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Self-compassion and dieting behaviour

Updated: Apr 19

Self-compassion; hugging oneself

What is Self-compassion

Self-compassion is the practice of treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, especially in times of difficulty or failure. It involves acknowledging one's own suffering or challenges without judgment, and responding with empathy and care, much like one would to a friend in a similar situation. Self-compassion involves three main components: self-kindness (being warm and understanding toward oneself rather than critical), common humanity (recognizing that suffering and imperfection are part of the shared human experience), and mindfulness (maintaining a balanced awareness of one's emotions and experiences without getting overwhelmed by them). Cultivating self-compassion can lead to greater emotional resilience, improved mental well-being, and a more positive relationship with oneself.


Self-compassion and dieting behaviour

An early study by Claire E Adams and Mark R Leary (Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 2007) into the relationship between self-compassion and dietary behaviour involved recruiting a group of undergraduate students (mainly women) who were on a diet, ostensibly to take part in a psychology study which included a taste-testing element.

In the initial phase of the study, participants were instructed to consume an entire glazed donut. They were then divided into three groups: one group was encouraged to adopt a compassionate attitude towards their dietary deviation, emphasising self-kindness and supportiveness; the second group was tasked with boosting their self-esteem by reflecting on positive attributes about themselves; and the third group received no specific instructions, which probably meant they might lean towards self-criticism.

In the subsequent phase, participants were presented with sugar-coated chocolate candies for taste testing. Each participant received a sizable bowl of these sweets and was asked to sample them to gauge their preferences. Following this, the interviewer exited the room for a period before returning to conclude the session. Later analysis revealed that the group encouraged to be compassionate about their dietary lapse consumed fewer chocolate candies compared with those in the self-esteem boosting group or the group receiving no specific guidance.

This experiment underscores a common phenomenon: after deviating from a diet, for whatever reason, individuals often engage in self-criticism and subsequently seek solace in food, as evidenced by increased consumption of chocolate candies among those who were not encouraged to be compassionate towards themselves.

Through practicing self-compassion, you can break free from the cycle of self-criticism followed by seeking comfort through eating.


Self-Compassion is not Self-Kindness

It is important to not confuse self-compassion with self-kindness

Self-compassion and self-kindness are closely related concepts, but they have nuanced differences. Self-compassion encompasses a broader perspective of understanding and accepting oneself in times of difficulty, whereas self-kindness specifically focuses on the act of treating oneself with warmth, care, and support.

In a recent study, when asked about self-kindness, some participants defined self-kindness as indulging in favourite foods or binge drinking. Whereas, others prioritise self-care by opting for actions such as taking a warm bath, going for a walk or jogging, or consuming a nutritious meal. While the former set of behaviours may entail negative health outcomes such as obesity or cardiovascular issues, the latter aligns more closely with a holistic model of self-compassion.

If weight loss is your goal, practicing self-compassion can play a significant role. Here's why:

Reduced Self-Criticism: When individuals practice self-compassion, they are less likely to engage in harsh self-criticism about their bodies or their dietary choices. Instead of berating themselves for perceived failures, they approach their goals with understanding and kindness.

Emotional Regulation: Dieting often involves dealing with difficult emotions, such as frustration, guilt, or disappointment, especially when facing setbacks or temptations. Self-compassion helps individuals regulate these emotions more effectively by providing a supportive inner dialogue and reducing the intensity of negative feelings.

Less Emotional Eating: People who are more self-compassionate are often less prone to using food as a coping mechanism for stress, boredom, or other emotions. Instead of turning to food for comfort, they are more likely to respond to emotional distress with healthier coping strategies.

Flexible Approach to Eating: Self-compassionate individuals tend to adopt a more flexible and balanced approach to eating. Rather than rigidly adhering to strict rules or succumbing to all-or-nothing thinking, they are better able to listen to their bodies' hunger and fullness cues and make choices that align with their overall well-being.

Overall, integrating self-compassion into the process of dieting can often lead to a healthier relationship with food, improved emotional well-being, and greater long-term success in achieving and maintaining dietary goals.

First published on Counselling Directory, 18/04/24

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