Feb. 2, 2016, 8:14 p.m.
Imagine if a dear friend was going through a difficult time dealing with a personal failure in their life. How would you comfort them? You would probably not criticize or blame them for making a mistake. Instead, when responding to a friend whom you care very much about, you would most likely provide them with empathy and kindness. You would probably be compassionate to their situation, validate their feelings, and assure them that things will still be okay. And while it may seem intuitive that we would respond in this compassionate way to a loved one, we are much less likely to respond to our own personal struggles and mistakes with self-compassion. Perhaps it seems indulgent or complacent to show ourselves compassion in the face of failure. Or maybe we believe that by being self-critical we can motivate ourselves to not repeat our mistakes.
According to well-documented research evidence, self-criticism is not only a very ineffective motivator, it is also a strong indicator of mental health concerns. Research supports that individuals who are more self-compassionate maintain high standards and personal goals, but are able to better cope and accept when they fail to meet their goals. In fact, self-compassion is a key psychological tool for promoting well-being by improving resilience, self-worth, mindfulness, and self-acceptance. Self-compassion involves three key concepts:
(a) using self-kindness by offering a non-judgmental, caring, and understanding attitude to yourself when feeling inadequate
(b) realizing that failure and suffering are a common part of human nature
(c) using mindfulness to view your struggle objectively and free of evaluation.
Self-compassion has also been identified as a crucial tool for eating disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery. Individuals with higher levels of self-compassion are more likely to be body-satisfied, express lower body and weight-preoccupation, and experience less disordered eating. Self-compassion also predicts decreases in eating disorder symptoms and more promising treatment outcomes.
This week, during Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW), we have an opportunity to increase our awareness and understanding of the complexity of eating disorders – and to cultivate compassion for everyone that is affected. In whatever way eating disorders have touched your life, I urge you to also consider fostering a compassionate, kind, and understanding attitude towards yourself and your personal struggle.
Now, instead of imagining how you would respond to your friend who is struggling, imagine responding to yourself in a more self-compassionate way. You may say something like “I am having a very tough time right now. Everyone makes mistakes and fails at their goals, and I accept that I am also human. I deserve to care for myself and be understanding in my time of need.” No matter how difficult it may seem to adopt this attitude towards yourself, remember that every small moment or situation that you can express this loving-kindness will help you towards a more self-compassionate life.
Many helpful self-compassion practices can be found self-compassion.org.
(1) Murphy, J.M., Nierenberg, A.A., Monson, R.R., Laird, N.M., Sobol, A.M., & Leighton, A.H. (2002). Self-disparagement as a feature and forerunner of depression: Findings from the Stirling County study. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 43, 13–21.
(2) Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-101.
(3) Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.
(4) Ferreira, C., Pinto-Gouveia, J., & Duarte, C. (2013). Self-compassion in the face of shame and body image dissatisfaction: Implications for eating disorders. Eating behaviors, 14, 207-210.
(5) Adams, C. E., & Leary, M. R. (2007). Promoting self-compassionate attitudes toward eating among restrictive and guilty eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 1120-1144.
(6) Kelly, A. C., Carter, J. C., & Borairi, S. (2014). Are improvements in shame and self‐compassion early in eating disorders treatment associated with better patient outcomes?. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47, 54-64.
Eva Pila is a PhD candidate in health and exercise psychology at the University of Toronto, and an advocate for positive body image and women's health. Her research focuses on examining how body- and weight-related self-conscious emotions impact health outcomes in at-risk girls and women. Eva also contributes to the Outreach & Education team at NEDIC. To learn more about Eva's research, visit: ResearchGate & LinkedIn.
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