Weight, Health, and Self-Compassion

It’s here. Diet season is cranking up and the advertisements are bombarding us. Gyms will make the money that sustains them all year with memberships people don’t use. And many people will beat up on themselves when short-term self-help goals fall flat. May we suggest a small dose of self-compassion?

The Virtue of Self-Compassion

Popular culture does more to celebrate self-confidence than self-compassion. But that has its limitations, which Kristin Wong recently explored in the New York Times. Self-confidence is all about telling yourself that you’ve got everything under control. That can be helpful, except when it leads you into the dangerous territory of overconfidence. Reality has a way of bringing down unrealistic expectations.

In contrast, self-compassion is all about offering yourself solace in dealing with personal challenges. It starts with kindness instead of self-criticism. Suffering and personal failure is something that everyone experiences. Negative emotions are inevitable when dealing with challenges. Mindfulness can help to deal with those feelings without getting stuck on them.

Just to be clear, self-compassion is distinctly different from victimhood and self-pity. Essential to compassion is a commitment to reduce the suffering. In coping with obesity, that means focusing on sustainable ways improve health and well-being. Instead of short-term, self-help quick fixes, it means finding options that actually work over the long term.

Self-Criticism, Disordered Eating, and Internalized Stigma

Concepts of self-compassion are ancient. But research on this subject is relatively new. A validated scale for measuring it was not published until 2003. Nonetheless, research suggests that self-criticism may play a role in eating disorders and obesity. Certainly in treatment, dealing with negative self-talk is an important element.

Self-compassion may also have a role to play in coping with the bias and stigma that people living with obesity encounter daily. Recent research makes it clear that weight stigma does its greatest harm when people internalize it.

For a few people, dealing with a little excess weight is no biggie. But for people living with obesity, it’s just not so. It’s a challenge that never goes away. Successes and failures come and go all the time. For those who want to overcome this problem, skills for self-compassion might be an important tool.

Click here for research on a self-compassion program and here for a systematic review of its role in eating behaviors, body image, and weight. For further background, you can read more here and here.

Self, photograph © Annalisa Turolla / flickr

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December 31, 2017