How many times have you felt guilty and mentally kicked yourself for eating half a batch of chocolate brownies in one go or finishing a whole jar of almond butter in the space of a few days?
In those situations, your first response may be to throw in the towel and eat more brownies because you’re a failure at dieting, or to call yourself fat and greedy. But research suggests that taking an alternative approach and being kind to yourself is likely to lead to better outcomes, in terms your physical and mental health, and also what and how you eat.1,2
In a systematic review of 28 studies, Braun, Park and Gorin (2016)1found that self-compassion was linked to lower levels of disordered thoughts and behaviours surrounding eating and body image*. For example, binge eating, feeling guilty after eating or worrying obsessively about body shape and weight.
What is self-compassion?
Kristin Neff3, a world leading expert on self-compassion explains that there are three interrelated aspects to self-compassion:
- Self-kindness – taking an understanding and sympathetic, rather than critical, response to our personal suffering arising from difficult/ distressing thoughts, feelings and situations. This is the opposite to self-criticism.
- Common humanity – knowing that everyone has challenging experiences and everyone makes mistakes. Often we can feel isolated in our struggles and it helps to know that other people also experience struggles and feelings of inadequacy.
- Mindfulness – being aware and accepting of our experiences and able to identify when we are suffering. This is the balance between, on one hand, ignoring our negative thoughts/emotions completely, and on the other, becoming attached to and overwhelmed by them.
3 ways to build self-compassion around food and body image
Talk to yourself like you would a friend
Think about how you comfort a friend when they are dealing with a difficult experience, then think about how you treat yourself.
What would it be like if you adopted a more caring approach to your own struggles with food or the situations that make you turn towards/ away from food? Try talking to yourself differently for a week and see what changes you notice.
Try a self-compassion meditation4
Meditation can help to increase mindfulness and self-compassion. Set aside 20 minutes every day to focus on a guided self-compassion meditation.
You can try the free meditations available from self-compassion.org or find a suitable meditation in your favoruite app.
Find a mantra
Use a mantra to help yourself remember one of the three aspects of self-compassion. I started to use the mantra ‘I am doing the best I can’ a few months ago. It helps me to remember that, even though I would like to, I can’t always do everything perfectly and I should accept that and be kind to myself for doing what I can.
*The authors state that “Findings across various study designs consistently linked self-compassion to lower levels of eating pathology, and self-compassion was implicated as a protective factor against poor body image and eating pathology, with a few exceptions”.
- Braun TD, Park CL, Gorin A. Self-compassion, body image, and disordered eating: A review of the literature. Body Image. 2016 Jun;17:117-31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27038782
- Sirois FM, Kitner R, Kirsch JK. Self-compassion, affect, and health-promoting behaviors. Health Psychol. 2015 Jun;34(6):661-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25243717
- Neff K. http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/
- Albertson, E.R., Neff, K.D. & Dill-Shackleford, K.E. 6.Self-Compassion and Body Dissatisfaction in Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Brief Meditation Intervention. Mindfulness. 201 Jun; 6(3): 444-454. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-014-0277-3
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