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How can self-compassion help ease body dissatisfaction?

How can self-compassion help ease body dissatisfaction?

When you’re moving away from a history of dieting and body dissatisfaction toward a future of intuitive eating and body respect, appreciation, or liberation, this isn’t a perfect linear process. There will be bumps and potholes in the road. Sometimes you’ll get off on an exit back to Dietville and your inner GPS will have to recalculate.

When this happens, self-compassion can be a powerful tool for helping yourself feel better in the moment and motivating you to keep moving towards your new goals rather than getting derailed by diet culture.

Mapping the terrain

Now, about those potholes and unplanned detours I mentioned. There are too many to mention, but here are several I’ve witnessed or experienced myself:

  • Catching your reflection in a mirror or store window and thinking, “Ugh,” or “Do I really look like that?”
  • Spending time with friends or family who are fully immersed in dieting and body hatred and you feel like screaming.
  • Going to the doctor and getting a lecture about weight and a lame “prescription” to eat less and move more (without them asking you what you eat or how often you already move).
  • Trying to get ready for a social event and hating how all of your clothes look on you.
  • Being tempted to try the latest “miracle” weight loss drug even though you know it can have some nasty side effects.
  • Looking at a photo of yourself and thinking you “look fat.”
  • Realizing that when you used to be thin (whether “naturally” or via hardcore dieting), it wasn’t just a body size, it was part of your identity — and you aren’t sure who you are now or how others perceive yo in your new larger body.
  • Stressing about whether you will fit in that airplane, theater or restaurant seat.

What these examples have in common — other than being about the body — are that they can bring up feelings of shame, fear and urgency, along with thoughts that you aren’t good enough, that something’s wrong with you and you have to fix it RIGHT NOW. (That’s where that urgency comes in.)

Countering with self-compassion

The three components of self-compassion are mindfulness, self-kindness and common humanity. The opposite characteristics are over-identification, self-judgement and isolation. This is how these self-compassion might look when having a challenging body moment. Let’s say you caught your reflection or were looking at a recent photo of yourself and don’t like what you see.

Mindfulness. You are aware of the moment of body dissatisfaction, including what thoughts and feelings come up. You allow those thoughts and feelings to be present without resisting or avoiding them. You allow yourself to accept and face the truth of the moment, even though it’s unpleasant, and to feel your pain so you can respond in a positive, affirming way and show yourself…

Self-kindness. You acknowledge the pain you are feeling and offer yourself warmth and kindness. You take steps to care for yourself in a supportive way, as you would for a dear friend who was struggling. You know the feelings will pass, as all feelings do, but you deserve kindness and care in the meantime.

Common humanity. You realize that many people have been harmed by diet culture and struggle with body dissatisfaction, occasionally or all the time. Because so many people suffer in this way, you acknowledge that you will continue to have moments where you don’t feel good about your body, and it’s not because you’re doing something wrong on your journey to make peace with your body.

Now for the opposite scenario

What happens if you can’t conjure up self-compassion? Maybe it’s a foreign concept to you, maybe you haven’t been practicing it for very long and end up defaulting to old patterns?

Over-identification. You get swept up in the river of your unpleasant thoughts and feelings, and begin ruminating on what they mean. Your focus narrows and you begin to exaggerate your experience, turning a moment of body dissatisfaction into a narrative of how you are unworthy, unacceptable, unlovable. Or, you might wrestle with your thoughts and feelings, falling prey to…

Self-judgement. Not only might you judge your body and by extension your worth as a human being, but you judge yourself for “failing” at body positivity. Maybe you don’t judge your body, per se, but you judge yourself as being shallow and too focused on appearance. This, along with over-identification, tips you into…

Isolation. You are sure you are the only one who can’t make peace with their body, because clearly there’s something wrong with you (self-judgement). Or, you start to internalize body shame and decide to skip your gym workout or dance class, and cancel on meeting up with friends this weekend.

Depending on where your mind goes, and the intensity of your feelings, you may do something rash, like re-sign up for your most recent online or app-based diet program. You may decide you need to buy all new clothes, even if you can’t really afford it. You may continue to avoid social gatherings and be hesitant to do things like go for a walk, because you don’t want to be seen.

Why self-compassion works

Because mindfulness is an element of self-compassion, it gives you the opportunity to notice what is happening in the moment and respond rather than react. (This is also better than the alternative, which is to have a negative body thought but simply absorb it rather than noticing it, which allows it to quietly fester.) When you can respond thoughtfully, you can take affirming action rather than rash action that may cause you further harm and suffering (such as going on a diet, restricting our food and doing exercise we don’t like only to regain any weight we manage to lose).

You can reflect on the reasons why you are making peace with food and your body, as well as what years spent trying to control your body cost you, in terms of time, money, energy and mental bandwidth. Self-compassion can help motivate us to take care of ourselves in meaningful ways. For example, if an incident of body dissatisfaction is partly fueled by not feeling good IN your body you can take steps to remedy those situations rather than feel like you need to make your body smaller. Other affirming actions that might be helpful include:

  • Setting boundaries around diet talk
  • Making time to move your body a bit more, even if it’s just breaking up episodes of sitting to go for a short walk, do some stretches, or putter in the house or garden.
  • Unfollowing social media accounts that make you feel bad about yourself
  • Buying clothes that fit your current body (even if you can only afford a few core pieces)
  • Practicing meaningful self-care
  • Reading books and articles, or listening to podcasts, by anti-diet, body diverse creators
  • Meeting with an anti-diet, weight-inclusive dietitian or therapist

Say no to shame

Not only is self-compassion the antidote to shame, but it can specifically counter body shame. Research shows that a brief period of practicing self-compassion can help people feel less body shame and reduce the degree to which their feelings of self-worth are contingent on physical appearance. It can also help us accept our bodies as they are.

We ALL benefit from self-compassion. If this is a new concept for you, or you need a refresher, these are the best books on the topic. I use them, I recommend them to my clients, and I recommend them to you!

I also recommend these podcast episodes about self-compassion:

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