What if the key to helping you continue your healthy eating or exercise habits wasn’t to take the tough gym teacher approach with yourself but to practice some self-compassion?
Let’s take the proverbial example of deciding to “get healthy” or lose weight.
It’s a familiar space for many: You’ve embarked on this journey time and time again to get healthy. Taking a look in the mirror, you tell yourself you MUST lose weight. And maybe you decide to work with a health coach or do SOMETHING to help you finally lose the weight and keep it off for good.
For example’s sake, let’s say that we’re working together in a coaching relationship, and we’ve determined part of “getting healthy” for you looks like waking up early to work out three times per week.
With your initial enthusiasm, you start strong, and things are going well … until something throws you off. Life happens.
People can lose their momentum from something as small as having an unexpected schedule change that throws off the routine, or not getting enough sleep one night, all the way to experiencing something major like the death of a loved one or a job loss.
How can you possibly stay on track with your new healthy habits? And how can you make these behavior changes stick even when it feels hard to keep going?
Your mental self-talk — the conversation you have in your head around your choices — can significantly impact your motivation and ability to continue moving forward.
And it’s important to point out that practicing constructive self-talk doesn’t just involve focusing on your experience in the present moment and being mindfully aware of your thoughts, emotions, and self-talk. You must also show yourself kindness and acknowledge you’re human like everyone else. Doing this has been shown to make change easier and actually stick.
Self-compassion and motivation
Suspending critical judgment of yourself when you are suffering or when you start to detect negative self-talk or hard feelings is called self-compassion.
According to self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff,
“With self-compassion we mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. This allows us to hold ourselves in love and connection, giving ourselves the support and comfort needed to bear the pain while providing the optimal conditions for growth and transformation.”
In other words, through self-compassion comes the strength and resilience to keep going.
So how we treat ourselves when we’re struggling can determine whether we give up on our health journey because it’s too painful, or if we persevere.
Choosing to be kind to ourselves in the face of feeling disappointed in our progress or choices — instead of judging ourselves harshly — is stacking the deck in our favor and can motivate us to continue.
When you can give yourself the safety and freedom to look at what’s challenging without giving yourself such a hard time, it’s easier to face those areas and address challenges peacefully. Self-compassion can lead to self-determination, and a calmer heart and mind means you can make more intentional choices. Choices that align with your values and motivations, like what got you started on your health journey in the first place.
Using self-compassion to overcome common roadblocks on your health journey
Self-compassion is made up of three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Let’s ground all these ideas about compassion into some real-world examples.
When you slip — recognizing common humanity vs. isolation
Imagine a scenario where you’re about to go to bed feeling disappointed in yourself after indulging in ice cream for the second time that week when you had set a goal to eat fruit instead. How you treat yourself in that moment is key. However imperfectly, you can choose to see how you stumbled and take what you learned to keep going. Or it can be a time when you allow yourself to feel inadequate and choose to give up. Practicing self-compassion, embracing your humanness, and reminding yourself that everyone is critical of themselves when they perceive they “failed” at something can tip the scale towards getting back up and continuing to work toward your healthy habits and goals.
When your progress seems slow or doesn’t feel fast enough — practicing mindfulness vs. overidentification
Sometimes even when you’re doing all the “right” things, it still feels like you “can’t lose weight,” and negative thoughts or feelings of frustration or disappointment can set in.
It’s understandable that when you wanted to lose weight last week, or better yet, last year, hard feelings or negative self-talk may have arisen along the way. One way to practice self-compassion is to acknowledge the hard thoughts and feelings around your progress but not exaggerate them. Mindfulness is a present state of nonjudgmental awareness. And you can’t be present to your emotions or practice self-compassion if you ignore or deny something painful or hard. It’s a balance between allowing yourself to be with what’s arising and not being swept away by it.
When you’re pushing too hard — choosing self-kindness vs. judgment
The last scenario to be aware of is setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, especially at the beginning of a health journey. For example, an overly ambitious exercise plan is one way to set yourself back, as it’s a breeding ground for self-judgment if the goals you set out to achieve are physically too strenuous or end up depleting you instead of energizing you.
You want your new habit(s) to be sustainable so that you can feel proud and accomplished over the long term. So extending that kindness to yourself by choosing not to over-train or exercise to the point of exhaustion or pain will help to tip the scale in favor of long-term change. There’s no need to judge yourself on how much or little you can do as you start! While longer-term physical health often includes some discomfort, abstaining from a dessert at times, and working out moderately, it doesn’t include extreme denial, restriction, or pain.
Best tools for practicing self-compassion
Self-compassion can be a worthwhile habit to build in and of itself. It can also be a tool to help us persevere and build resilience while making changes to improve our health. Here are some more ways to bring self-compassion into your life while forming and practicing new health habits:
- Treat yourself as you would a friend: A 15-minute writing exercise using pen and paper
- Self-compassion break: A 5-minute guided meditation to be done in a quiet space, emphasizing common humanity, mindfulness, and self-kindness
- Giving and receiving compassion: A 5-minute guided meditation using the breath and visualization, emphasizing stress reduction
- Guided Meditations: Voice-guided meditations from self-compassion.org ranging from 9–24 minutes to help you tap into your sense of self-compassion when you’re struggling
- Physical touch: Various examples of ways to self-soothe using physical touch and why this works. For example, placing one hand on your heart and the other on your belly
- Changing your critical self-talk: A tool to use as a framework for reframing your self-critical observations in a kinder way through speaking silently, out loud to yourself, or writing it down.
Paradoxically, giving yourself a break is the way to keep you moving forward when making lifestyle changes. Punishing or criticizing yourself is not only unnecessary; it can be detrimental to your progress and ability to stay the course on the sometimes long journey towards actively adopting the lifestyle habits and behaviors needed to improve one’s health. Practicing self-compassion while making healthy lifestyle changes to meet your vision of the healthy person you want to be can be a source of strength that can keep you going. It turns out the more we practice self-compassion, the easier it can be to keep going on the path we need to travel to realize the changes necessary to be our healthiest selves.