Learn how self-compassion and treating yourself with kindness can support you as you work towards your personal goals.
Cultivating Self-Compassion while Working on Your Weight Loss Goals
One of the most challenging aspects of working with clients around weight loss is simultaneously supporting them in making healthy choices with food, while also encouraging them to be compassionate towards themselves — regardless of the numbers on the scale or what they just ate.
Is self-compassion about accepting who we are and where we are, without making any changes? Or does self-compassion support us in our efforts to be happier and healthier? It’s a trap to think we can accept ourselves only after we achieve that perfect weight, promotion, or other idealized goal, but it’s another kind of trap to think it’s wrong to want to go after any goal at all. How can we reconcile self-compassion with a genuine desire to better ourselves?
What is Self-Compassion?
“Self-compassion is actively loving ourselves, especially during times of distress,” says Amanda Grant, a wellness coach with Thriving Mammas Coaching who helps women cope with stress and overwhelm in order to lead more fulfilling lives. “It’s treating ourselves as a dear friend, rather than as the enemy. We often expend so much energy fighting against ourselves, judging, denying, or trying to wish away certain aspects of ourselves. It’s exhausting.”
Self-compassion is meeting yourself where you are now, regardless of perceived inadequacies or failures. Kristin Neff, author and professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, outlines the three main components of self-compassion as self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity.
"It requires approaching negative feelings with an open and neutral mind, and observing these thoughts and feelings without trying to ignore or suppress them, and without ruminating."
This means being warm toward yourself when you’re experiencing pain rather than defaulting to self-judgement. It means recognizing that “suffering and personal failure [are] part of the shared human experience.” And it requires approaching negative feelings with an open and neutral mind, and observing these thoughts and feelings without trying to ignore or suppress them, and without ruminating.
So self-compassion is not about resignation or complacency, and it’s not getting lost in self-pity, either. It’s also not the same thing as self-esteem — a subjective evaluation of self that recent research suggests can be bound up with narcissism and distorted and unstable external measurements of self-worth, and which can lead to disharmony in relationships and other negative outcomes.
In contrast, Dr. Neff describes self-compassion as “a way of feeling good about yourself that doesn't require judging yourself as good or bad or comparing yourself to others. It just involves relating to yourself kindly. Self-compassion is treating yourself like a friend or a loved one – with care and concern.”
How is Self-Compassion Related to Weight Loss?
It’s no surprise that self-compassion — how you relate to yourself — is positively associated with robust mental health, including less anxiety and more optimism. This also translates to greater motivation to learn and try something new.
"Starting from a place of love and acceptance means reinforcing what you like and admire about yourself, and being your own cheerleader as you make lasting lifestyle changes, instead of getting stuck in defeatist self-talk and berating yourself for every little slip — which can set up a negative spiral that’s hard to escape."
When it comes to weight loss, self-compassion focuses attention on love and kindness instead of criticism and judgment. Starting from a place of love and acceptance means reinforcing what you like and admire about yourself, and being your own cheerleader as you make lasting lifestyle changes, instead of getting stuck in defeatist self-talk and berating yourself for every little slip — which can set up a negative spiral that’s hard to escape.
While some might fear that self-compassion will only lead to a loss of self-control or make it easier to overeat, science has shown the opposite.
In a recent study of civilians entering a high-stress military environment, self-compassion was associated with not gaining weight, while people in another study lost more weight than those in the control group when they also participated in a self-compassion program. And psychotherapist and author Jean Fain says self-compassion is one of the key factors to sustainable weight management: "The best way to lose weight and look your best is to stop dieting and start with loving who you are.”
But what if self-compassion doesn’t come naturally to you right now?
How to Cultivate Self-Compassion while Working Toward Your Goals
If you’re not sure how to start being kind to yourself, think about how you would treat a friend in the same situation. What would you say and do to support them where they are, to help them get to where they want to be? The trick is to then say and do exactly that, but for yourself instead.
"We can look for all of the things to love and celebrate in ourselves rather than focusing on our perceived ‘flaws.’"
“We can cultivate self-compassion by accepting every part of ourselves,” says Amanda Grant. “We can act as both the person needing comfort and the person doing the comforting. This helps us see that we are not our suffering and distress. We can offer ourselves kind, supportive words. We can look for all of the things to love and celebrate in ourselves rather than focusing on our perceived ‘flaws.’ We can make time for the things that help us to feel good, like eating well, moving our bodies, time in nature, or time with loved ones. We can give ourselves grace, knowing we are not broken.”
Being kinder to yourself makes it easier to create new and better habits, because you’re feeling less resistant and more relaxed. Your motivation and self-worth are up, and your negative self-talk is down. Because self-compassion begins with turning off your inner critic, you can be a friend to yourself by remembering that developing healthier habits around food choices and eating behavior is part of a longer journey to a better you and a better life — instead of the false-promise sprint of so many fad diets. You can practice daily affirmations — like, “I am proud of myself for making healthier choices” or “I accept myself as I am today” — and coach yourself through harder moments with encouragement instead of blame.
Even small doses of self-compassion “can help prevent the destructive self-criticism and negative feelings that can fuel overeating.” And while progress might seem slow, small choices add up and every step you take in the direction of your goals is one step closer than you were before.
Buddhist philosophy considers mindfulness and compassion as “two wings of one bird, with each concept overlapping one another but producing benefits for wellbeing.” In terms of self-compassion and weight loss, mindfulness involves acknowledging — rather than ignoring — painful experiences and even disappointment with yourself, and also being present and conscious with every bite of food.
Instead of eating mindlessly while you multitask and even losing track of what and how much you’ve eaten, mindful eating means paying attention with all five senses, and noting what thoughts and feelings arise as you eat and drink, too.
According to The Positive Psychology Foundation:
“Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body. Paying attention to the colours, smells, textures, flavours, temperatures, and even the sounds (crunch!) of our food. Paying attention to the experience of the body. Noting where in the body we feel hunger. Where do we feel satisfaction? What does half-full feel like, or three quarters full? … Watch when your mind gets distracted, pulling away from full attention to what we are eating or drinking. Notice how eating affects your mood and how emotions like anxiety influence your eating.”
"In fact, we include a mindfulness diary as part of Bea, as we know how important mindfulness is on the way to reaching our dual goals of weight loss and self-acceptance."
You can also keep a mindfulness diary as a tool for observing the thoughts and feelings that arise around your eating, to track your progress toward your goals, and to keep you grounded in the present moment as you practice self-compassion. In fact, we include a mindfulness diary as part of Bea, as we know how important mindfulness is on the way to reaching our dual goals of weight loss and self-acceptance.
Learning self-compassion can take time — as well as practice and patience. Once you start treating yourself with greater kindness and care, a better outlook is sure to follow. And feeling better in your body and about yourself is the true goal. Should you find yourself struggling, remember this advice from Kristin Neff: “A sense of caring about yourself makes losing weight a greater success than when you scold yourself. You are less worried about failing and you will last longer. In other words, it’s a mistake to think that self-compassion means sitting back and not working on yourself anymore.”
Compassion not only helps you lose weight, but also helps you enjoy the journey.