What is Self-compassion?

One of the ways to move away from shame and towards creating a healthy relationship with food and your body is through self-compassion. Self-compassion can be defined as a way of relating to yourself using understanding, warmth, caring, and kindness rather than criticism and judgment. Self criticism is very common among people who struggle with disordered eating. However, criticizing yourself does not lead to change. Instead, it keeps you in the cycle of disordered eating and shame. Approaching your struggles from a place of self-compassion rather than criticism will allow you to make lasting changes in your life.  

Kristin Neff, an expert researcher in self-compassion, defines self-compassion as being composed of three elements. The first element is your ability to bring warmth and understanding towards yourself when you experience suffering, failure, or feelings of inadequacy (shame) instead of ignoring your pain or criticizing or judging yourself. Treating yourself with self-compassion involves recognizing that imperfection, failure, and life difficulties are an inevitable part of life and that to deny this or to fight against it only leads to more suffering which shows up as stress, frustration, and self-criticism. The second element of self-compassion is to recognize that all humans suffer and that your personal struggle is part of a shared human experience. To be human is to be vulnerable and imperfect. 

Self-compassion allows you to move away from isolation and aloneness in the recognition that suffering is something that we all go through rather than something that happens to 'me' alone.

The third element of self-compassion involves mindfulness, observing your negative thoughts and emotions with mindful awareness rather than judgment. When using self-compassion, you will try not to deny or suppress your thoughts or emotions because doing so prevents you from feeling compassion for what you are experiencing. 

Incorporating self-compassion into your life can be difficult at first and may feel foreign, but with practice it gets easier. One way that you can begin to use self-compassion is to take what Neff calls a “self-compassion break”. A self-compassion break can be used during any difficult moment such as when you notice that you are being critical of yourself, when you are experiencing feelings of shame or guilt around food, when you are feeling grief about letting go of disordered eating, or when you are experiencing anger over how difficult it is to live in diet culture. Use mindfulness to notice these thoughts and give yourself permission to feel these feelings. Then offer yourself compassion for this experience by saying to yourself “This is a moment of suffering” or “This is really hard” or “I’m really struggling." The goal is to bring mindful awareness to the fact that you are suffering by acknowledging and naming the difficulty. Then say to yourself “Suffering is a part of life” or “It's not abnormal to feel this way. Many people also struggle to have a healthy relationship with food in the culture that we live in.” Sometimes it’s helpful to acknowledge that you are not alone and that millions of people around the world struggle with disordered eating. Then say to yourself "May I be kind to myself in this moment.” Try to imagine what you would say to a friend in a similar situation and see if you can use that same caring voice towards yourself. Try repeating the phrase a few times.

Self compassion is the antidote to shame. By learning to speak to yourself in a way that is warm, caring, and kind, you can begin to move away from the cycle of shame and disordered eating.  

Even if at first you are unable to feel love towards yourself, you can start by cultivating acceptance. And through this acceptance you may slowly start to change your relationship to yourself and your relationship to food and your body.

The process of learning to be more compassionate towards yourself can be difficult and often feels very foreign for many people. If you are struggling to practice self-compassion or find that you have a strong inner critic, you may want to reach out for additional support. I offer eating disorder counselling counselling and intuitive eating coaching for those based in Vancouver BC and the surrounding area.

Lorilee Keller