We live in a culture that values a stiff upper lip, the no excuses mentality and promotes rhetorics like, “no pain, no gain.” We’re taught that success is the result of extreme measures and that nothing less will suffice (“go hard or go home”). We are led to believe that self-critical inner dialogues will protect us from becoming lazy and self-indulgent. When you consider how pervasive such sentiments are, particularly in the fitness industry, it comes as no shock that practicing self-compassion seems radical. Many people worry that self-compassion will undermine their ability to develop better exercise and nutrition habits. Understandably, they turn away from self-compassion, the very thing that has been shown to increase one’s initiative to make changes in their life.
What is self-compassion? The world’s foremost self-compassion expert, Dr. Kristin Neff, describes self-compassion as having three parts:
- Self-kindness: practicing understanding and warmth toward ourselves, even in the face of failure or inadequacies, rather than self-criticism.
- Common humanity: recognizing that suffering, failure and inadequacy is part of the human experience and not something that happens only to one’s self.
- Mindfulness: neither suppressing or exaggerating our negative emotions, but rather taking a balanced approach to them. This includes being aware of our emotions with non-judgemental openness and clarity.
Part of the resistance toward developing self-compassion may come from a misunderstanding about what it is and is not. You will notice that self-compassion does not mean ignoring one’s failures or shortcomings. It just means that instead of equating mistakes with our self-worth, we recognize them as part of a larger process and a learning tool. You can see how this would contribute to one’s resiliency when it comes to pursuing new healthy habits. Self-compassion gives us the ability to resist defeat and this pattern is reflected in the research. Self-compassionate individuals do not berate themselves when they fail which makes them more able to admit mistakes, modify unproductive behaviours and take on new challenges (Neff, 2009).
For those who worry that self-compassion will lead to self-indulgence (“I’ve had such a hard week, so it’s okay if I eat whatever I want today”) we must remember that true self-compassion ultimately involves the desire for long term health and well-being. We know that what we want in the moment may not be good for us long term. Self-compassion means trying to choose the behaviours that our future selves will be happy with. Some examples of practicing self-compassion could be:
I ate two cookies today even though I didn’t need cookies. I am only human and I will do my best going forward to make choices that will make me feel physically and mentally best.
I was supposed to workout really hard today, but I feel like I only gave it a mediocre effort. Everyone has off-days, I’m going to give it my best effort tomorrow.
I ended up eating pizza and ice cream at my daughter’s birthday party even though I told myself I wouldn’t. Instead of being mad at myself, I will plan ahead next time and make sure I have healthier options available! I know I am ready to make better choices.
Last week I was supposed to workout four times but I only made it twice. Even though two workouts is better than none (which is what I was doing a few months ago) I know I need to schedule my time better so I don’t miss them. I feel better when I make it to all of them.
I may have made some mistakes along the way, but I’ve learned from each of them. I will do my best to use what I’ve learned to grow and be a better version of myself.
Both the attraction to and problem with mainstream messages in fitness, which can shape the inner dialogue of individuals, is that they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. The messages are disguised as inspirational but in reality promote shame. Shame is the belief that we are inherently bad or unworthy as we are. Shame limits us by causing us to believe that we are fixed in our current state; self-compassion allows for growth. Examples of self-shame in the exercise and nutrition realm might be:
I’ve already messed up so many times. I will never be able to do this. I just don’t have the willpower or the motivation to stick to this.
I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror. My body is disgusting and no matter what I do I will never look how I want to look.
Today at the gym I tried to do ___ and I couldn’t. I guess I am just not strong/fit/athletic enough. Why do I even bother trying?
Until I weigh ___ then I am not worthy of love, affection or acceptance from myself or other people. I’m not deserving as I am.
Sometimes people successfully try to shame themselves into action, but this does not work for the vast majority. According to Brene Brown, shame researcher and author of Daring Greatly, we are more likely to protect ourselves when we feel shame by blaming something or someone or by rationalizing our lapse. These behaviours are hardly productive where exercise and nutrition are concerned! Blaming and rationalizing allow us to take the role of a victim instead of taking ownership over our actions.
Shame actually makes us more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours. When we feel shame about our behaviours and equate those behaviours with our inherent worth, doesn’t it follow that our mistakes become inseparable from our identity? If we start to see ourselves as failures, instead of someone who has failed at something, that is an identity-building experience. I’ve written before about how powerful our identities are. When we identify ourselves in a certain way we are more likely to behave in accordance with that identity (cognitive dissonance). This cycle causes us to spiral further away from our original intentions.
If you’ve recognized that you have been trying to change yourself from a place of self-criticism, shame and disapproval – that’s okay. Ask yourself if what you have been doing thus far has been working for you. If the answer is no, I encourage you to consider developing self-compassion. It’s never too late to do this and although it takes practice to move away from self-shaming habits it is certainly worth it if it helps you develop healthy habits from a less painful place. One simple trick is to talk to yourself the way that you would talk to a close friend who was going through the same thing as you. Be kind, encouraging, forgiving and loving. Remember that you can love yourself just as you are in this very moment and still desire to change and improve. Self-compassion is not the same as complacency.
Self-compassion is something woven into personal training and nutrition programs. If you’re interested in doing some self-compassion exercises I highly recommend those provided on Kristin Neff’s website. If you’d like to work with a coach to develop more self-compassion in your own exercise or nutrition habits, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Neff, K.D. (2009) The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself. Human Development, 212-213.