If you think you need to channel your inner drill sergeant to eat your vegetables and get to the gym, think again. Research shows that a healthy dose of self-compassion actually helps us form habits that support good health.
In the past decade or so, numerous studies have shown that self-compassion is important for mental and emotional health and well-being. Newer research is also finding that self-compassion plays a role in physical health.
According to self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, author of “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” there are three elements to self-compassion:
•Mindfulness, which is being aware of negative thoughts, feelings and experiences without judging them or dwelling on them.
•Common humanity, or recognizing that we are all imperfect and that we all suffer.
•Self-kindness, which is showing yourself care and understanding when you experience those all-too-human imperfections.
The opposite of self-compassion is emotional reactivity, isolation, self-judgment and unhealthy perfectionism, all of which have been linked to depression, stress and reduced quality of life.
A 2017 study published in Health Psychology Open found that people who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better — they have less of a physical stress response when they are stuck in traffic, have an argument with their spouse or don’t get that job offer — and they spend less time reactivating stressful events by dwelling on them. That’s important, because not only does chronic stress directly harm health — the physical responses to stress include spikes in blood pressure and blood sugar, along with suppression of the immune system — but if you also react strongly to stress, you’re more likely to use unhealthy short-term coping mechanisms such as smoking or numbing your feelings with food or alcohol.
The study also found that self-compassionate people are more likely to adopt health-promoting behaviors and maintain them even if they don’t appear to be paying off in the short term. This may be especially important in the face of a health-related setback, such as injury, illness or a disappointing lab result, because self-compassion takes the edge off negative emotions — fear, frustration and disappointment — that might arise. This helps you continue to take good care of yourself instead of getting derailed.
Self-compassion often gets painted as selfish, lazy or indulgent, but nothing could be further from the truth. People who are caregivers — by nature or circumstance — often find it difficult to offer themselves the compassion they freely give to others. However, connection with the rest of humanity is a core component of self-compassion, so to fully give to others, you need to give to yourself.
Are you a perfectionist? You may fear that if you are too nice to yourself, you’ll accomplish nothing. The truth is that when you make changes out of self-compassion, those changes are more sustainable than ones you make because you feel as if you are unacceptable the way you are. You’re also more likely to make daily choices that support long-term well-being, rather than indulging in short-term impulses. That may mean going for a walk instead of crashing on the couch, or putting down your fork when you’re satisfied, not stuffed.
Research shows that self-compassion can increase motivation to change, possibly because it allows us to objectively evaluate areas for improvement and make changes without the threat of self-criticism. Let’s say you have Type 2 diabetes and your latest bloodwork shows that you haven’t been managing your blood sugar well. Self-compassion will help you use that information to make changes to support better control going forward. Self-criticism can paralyze you, leaving you unable to change — and possibly ashamed to return to your doctor — leading to bigger health problems.
Self-compassion should be easy, because we all want to be happy. Unfortunately — at least in some cases — we also want to avoid danger. In the face of true danger, we go into fight, flight or freeze mode. But when the “danger” is the uncomfortable emotions that rise from our inevitable mistakes or failures, our response can be self-criticism, self-isolation and self-absorption, which gets in the way of doing the things that will make us happier and healthier in the long run. Self-compassion helps us view uncomfortable emotions as less of a threat.
So how do you cultivate self-compassion? Start with mindfulness. Unless you pay attention, you may be unaware of the thoughts that play and replay in your head. Practice observing your thoughts — are they compassionate or critical? Be curious and nonjudgmental — criticizing yourself for being self-critical adds insult to injury. Remind yourself often that to err is human, and to forgive, divine. Finally, show yourself kindness in ways that nurture mind, body and spirit. Take time to go for a walk, do some yoga or prepare a nutritious meal. Incorporate activities that bring you joy, such as reading a novel, puttering in the garden or listening to your favorite music. Strengthen connections with people important to you. Think love, not tough love.
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.