Guest Post: The Challenge of Self-Compassion

I'm continually amazed at how some of the nicest people I know can say the nastiest, meanest, most vile things...about themselves. In my work as a health coach, I talk to wonderful men and women who are surprisingly adept at cutting themselves down (often in language unfit to print) when they backslide on sticking to a new healthy regiment or fall short on a plan we make together. I understand this reflex: The perfectionist in me can be very critical, too, even though I know it doesn't inspire me to do better. 

That's why I'm so excited to share this piece on self-compassion written by Christine Scarince, a fellow health coach in Bethlehem, PA, who also happens to be one of the warmest people I know:


The Challenge of Self-Compassion  

When you fail at something you had hoped to achieve, what goes through your mind? Do you berate yourself for your mistakes? Do you come up with reasons why others are at fault? Do you see it as an example of your bad luck or unfortunate circumstances? 

Most of us use some combination of these approaches to cope with falling short of what we had hoped would happen. 

There's another approach we can try out that has proven to be an effective means of dealing with situations like these: self-compassion.

Research has shown, for instance, that if you have eaten something unhealthy and are feeling guilty, that staying compassionate with yourself through the experience can help you get back on track far faster than if you beat yourself up about it. 

What does it mean to practice self-compassion?

According to Wikipedia's definition, self-compassion is "extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy or failure."

As a more detailed explanation, the researchers in the study above cited Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture, who has conceptualized self-compassion as involving:

  • Self-kindness: reacting with kindness and understanding toward oneself when experiencing negative events
  • Mindfulness: holding emotions in nonjudgmental awareness (more on this below)
  • Common humanity: viewing one's life as part of the larger human experience and realizing that everyone goes through difficult times.

So how can this help you to enjoy better well-being and health?

  •  Practice speaking kindly to yourself in all types of circumstances. For instance, if you overeat, instead of saying, "I can't believe I did that, what's wrong with me?," try to be honest and understanding with yourself: "That tasted so good, I didn't want to stop eating it. Until a certain point, it felt good." 
  • Stay present (mindful) to what the situation may help you to learn or understand, even when it's uncomfortable. For example, notice how you are feeling such as "My stomach is uncomfortable. Next time I will try to take my time so my body can send me signals of being full."  Identifying specific strategies with a professional and learning mindfulness techniques can also help.
  • Remember that you are not alone in your experiences. For example, "Many people feel just like I do. There are people out there who can relate and have felt this same feeling." Seek out support from those who can provide compassion and encouragement. If painful feelings are interfering with your life, reach out to a friend or seek support from a qualified mental health professional. 

It's hard for most of us to value self-compassion because we think that we'll start making excuses and justifying our behavior if we are too easy on ourselves. The idea of compassion is not to deny a problem or be content with the status-quo of unhealthy habits. Self-compassion is a way to help us stay fully aware so that we can see the solution more clearly. 

This can help us feel motivated to take action. Often self-compassion results in us taking the 'harder road' (e.g. quitting smoking, eating better, being active) once we see the truth of what we have to do to feel better for the long run. 

Another example is if you are chronically late, consider the next time you are late as an opportunity. Rather than berate yourself or blame the driver in front of you, brainstorm the one or two specific things you can try the very next time you have a time-commitment.  It may not make you on-time immediately, but after multiple experiences, and staying aware, you can overcome the problem.

This takes practice, so see any mistake as a chance to try this out. If, like me, you are prone to spilling things all over the kitchen floor, you can start your self-compassion when there is cereal underfoot. Start small, and build your self-compassion reflex. You are worth it. 

Christine Scarince is a Certified Health Coach, based in Bethlehem, PA. Through individual and group coaching, Christine provides support and accountability for her clients to make personalized nutrition and lifestyle changes for enduring health. She specializes in working with mental health professionals seeking to prioritize their own self-care.