Self compassion is one of the most critical tools when it comes to enjoying a more peaceful relationship with food & body.
What Is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is relating to yourself with understanding and kindness, rather than judgment, even when you come up short or make a mistake. It’s facing and accepting when things feel difficult for you and finding ways to offer yourself care and comfort in those moments rather than critique.
Why Is Self-Compassion Important?
Learning to use a compassionate inner voice is important when making any steps towards positive change, and leaving diet culture is no exception. Diet culture thrives on self-criticism, guilt and shame and has created a culture that advocates for the pursuit of perfection at all costs.
This is a culture that promotes ‘pushing through the pain’ and letting guilt and shame ‘motivate’ you. The tool of self-compassion therefore, becomes critical when working to make your way out of this mindset.
What Self-Compassion Is Not
Diet culture often sells the idea that self-compassion is indulgent and will make you weak and ineffectual in achieving your goals. They twist self-compassion into ‘giving in’ or ‘going too easy’ on yourself.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on self-compassion wrote a great piece called “What Self-Compassion is Not” (*see note). I like this piece because I think it does a great job of breaking down some of the more common myths and misconceptions around self-compassion.
In this piece, she talks about the fact that self-compassion is not self-pity, self-indulgence or self-esteem.
It is not self-pity. Those immersed in self-pity are only engrossed in their own problems and feelings. Self-pity, she says, “tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering” (1).
This is not self-compassion because self-compassion is about understanding that you are not alone in your suffering or circumstances. It’s about finding the interconnectivity between you and others and feeling comforted by the fact that everyone suffers and goes through hardship. Acknowledging the hurt and accepting that you’re not alone in it allows you to keep your suffering from swallowing you. A self compassionate thought you might offer yourself in these moments could be something like: “This is a time of suffering for me and it hurts, but I accept and find comfort in the fact that I am not alone in experiencing hardships as that is part of the shared human experience.”
Whereas self-compassion emphasizes unity and commonality, diet culture really relies on feelings of separation and difference. Those feelings of separation and difference often create a lot of shame for the individual, causing them to isolate from, rather than connect with, others.
This isolation prevents them from reaching out to find supportive community who could foster connection, unity and help show them they’re not alone in their struggles. Without that, the individual believes they’re alone in their struggle and the only solution is to continue investing more time, effort, energy and money into diet culture’s billion dollar industry (just what diet culture banks on).
It is not self-indulgence. As I mentioned above, one of the bigger myths about self-compassion is that it is self-indulgent. We live in a society where we’re constantly told to ‘push through the pain’ and ‘grin and bear it’ which can understandably make the adoption of a more self-compassionate attitude feel extremely self-indulgent.
Neff argues however, that unlike self-indulgence, self-compassion requires you to face difficult things in order to work on them. Where self-indulgence can often be a tool to numb those hard feelings so you don’t face them, self-compassion encourages you to acknowledge and work through them as a method of self-care.
And in fact, the research shows that working through difficulties using a self-compassionate lens creates greater opportunity for positive change than the ‘grin and bear it’ attitude often promoted in our culture.
Diet culture pushes weight loss and control as the solution to all our problems, the only path towards achieving the life we always wanted. It tells us anything less is self-indulgent and letting ourselves off the hook. It banks on the individual choosing to lose themselves in the pursuit of some unrealistic body ideal rather than face and work through any true obstacles they may be struggling with.
And while it may be true in the short-term that tight control of our food & movement can be easier than facing deeper issues (and may even feel like it serves you until you’re ready to face those harder things), it certainly isn’t the path to achieving the life you always dreamed of and ultimately only keeps you stuck in the cycle of discontent longer.
It is not self-esteem. Of all the things Neff describes as ‘not’ self-compassion, I find her argument for self-esteem the most compelling. Self-esteem references our sense of self-worth, or the value that we believe we to hold. Neff is not arguing that one should necessarily have low self-esteem, but that self-esteem is not self-compassion and how viewing them as one in the same can become problematic.
According to Neff, “In modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special. It is not okay to be average, we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves. This means that attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves” (1).
She also states that “the need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately…and it is often contingent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances” (1).
I find this last point really powerful in making the distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion. Self-compassion is not dependent on any particular traits or achievements. You show compassion for yourself and others simply because everyone deserves empathy and understanding. Your ability to be compassionate both towards yourself and others is not contingent on feeling as if you are outperforming, one upping or standing out from the crowd – whereas self-esteem is dependent on those feelings which not only makes it a fairly fragile emotion (as we’re not always going to be the stand-out) but also serves to further disconnect us from others and deny our common humanity.
Neff closes by saying “Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger” (1).
So you can see how self-compassion is particularly helpful when it comes to facing your own short-comings. You’re able to do that both more honestly as well as without critical self-judgement. With self-compassion, unlike with self-esteem, you don’t feel the need to lie to yourself about where you went wrong to save your ego from being bruised. This allows you to more clearly evaluate what went wrong so you can do better in the future. In addition, you don’t need to berate yourself for messing up like you would with self-esteem in order to preserve your sense of ‘betterness.’ Instead, you can simply acknowledge your error with grace and understanding (we’re all human, we all make mistakes!), evaluate what you might be able to improve on in future situations, and move on.
Diet culture really leans into the idea of ‘being better than.’ You’re constantly encouraged to not only compete with others, but set your own goals higher and higher. It creates a feeling of ‘never enough’ because that’s what keeps you in its grips. No matter how tightly control your food, weight, movement, etc. – it will never be enough.
That’s what makes self-compassion so critical when working your way out of diet culture. The connection, unity, understanding and empathy it provides are such important antidotes to diet culture’s toxic and backward messaging.
NOTE *Content warning: Kristin’s work contains some stigmatizing language so if this is something that will trigger you, I encourage you to skip clicking through to the links I’ve included.