Body Image and Weight Loss Part 4: Self-Compassion
Listen to this article on Soundcloud. Body Image and Weight Loss are generally not topics that people enjoy discussing, yet the conversation is taking place in front of our eyes daily. Simply go outside or turn on any electronic device and you are bombarded with ideas about how you are supposed to look, feel, and even think. It probably does not occur to you to offer self-compassion if you don’t fit the perceived societal mold. The problem is that it not only feeds into the trap of Box Thinking, it also ignores that we are all individuals, and there is no template for the way we are supposed to be.
There are four skill sets that will help you achieve your goal of mastery and confidence over your health and body weight:
In part one of this series I discussed
Awareness, in the second part I reviewed Nonjudgment and Curiosity, and in part three I talked about Reinforcement. In this fourth and final installment of my Body Image and Weight Loss series, the focus is on the skill of Self-Compassion and how it can help you take steps forward.
The skill of self-compassion is last, and certainly not least. Self-compassion is the final skill discussed in this series because there are some foundational tools needed to practice this profoundly life-changing way of being. Although self-compassion sounds like a straightforward attitude, it can be the most difficult skill to practice and often requires mastery over the previous three skills before you are able to use self-compassion with regularity.
My Self-Compassion Wake-Up Call
A while ago, I participated in a whole food cleanse that a nutritionist friend of mine was hosting. Her philosophy is all about filling up and treating yourself well, not deprivation. In preparation for our cleanse, an assignment was to tell ourselves three things about our body that we are grateful for before getting out of bed in the morning. I thought this would be easy. After all, I am a psychologist, I see myself as reasonably emotionally aware, and I am all for gratitude and self-compassion.
The first morning came, and I laid there, thinking. Moments passed, and I was still thinking, trying to come up with one piece of gratitude I could offer by body. This was a time in my life when I was plagued with an illness, and my body was often in pain. I had gained weight despite my healthy behaviors, and was experiencing many other unpleasant and difficult-to-diagnose symptoms. I laid there and could not come up with one single thing for which I was grateful. In fact, I started to notice angry thoughts about how my body was not functioning as I wanted. My attempted practice at gratitude shifted to a mental “F— YOU!” to my poor body.
Luckily, I had several years under my belt of practicing mindful awareness, nonjudgment, curiosity, and reinforcement. I was able to notice what was happening, and instead of being overwhelmed with shame that I could not complete the assignment, I decided I needed to practice self-compassion. (Don’t get me wrong, Shame made a strong appearance, I just decided that she was not going to make my decisions.) I made a commitment to myself to physically touch some part of my body (hands, arms, legs) every morning and say words of kind, gentle, compassion, whether or not I believed them.
Some days this felt aversive, and unpleasant, and other days it felt neutral or even somewhat soothing. This is often how the practice of self-compassion goes: it starts out awkward or even quite uncomfortable, and requires much practice to feel soothing and comfort. If you have spent years telling your body it sucks, it is going to take a while for your body to become accustomed to receiving soft, nurturing messages. Eventually, with daily practice, you gently learn to talk to yourself in a much nicer and more reinforcing way. Building this skill helps you maintain all of the behaviors you have worked so hard to change.
Getting started with Self-Compassion
Whether you are struggling with weight, body image, or anything associated with those concerns, you can start today by taking a step down a path towards the person that you want to be. Here are some suggestions for getting started with a self-compassion practice.
- PHRASES: Find a short phrase you can repeatedly say to yourself, day after day, that shows compassion. Ideally, phrases are short, easy to memorize, and feel important and relevant to you. Some examples are:
“May I receive kindness and love.”
“May I be happy, healthy, and at ease.”
“May I learn to accept myself as I am.”
Using “May I” ensures not only that the language is gentle, but also that you are able to receive it. For instance, if you struggle with self-acceptance and then state to yourself the affirmation, “I accept myself totally and fully, exactly as I am,” this is inviting resistance.
First of all, it isn’t true, and your body knows that. Don’t lie to yourself. It feels disingenuous, and it is going to be hard to keep up a daily practice saying something that feels inauthentic. Instead, make this an offering, not a demand. Try it both ways – a strong affirmation vs. a gentle offering – and notice how each feels to you. Typically, my clients report the gentle offering feeling softer, less intense, and easier to accept. That’s what we’re going for here.
- TOUCH: Practice gently placing your hands on your body in a way that is soft and sweet. Some choices are: holding one hand with your other hand, gently stroking your arm, or giving your arm a soft squeeze, placing one or both hands over your heart, cupping your face with your hands, or lovingly placing your hands on your belly. Try out these suggestions and give each a few moments to see how you feel. Choose the one you feel most comforted by to incorporate into your daily practice.
- WRITING: Write yourself a sweet, compassionate letter.
Think about a situation in which you are struggling; maybe something about yourself you don’t like and are harsh about, some way you feel as though you are failing, or a situation that has you feeling emotional pain. Write a letter to yourself as though you were writing to a dear, sweet friend who was struggling with the exact same situation. If this is difficult, write from the perspective of the loving friend writing you the letter. Offer words of support, compassion, and tenderness. After the letter is complete, read it often.
The key with all of these practices is to PRACTICE. Self-compassion is a gentle process that requires repetition over time. The practice of self-compassion is not one that you can understand intellectually or experience once or twice and expect it to make a daily impact. Rather, by practicing self-compassion, you are changing how you relate to yourself. You are learning to be tender and sweet, and this takes time.
Self-compassion is a place that is ripe for change. In other words, when you have a supportive, loving, nurturing environment, you are then free to honestly look at behaviors that are not working for you (e.g., eating, exercise, the way you are engaging in a particular relationship), and get to work changing them. Instead of having a drill sergeant yelling that you are doing things wrong, you create the feel of a loving grandparent, understanding and wise. Without the harsh judgment, you slowly (and surely) become unafraid to look inside. When we can truly look at ourselves, plainly and without judgment, then we can go about making lasting change.
SELF-COMPASSION PRACTICE: GENTLE BREATHING
(Modified from Kristin Neff, Ph.D. and Chris Germer, Ph.D., Mindful Self-Compassion Core Skills Training manual)
Listen to this practice on Soundcloud or Youtube.
Find a posture in which your body is comfortable and will feel supported for the length of the meditation.
Let your eyes gently close. Take a few slow, easy breaths, releasing any unnecessary tension from your body that is able to let go and be released in this moment.
If you like, place a hand over your heart or another soothing place as a reminder that you are bringing not only awareness, but affectionate awareness, to your breathing and to yourself. You can leave your hand where it is or let it rest at any time, whatever is most comfortable.
Beginning to notice your breathing in your body, feeling your body breathe in and feeling your body breathe out.
Just letting your body breathe you. There is nothing you need to do.
Perhaps noticing how your body is nourished on the in-breath and relaxes with the out-breath.
Now noticing the rhythm of your breathing, flowing in and flowing out. Taking some time to feel the natural rhythm of your breathing.
Feeling your whole body subtly moving with the breath, like the movement of the sea.
Your mind will naturally wander like a curious child or a little puppy. When that happens, gently return to the rhythm of your breathing.
Allowing your whole body to be gently rocked and caressed – internally caressed – by your breathing.
If you like, even giving yourself over to your breathing, letting your breathing be all there is. Becoming the breath.
Just breathing. Being breathing.
And now, gently release your attention to the breath, sitting quietly in your own experience, and allowing yourself to feel whatever you are feeling, and to be just as you are.
Slowly, at your own pace and in no rush, gently open your eyes.