Mindfulness, Setbacks, and Self-Compassion

Study of the Disappointed SoulsFebruary is an excellent month to consider the virtue of self-compassion – both generally and also specifically for dealing with setbacks in the goals we might be pursuing for this new year.

Why? Well, to begin with, we’ve survived January and as Roz Chast and many others remind us, it can be a long and dreary month. We need a break.

But more to the point, research suggests that self-compassion might be an important tool for dealing with setbacks. They are inevitable when we pursue challenging goals. It helps us sidestep maladaptive responses that can leave us discouraged.

In fact, new research suggests that in pursing dietary goals, self-compassion is most strongly associated with responding well to the setbacks that everyone encounters.

Coping with Dietary Lapses

Charlotte Hagerman, Marny Ehmann, Lauren Taylor, and Evan Forman published their study of the role for self-compassion in Appetite late last year. They examined whether self-compassion in response to a dietary lapse would predict a lower likelihood of a subsequent lapse on the same day or if it would predict a greater sense of self-control. They also looked at individual aspects of self-compassion – self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Note that this research is observational. It offers insights, but not definitive evidence by itself, regarding the effectiveness of practicing self-compassion.

On their primary questions, Hagerman et al got a mixed result. Self-compassion was not associated with significantly fewer subsequent lapses on the same day. But it did predict a greater perception of self-control following a dietary lapse. They tell us:

“Results suggest that self-compassion following dieting setbacks may prevent goal disengagement, and that self-kindness is the facet most strongly associated with adaptive responses to these setbacks.”

In short, if you don’t beat up on yourself when you have a lapse, you may be more likely to press on toward meeting your goals.

Making February a Month for Resolve

Writing in the New York Times, Dani Blum reminds us that February might be the best month for resolutions. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on our goals and recalibrate. Setting small, achievable goals might be the key to avoid getting stuck on goals that seem out of reach. Psychologist Robyn Pashby offers good advice on this:

“The more you practice tuning into your thoughts, feeling your feelings, and treating yourself with kindness and compassion, the easier it is to move out of feeling stuck and toward the lifestyle you want to live. Start by saying just one encouraging thing to yourself each morning or adopt an attitude of curiosity about your emotions rather than self-judgment. No matter how you begin, start smaller than you want to and just keep going.”

Click here for the study by Hagerman et al and here for more perspective from Pashby. For more on why February might be the best month for resolutions, click here.

Study of the Disappointed Souls, painting by Ferdinand Hodler / WikiArt

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February 4, 2024