Self-compassion isn’t a cupcake, but it isn’t a bubble bath either
Last month I was interviewed by the editor of Women’s World magazine for an article on emotional eating and I heard myself say something I’ve said many times.
Kristina (the interviewer) asked me what the first step is to address emotional eating triggers, and I said, “It always begins with understanding that there’s a reason that emotional eating is happening. We have to approach habits – even the ones we don’t like – with self-compassion.”
Later she asked me how smart, busy women can create a balance in their lives that doesn’t rely on food or reaching for something to eat. Again, I heard myself say that we can only create a new balance or path forward that feels right when we start from a place of compassion for ourselves and our feelings and needs.
Later that day, in The Lab, the private community for members of my programs, the word self-compassion came up again, in the form of a question:
“Can you offer a few examples of what self compassion and respect look like? I know things like bubble baths, or walks, but they aren’t always possible. What are some out of the box items?”
Another person asked, “What’s the difference between self-compassion and rationalization?” (as in, what if I’m so gentle and “nice” to myself that I just don’t move forward?).
And It occurred to me how easy it is to get sidetracked from what self-compassion really is.
What is self-compassion and why do I need it to make peace with food?
Self-compassion is frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted – especially by busy women juggling stress or overload.
Let’s start with what self-compassion is NOT.
Self-compassion is not:
A binge or an overindulgence that leaves you feeling guilty or frustrated with yourself.
Numbing out or mindlessly wasting time (usually).
Procrastinating or rationalizing or endlessly avoiding or skipping something that’s important to you.
Putting a bandage (or a big bowl of ice cream) over what’s really bothering you, instead of addressing it in a way that will allow it to evolve, heal, or move forward.
Often when we’re too tired, too busy, or too stressed, we confuse short term fixes that will quickly boost or transform or numb our feelings with self-compassion. We focus on the short-term relief we (might) feel and ignore the bigger, eventual boomerang effect (feeling frustrated, bloated, mad that we missed an opportunity, or that we lost an hour getting sucked into an internet rabbit hole).
Can you give me a list of activities that are “self-compassion”?
No, I cannot. Self-compassion isn’t a list of activities. Self-compassion is a mindset, an attitude, and a point of view. We can only figure out how to show ourselves self-compassion (what to “do”) when we come from a place of feeling self-compassion.
How to practice self-compassion
When I think of self-compassion, I think in terms of an attitude rather than specific actions. Lots of actions (think of going for a walk, for example), can feel very different depending on your attitude. A walk can feel peaceful and rejuvenating, it can feel like a “should,” it can feel like punishing yourself or nurturing yourself – depending on how you are thinking and feeling and why you made that choice.
Kristen Neff is the go-to expert and researcher on self-compassion. She breaks the experience of self-compassion into three parts:
- You notice your suffering, or pain, or discomfort. Noticing your need for self-compassion is important, and it’s a new step for a lot of women who struggle with emotional eating or overeating. This is why I emphasize how important it is to respect that overeating always happens for a reason. Knowing this can help us step into curiosity and self-compassion about what’s going on and sidestep name-calling and feeling like we did something “stupid”. What this step looks like: It can be as simple as noticing and saying to yourself (kindly), “I’m having a really hard day.”
- You respond with your heart – with warmth, a desire to comfort, or to help in some way. You offer yourself understanding and kindness rather than judging yourself harshly. Smart busy women often skip or deprive themselves of a heartfelt, kind response. If we try to “do” self-compassion without really coming from a heartfelt place, it feels fake, and forced, and isn’t effective – or really self-compassion.
How to respond from your heart? Often the easiest path is to think about how you’d feel if you were helping someone else that you love or care about. If you struggle with self-compassion, you might find that you have all the skills and strengths, they just tend to be focused on others and not on yourself. Ask yourself: “How would I respond to a friend in this situation?”
- You respect that suffering, pain, or imperfection is a part of your humanness and not a defect or personal inadequacy. You’ve probably heard me say that perfectionism is a major cause of overeating. When we acknowledge that we’re as human as everyone else and that having bad days or difficult days or making mistakes is wonderfully human, we can be kinder to ourselves. Not only that, when we approach imperfection from a place of self-compassion, it’s so much more possible to learn and grow from our missteps, mistakes, and bad days.
What does self-compassion have to do with peace with food?
An attitude of self-compassion allows us to learn from our emotional eating and overeating. We can be curious (instead of furious) and ask ourselves what we really need and crave that isn’t food.
When we harness the attitude of self-compassion, we can ask the next question: “What does self-compassion look like for me right now?”
It’s only when we come from a place of feeling warmth and kindness and respect that we can begin to generate ideas of activities that might feel good. Nourishing, or comforting.
In one moment this might be a nap and in another it might be a gentle kick out the door to breathe fresh air and get some exercise.
Important questions for you to ask?
Where will you benefit from showing yourself more compassion?
Take five minutes right now. Close your eyes and ask yourself: In this moment, what does self-compassion look like for me?
Note: My interview in Women’s World is scheduled to be in the March 9, 2020 issue which should be on newsstands at the end of February!