“Be Kind to Yourself: It’s Better for Your Diet,” a 2011 article told us — summarizing new work on self-compassion and weight loss. The idea that beating yourself up after overeating doesn’t help had gained attention. It turns out that being nicer to yourself, no matter how “good” or “bad” your eating, works better.
These ideas have spread via Twitter, women’s magazines and other channels. However, many an overeater still fears that greater self-compassion breeds less self-control. Also, habits of mind — such as thinking in terms of “good” and “bad” eating in the first place — are hard to dislodge, even when you agree they’ve outlived their usefulness. They’re reinforced, too, by media promoting the idea that you can change your eating habits in a day, or lose 30 pounds in a month.
Being kinder to yourself leads more surely to habit change for several reasons. Habit change comes easier when you’re more relaxed. Helpful motivation and enthusiasm grow when you’re feeling worthy and deserving, not when you’re down on yourself. Also, change paradoxically happens more readily from a place of self-acceptance, as certain types of resistance quiet down. (This last idea has long guided Buddhist psychology, and it continues to prove helpful in all kinds of settings.)
So perhaps you can see the sense in all this, yet you still hook into self-recrimination after an extra brownie or those fries you didn’t need. And now maybe you’re beating yourself up because you can’t even get this self-compassion thing right! Stop, and remind yourself that this habit, too, like those eating habits, will take time to grow and strengthen. Here are four key ideas for building the be-nicer-to-yourself stance.
1.) Progress, Not Perfection. This idea, long promoted by 12-step groups, says it all. You’re not going to break old behaviors, thinking habits, or emotional reactions overnight. Remember that even noticing what you’re doing, or trying to think differently, is a change in the right direction, even if the whole pattern hasn’t budged much. When you find yourself being harsh, remind yourself that it’s a process, not an all-at-once event.
2.) Watch Your Words. Here, again, are pieces of the pattern that won’t change all at once. These pieces comprise all the words and phrases that keep self-criticism in place. Try to catch yourself using terms like “I cheated” or “I’m a pig” — any negative terms that you wouldn’t use with a friend or with a child you were trying to support in making changes. Try to not say these words out loud. Notice when you think them. In time try to replace them with more supportive terms, like those you’d say to that friend or child — “maybe that wasn’t a great choice … but this is a hard thing … I’ll figure this out … I’ll keep going …”
3.) What Happened? Give yourself permission to see each lapse (episode when you do what you want to stop doing) as a place to examine “what happened.” What thoughts or emotions or situations or physical states made you vulnerable to doing something impulsive or self-sabotaging? What might have helped prevent it? What can you do to help protect or bolster yourself in the future? Approach this examination with as much neutrality as you can — again, as you would for a friend or child.
4.) Small Choices Add Up. Remember — and remind yourself often — that every choice you make in the new direction helps your body and brain to assimilate a new habit. You don’t necessarily have to change everything for positive change to be happening.