asked to eat doughnuts.One group, however, was given a lesson in self-compassion with the food. “I hope you won’t be hard on yourself,” the instructor said. “Everyone in the study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel real bad about it.”

Later the women were asked to taste-test candies from large bowls. The researchers found that women who were regular dieters or had guilt feelings about forbidden foods ate less after hearing the instructor’s reassurance. Those not given that message ate more.

The hypothesis is that the women who felt bad about the doughnuts ended up engaging in “emotional” eating. The women who gave themselves permission to enjoy the sweets didn’t overeat. [source]

This is why I don’t believe in “cheating.” If I’m changing my lifestyle, what “good” does it do to create a lifestyle for myself where I have to “cheat” myself (because that’s the only person being cheated, here) in order to be successful? That’s a fail. Period.

I will admit, though, that I think there’s something missing from this entire conversation: people feel an inability to exercise restraint with food because, more often than not, they’re dealing with processed foods that alter their ability to “eat just one.” The fact that I couldn’t control myself when it came to certain foods was something that’d cause me to beat myself up a little bit, too. I can admit that.

See? That’s an example of self-compassion. My admitting that I wouldn’t have been able to control myself or lose my weight if I were still around processed foods? That’s me being compassionate to myself, being sympathetic to my shortcomings… instead of acting like my shortcomings don’t have to be acknowledged because some mystical mental power should exist to save me (and then calling myself an idiot, a loser and a failure for not being able to tap into it.)

I really want to read up on this and come back to it, but I’m especially interested in what everyone has to say about this study. How compassionate are you to yourself? Do you beat yourself up over food woes or missing your workout? Let’s talk!

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Brenda Fisher March 3, 2011 - 1:37 PM

What a beautiful article. Thank you for your inspiring words, they make this weight loss journey seem a little easier.

Juanita March 3, 2011 - 6:17 PM

Talk about a wake-up call. A few months ago, a co-worker was talking about joining a gym after years of being inactive. I always had encouraging words for her, bringing it up again to know how her first training session went. She was sore and apprehensive about going again, thinking about starting slow with two sessions per week and then adding additional sessions gradually. I only had positive words, saying it’s better to start slow and keep building at a comfortable pace to make it a lasting change, than to overwork it and quit. Throughout the weeks, I would ask how it was going, and she would share her experiences with me and come to share her progress. ‘I can see muscle tone in my arms!’… ‘I actually feel like walking outside during break time now!’ Etc, etc.
Reading your article made me remember the way I interacted with this co-worker while she was struggling with committing to a new change, versus the way I treat myself when I get off the fitness train. Frankly, lately, I have been in a major slump. I have no energy, I do not feel like working out, and I have been making very poor dietary choices. My internal dialogue is continually calling me lazy, fat, that if I cannot even control my own actions then I will never succeed at anything else…After continually repeating those things, no wonder one does not feel like making smart choices and instead reaches out to the comfort foods….Only to maintain this tailspin cycle….
I would not treat anyone the way I treat myself. I would never say to anyone, even if I dislike them, the things I say to myself about my weight, my lack of willpower, or myself in general. Thank you for a very eye-opening article.

nine March 5, 2011 - 12:47 PM

I need to be more compassionate. Right now I am always beating myself up for not being able to exercise while I truly want to.
I am also in need of a crash diet because emotional eating made a furious come back.
But I need to chill and give myself time to help me lose the weight and go back to exercise. I need to treat myself better. Like I treat others … That’s a fact.

LN March 8, 2011 - 10:09 AM

I’m in the process of losing the 16 pounds that I gained in 2010, and having a sense of humor/being compassionate towards myself has made ALL the difference! I think it’s because my 2010 was SO stressful that I HAD to learn to be gracious towards myself to SURVIVE. Even when I was living through 2010, and slowly packing on the pounds, I kept telling myself, “We’ll work on losing this in 2011. Just focus on getting through 2010.” And that’s what I’ve done.

I’m proud of myself for surviving 2010 and I’m proud of myself for losing 9.5 pounds so far in 2010!! I decided to not force/berate myself into working out, but instead work with my mental capabilities. So, for the first two months of the year, I did NOT feel like working out. Instead of being angry at myself. I used it as an opportunity to work on my diet. Now I actually do feel like working out, and I think it’s because I gave myself time to accept the reality that I need to be more active.

Carolyn Matteo May 30, 2011 - 8:24 PM

Thank you for the wake-up call, Erika! At the end of the day, I always feel drained and unappreciated because I am so giving and understanding of others but not myself. It ends now. I am now practicing self-compassion and will appreciate myself more. I don’t need others to appreciate me — I need me to appreciate me. LORD, help me see myself as THEE sees me and love that me just like THEE does. Amen.

Dee Dee Cochran February 21, 2012 - 11:36 AM

Thank you Carolyn. Your post has truely helped me in more ways than you will ever know. God bless you.

Shondria G. June 29, 2011 - 1:49 PM

This is such an inspiring article!!! i love it!!

MissMM September 19, 2011 - 5:02 PM

This was a very important point. And I loved this post. I hate the term “diet” because it has been misused by society, and to me it implies a temporary quick solution for weight loss. I feel as though I am training my mind (and my body) I guess to understand that my natural eating habits are changing for the healthier better me and that when I “give in” to cravings, Its just that. No falling off the wagon, no giving up on my new lifestyle, no failing. Just an off day. When I can’t run as many miles one day as I did the last I try to focus on the fact that I am still getting out there to run. And If I am tired, I will walk instead. Rather than be disappointed that my body isn’t will that day. I have lost approx 25 lbs over 4 months. And hope to lose another 20 by January. Your site is totally helpful and encouraging.

DarkAugustChild September 19, 2011 - 5:10 PM

I needed to read this. After reading the comments over on another site I was just so angry with them and in turn I was getting mad at myself because I getting to my goal fast enough. (Even AFTER I weighted this morning and found myself down over 40 pounds) This article def snapped my out of that feeling quick. Thank you so much.

Chelsea February 12, 2012 - 1:34 AM

I love your site, it definitely is inspiring and makes me excited to continue this journey! As for a hater story, I’ve lost 20 pounds so far and even though my stomach isn’t what I’d like it to be right now, it’s still on it’s way there. Everyone at work knows that I’m on a healthy living journey right now, and at lunch one day when everyone else was eating BBQ sandwiches and I was enjoying a salad and fruit a lady tells me “I hope you’ve been working on your stomach, it’s looking really flabby.” I could’ve went off, but I smiled nicely and told her “good, that means the weight is dropping nicely. Glad to see you’ve noticed my changes.” I continued eating my salad and enjoying my day. It’s sad when we can’t be happy for one another.

Nichelle February 21, 2012 - 11:30 AM

This was very helpful. I am actually participation in a course that deals with self-compassion and self-empathy. This idea seems radical to me. I would never berate my sisters or friends as they try to reach a goal, yet this is how I try to “encourage” myself. It does not work. I know this now and I am committed to doing something else: looking at my needs in a more truthful manner and having compassion for were I am in any given moment.

I believe that we have this sense of urgency when we feel bad about ourselves, we wan to make a quick change. Do something right away, instead of sitting with the discomfort. I am grateful for this reminder, that this is a journey and a process.

Kyra June 3, 2012 - 1:20 PM

Thank you so much for this article and your words of enlightenment. I felt pretty bad reading this when I had to admit to myself that I put myself down often for all of the things I fail to do. If I do not exercise I call myself lazy or unmotivated. If I indulge in a particular food I call myself greedy or out of control. If I get to stressed out over something I tell myself I lack focus and will power. I even have gone as far as to make myself the butt of my own self damaging jokes. On the flip side my friends and family say I am probably the most supportive, compassionate person in their “circle”. I had to ask myself why do I value others well being over my own. Through self examination and recognizing some painful truths about myself and my own life journies I’ve realized that I am punishing myself for past guilts (some real and some perceived). Its high time I forgive myself. This article has encouraged me to keep on this path. Instead of beating myself up over mistakes I’m going to try harder to focus on my triumphs like removing processed foods from my diet (and slowly but surely steering my family in the same direction); exercising three times a week now instead of sitting on the couch all 7 days of the week; and giving myself some quality “me time” each week. Thanks again, I plan on following your blog since I believe that surrounding myself with positivity will promote it more in my life.

Dee June 8, 2012 - 6:57 PM

This was interesting to read, especially that quote from the doc that said people use self-criticism because they feel without it, they will be too self-indulgent. When I began working to fix my bad health habits, and was tapping into online and real life convos about health, I noticed a very mean, militaristic tone people tended to take with themselves. I remember thinking, how awful and sad how people talk about and think about themselves. My very next thought was, well, maybe they have something right, maybe I spoil myself and let myself off the hook too easily. Reading this article makes me realize that committing to honest assessment, and planning out realistic strategies, doesn’t require the negative self-talk along with it. I don’t need to trade my old bad health habits for new bad mental health habits!

Brownie de Paris July 28, 2012 - 12:18 PM

Bravo yet again, Erika. I usually lurk on your site but I had to respond because I have struggled with this and I really needed to hear this. THANK YOU.

CurvyCEO September 13, 2012 - 4:45 PM

What a wonderful piece! This right here sums up why I’d been so reluctant to embrace self-compassion in the past:

“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent,” said Dr. Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. “They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

However, once I realized that even if I were the lazy, stupid, ugly failure I thought myself to be for not losing weight, I had to ask myself, “Even if that were true, wouldn’t I still be entitled to love?” Knowing that the answer to the question is YES allowed me to stop the negative self-talk. I’m working hard to be compassioniate to myself on this journey. Turns out that the author of the study has a book and a website (where you can take a self-compassion quiz!) – off to give it a whirl!

Melissa Craig June 19, 2014 - 3:55 PM

I don’t beat myself up over food. I usually have great self control with food. I wasn’t an emotional eater though, my weight problem stems from PCOS and laziness and bad food choices. I did, however, beat myself up recently when I would miss a day at the gym. Then I came across your blog and read about how if you put yourself down you are more likely not to go back. That is how people end up quitting by calling themselves a failure. So I decided that if I did miss a workout – No Big Deal – back at it tomorrow! 🙂 Soooo Thank You for that Erika! <3

Amber Lee January 15, 2016 - 4:06 PM

I am learning to be self-compassionate. Thank you for writing this article. It has reinforced to me that I need not beat myself up for having bowls of Lucky Charms if the cereal is made to keep me eating it. However, I must acknowledge that and stop eating it. I’ve gained a lot of weight in the last ten years, and have felt very ashamed of myself. Yet, I am learning to see myself from a different perspective. It is making all the difference.

Cherisse January 17, 2016 - 10:38 PM

This article describes me to a tee. I have no self-compassion for myself. I am my own worst enemy. I have dealt with depression 20 plus years and I am starting to learn how to nurture and heal my emotional health as I am starting my journey to a healthier me. Thank you so much for what you do. You are a true inspiration.

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