by Cara Bradley
Mindful movement specialist and author Cara Bradley explains how we can cross-train for our mental health, the same way we cross-train for physical fitness.
During another tough day at work, Mary realizes she forgot to eat lunch. She’s starving. The salad she brought that day doesn’t appeal, especially when her office mate offers to share the pizza he ordered. Mary loves pizza so she takes a piece, eating it quickly because she is hungry but also feeling guilty over her choice. She takes another slice. And another. She finishes the meal feeling too full and starts berating herself for her lack of willpower. “I shouldn’t have eaten that. What’s wrong with me? Why do I always choose foods that I know I shouldn’t eat?”
Research shows the more understanding and forgiving we are of ourselves, the more motivated we are to do what we need to take care of ourselves, including eating well.
Does this scenario sound familiar? It’s one that’s repeated frequently by many who repeatedly try without success to eat more healthfully. What they don’t realize is that they’re missing a key ingredient in healthy eating. It’s self-compassion. And it has the power to make or break your success at eating well.
What is Self-Compassion?
According to researcher Kristin Neff, PhD, self-compassion consists of three main components:
- Self-kindness: Being kind and understanding toward yourself in instances of pain or failure as opposed to harshly criticizing yourself.
- Common humanity: Recognizing your experiences are part of the larger human experience. You are not alone.
- Mindfulness: Holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them or trying to ignore them.
Research shows the more understanding and forgiving we are of ourselves, the more motivated we are to do what we need to take care of ourselves, including eating well. It also helps guard against emotional overeating, which often occurs when we feel as if we have failed in our efforts to eat well.
A lack of self-compassion closes the door to learning about our habits, patterns, triggers and needs when it comes to food. By adopting a forgiving and curious attitude instead, you can foster a healthy relationship with eating and food and yourself that can open the door to improved health and happiness.
How to Add a Healthy Dose of Self-Compassion to Your Meals
Step 1: Give up black-and-white thinking.
Embrace the fact that healthy eating is flexible and can include a wide variety of foods, some of which are richer than others, such as a pizza. And sometimes the healthier choice may be the richer choice.
For example, which would be a healthier choice at a party: Pizza or salad? The salad is only healthier if that’s what you really want. Otherwise, you might feel deprived and end up overeating later. Enjoying pizza mindfully as part of a celebration allows for the many roles that food plays in our lives. We can often end up feeling satisfied with less when it does.
Step 2: Become aware of how you talk to yourself when eating.
Does a tape start running in your head that admonishes you not to eat too much or not to eat certain types of foods? Or that you’re a failure if you do? Write down what you say to yourself.
Step 3: Write down kind responses to your inner critic.
Have readily available responses that you can “turn on” when you hear yourself starting to go down the familiar road of negative self-talk.
Step 4: Practice those kind responses to yourself.
Every time you hear yourself talking negatively to yourself about your eating, take a moment to be kind to yourself. Try carrying around a small notebook with your new messages to refer to. Remember, the first time you do something differently is the hardest. Every time you do it thereafter, it gets easier.