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3 Ways to Be Kinder to Yourself: Expert Advice

Hard on yourself? Why it's critical to be kinder

 I am good enough.

I accept myself just as I am.

I am worthy of the same love I give to others.

These are words we don’t tell ourselves very often—if ever.  Most of us are all too well acquainted with that sneaky, critical inner voice that whispers discouraging and sometimes demeaning things into our ear.  Occasionally, it isn’t a whisper but a loud roar. 

What I’ve noticed and that a new study on self-compassion confirms is that we need a gentle, soothing inner voice to be able to eat better.  Why?  A study in Psychological Health (2013) found that a compassionate inner voice is necessary to be able to complete food diaries—which is an important tool in improving your eating. 

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I saw this inner critic in action several weeks ago with one of my clients.  She wrote down everything she ate. Then, she tore out the page, crumpled it up and threw it away.  When I asked why, she didn’t skip a beat.  She said, “I was afraid you would judge me as harshly as I judge myself.”

Let me introduce you to an amazing expert on self-compassion, Dr. Christopher Germer. He recently designed an 8 week, empirically supported program, along with Kristin Neff at the University of Texas, to teach people how to be compassionate toward themselves.  It’s called, Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC).  Specifically, they teach how to respond to difficult emotions with kindness and understanding.  Why?  Because although it is critical to our well-being, it’s not a skill that comes naturally.  I wondered why.  Here is what Dr. Germer said:

Dr. Albers:  Why do you think people are so hard on themselves?

Dr. Germer:  I think we're hardwired to be tough on ourselves. When the brain is at rest, it goes into "default mode" which typically means that it reviews problems in the past and anticipates problems in the future.  Unfortunately, the problem is often found to be within us when we're under stress.

When we're threatened from outside, we're likely to respond with fight, flight, or freeze.  But what happens when the threat is internal, such as when we suffer from unpleasant emotions?  Then fight becomes self-criticism, flight becomes self-isolation or numbing, and freeze becomes self-absorbed rumination--getting stuck in our heads. These reactions are precisely the opposite of self-compassion.  

There are many other explanations for why we criticize themselves. For example, some people think that self-criticism motivates us to improve, it helps us maintain high standards, and it keeps us from becoming narcissistic. Ironically, the research proves the opposite.  People are more likely to improve when they motivate themselves with encouragement rather than criticism, the standards of self-compassionate people are just as high as less self-compassionate people, and self-compassion is unrelated to narcissism.  

Self-criticism may be considered "safety behavior" insofar as it helps us avoid the criticism of others if we attack ourselves first. However, some self-critical language is simply internalized from our childhood and has no value at all. Same with our culture of perfectionism—the need for perfect bodies, perfect minds, perfect social skills---which sows the seeds of self-loathing.

Dr. Albers:  What is the long term impact of letting your inner critic run amok?

Dr. Germer:  Self-criticism related to shame is a common factor in many clinical diagnoses, including some kinds of anxiety and depression. Guilt occurs when we blame ourselves over and over for something we did, whereas shame arises when we attack ourselves for who we are. The mental component of shame is a negative core belief such as "I'm unlovable," "I'm defective," or "I'm stupid."  We can all go there when things get bad enough in our lives--when we lose our health, wealth, love, or work.  

Self-compassion is a direct antidote to shame.  It exchanges self-hatred with self-kindness.  When we're self-compassionate, we're not sugar-coating reality. We’re simply acknowledging that we, like all human beings, suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, and then we bring compassion to ourselves because we're suffering, much as we'd do for someone we truly love.  Why not include ourselves in the circle of our compassion when we suffer?

Dr. Albers:  Can you learn self-compassion even if you have a particularly harsh inner critic?

Dr. Germer:  Self-compassion can be learned by anyone, even those who didn't receive enough affection in childhood or who feel uncomfortable when they’re good to themselves.

The Mindful Self-Compassion training program itself is an 8-week experiential journey which includes meditation, talks, group exercises, discussion, and home practice.  The goal is not to turn everyone into a meditator although some people develop a taste for meditation during the MSC program.  We mainly teach people to notice when they’re suffering and to respond with kindness in daily life. That may mean drinking a cup of tea or petting the dog when we suffer an emotional blow, rather than holing ourselves up in a dark room and mentally beating up on ourselves.

The research clearly demonstrates that self-compassion is related to emotional wellbeing, lower anxiety and depression, maintenance of healthy habits such as diet and exercise, and more satisfying personal relationships. Self-compassion provides emotional strength and resilience, allowing us to admit our shortcomings, forgive ourselves, motivate ourselves with kindness, care for others, and be fully human.  

Dr. Albers:  Could you give us some tips to start becoming more compassionate towards ourselves. 

Dr. Germer

1)    The first step is to know we're suffering while we're suffering.  That's mindfulness, and mindfulness is the foundation of compassion.  Usually we're too lost in rumination when things go wrong in our lives to even know we're suffering!  

 2)    In the MSC program, we teach the Self-Compassion Break for use in daily life when things go wrong.  It has three phrases that correspond to the 3 components of self-compassion mentioned earlier, but people are encouraged to use their own words for the three components.

First we put one or two hands over the heart, or some other place on the body that is soothing, as a reminder to be kind to ourselves.  Then we say:

  •  This is a moment of suffering (mindfulness)
  • Suffering is part of life (common humanity)
  • May I be kind to myself (self-kindness)

Often a hand on the heart is enough to change our frame of mind, but each of the phrases is likely to strengthen the attitude of self-compassion.  

3) Books that I'd recommend on self-compassion are:

Neff, K (2011) Self-Compassion. New York: William Morrow.

Germer, C. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. New York: Guilford Press.

Gilbert, P. (2010).  The Compassionate Mind.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger

The best professional book I know on compassion is a free ebook edited by Tania Singer and Matthias Bolz:  Signer, T. Bolz, M (2013).  Compassion:  Bringing practice and science.  Leipzig, Germany:  Max-Planck Institute.  Free download: at http://www.compassion-training.org 

Thank you to Dr. Germer for teaching us how to start being kinder to ourselves!  Visit his website or attend one of his trainings at:  http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/

Dr. Susan Albers is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of 6 books on mindful eating, weight loss and comfort eating including Eating Mindfully and 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. Her newest book is EatQ: Unlock the Weight Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence. She frequently appears in Shape Magazine, Fitness, Cooking Light, US News and World Report, the New York Times and she has appeared on the Dr. Oz Show. www.eatq.com 

FREE DOWNLOAD: 25 Ways to Enjoy Holiday Food Without Overeating by Susan Albers PsyD http://eatq.com/thankyou/

Susan Albers, Psy.D., is a psychologist who specializes in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns and mindfulness. 

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