Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write about self-compassion. What does self-compassion have to do with fitness and nutrition? I believe in a holistic approach to health, and self-compassion can help you grow into a healthier, happier person so you can better reach your fitness and nutrition goals.
We studied self-compassion early on in my Precision Nutrition Level 2 certification course and it resonated with me. Self-compassion is (at its most basic, over-simplified level), being nice to yourself; using your self-talk (that voice in the back of your head) to speak kindly to yourself rather than to tell you what an utter failure you are.
Let’s think about compassion in general. What does it mean to be a compassionate person? Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion study, gives us this example:
First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.”
—From the Definition of Self-Compassion
We can extrapolate from Neff's description of compassion that self-compassion is to notice your struggles (mindfulness), to want to help ease your suffering (self-kindness), and to notice that you, like everyone, suffer (common humanity). Self-compassion allows you to see yourself as a person who has flaws, just like everyone else. Practicing self-compassion gives you room to make mistakes and still be okay, which means that you’re better able to grow. In other words, if you mess up, that doesn’t mean that you are a horrible person with no value. It just means that you messed up. You can take what you’ve experienced and learn from it, rather than beating yourself into a paralyzing fear of failure.
Let’s think of a quick example. Let's say that you had a really terrible day at work. You bombed a presentation and your cubicle neighbor was mean to you and the boi from accounting that you've been flirting with has just starting dating the receptionist. You think about going to the gym to work off some stress, but instead you go home to binge Stranger Things and ice cream. You eat an entire carton of Double Chocolate Delight and drink half a bottle of wine. And you never had dinner.
The next morning you wake up with a stomach ache and a slight hangover. Fuuuunk, the little voice in your head says. Why are you such a garbage person? You are disgusting and lazy and you have no willpower! No wonder Sam doesn't like you! You're going to be alone forever, and you deserve it!
Luckily, you've been reading this blog and you remember that you're supposed to treat yourself with self-compassion. OK, you say to yourself. Maybe you didn't make the best decisions last night. It would've been a healthier choice (and more in line with your goals) to go to the gym instead of camping out on the couch. But, that's not what you did. You were feeling tired and depressed and you decided to have a night of wallowing. Oh well. You're not the first person to eat away a bad mood and you won't be the last. You can only try to remember this feeling in the future and make a different decision next time.
Good work! You’ve recognized that you made a mistake and that your feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing stem from that mistake and not from your value as a human. You’ve talked to yourself with kindness and you’ve given yourself room to grow. You recognized that the way you were feeling led to decisions that weren't in line with your values of being a healthy and happy human. But you also recognized that you're not unique—other people have done the same thing. You've talked to yourself with kindness and you can now move on with your day.
While it’s not always possible to fix a mistake in the moment, it is always possible to treat yourself with self-compassion. I know, I know, if you don’t beat yourself up, who will? When you belittle yourself or hold yourself to too high a standard, you make it harder to grow. If your mistakes are a direct result of being lazy or stupid or mean or crazy or whatever else you’re telling yourself, then how will you ever rise above them? How will you change anything? Think about a kid in a classroom who gets a math problem wrong. If the teacher says, “Well, you would’ve gotten that right if you were smarter,” why would the kid bother to study? They've hit their limit on intelligence and it's all downhill from here. But if the teacher says, “Nice attempt, Jes, but you missed carrying the 2. Let’s do another one together,” the kid is going to learn both that it's okay to make a mistake and that they should carry the 2 next time.
Self-compassion doesn’t give you a free pass to screw up or to not take responsibility for your actions. It gives you an opportunity to learn and grow, not to throw up your hands, cover your ears and sing “Connect the Dots, La La La.” So how do you determine what is self-compassion and what is shirking responsibility? Below, you can find a chart provided by Precision Nutrition about what is and what is not compassion.
Over the next week, see if you can notice when the voice in your head is being cruel and unreasonable. See if you can switch that cruelty over to self-compassion; to realize that your mistakes are just mistakes, not evidence of your diminished value.
And come back next week, when we’ll talk about the first step in self-compassion: mindfulness.