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The surprising power of self-compassion

The-Surprising-Power-of-Self-Compassion | Weight LossThe following guest post is written by Coaching Psychologist and Change Specialist, Edel Rigas. She's truly a master of her craft. I hope you get as much from her wisdom and insight as I do. 

Shit happens! I have yet to meet anyone who disagrees with this statement – though of course some may not phrase it quite so eloquently! But whatever your turn of phrase, I’m confident we all agree that life is unpredictable and we can find ourselves up to our necks in the stinky stuff, often before we even get a whiff of it coming. And we are so good at beating ourselves up when things do go wrong.

Unfortunately, when we experience worry, anxiety or prolonged periods of stress, the knock-on effect doesn’t stop at uncomfortable thoughts. We now know that our thoughts have a very powerful influence on our appearance and overall health.

The science is rock solid on the mind-brain-body connection: the way we think can actually change the physical structure of our brain! Imagine then what it can do to the rest of our body. Believe it or not, this is great news too – it means we can consciously set about improving the functioning of our brains – and at any age!

But more on this particular subject in a later post! For now, let’s focus on the most up to date understandings gained from psychological research on how we can best deal with the stinky stuff when it hits.

Now we’re all familiar with that virtual police officer (politically correctly genderless!) living inside our heads. That’s the voice that helps us work towards our personal and professional goals. And when things go wrong and we stray off the straight and narrow, she (or he!) reminds us what we were supposed to be doing.

But what is your police officer like? Is she the kind that has a riot shield, a baton and a bad attitude or does she offer a forgiving smile, a friendly word and a helping hand?

Many of us think of the latter, more relaxed internal police officer as being weak and ineffectual. We believe that by going easy on ourselves it will lead to lower motivation. Surely, we reason, if we don’t use self-criticism to push ourselves, we’ll never get anywhere?

So what stance should we take towards ourselves during difficult times?

In the search for an answer to this question, psychological researchers recently tested three possible approaches people use to deal with low self-confidence – a definite ‘difficult time’ when it hits:

  1. Thinking about positive aspects of the self to boost confidence
  2. Thinking back to nice memories to create a distraction from the problem
  3. Thinking about the self with kindness and compassion, seeing the period of low self-confidence in context, without evaluating or judging it

They found that self-compassion (no. 3) was surprisingly powerful. In comparison to self-esteem boosting and distraction, self-compassion was most likely to help people see the possibilities for change, to increase motivation to change, to take steps towards making a change, and to compare themselves with those doing better to help motivate their change.

In other words, by being sympathetic and non-judgemental towards themselves, people were able to avoid both harsh self-criticism and potentially fragile self-enhancement. When participants in the study thought back to insecurities in their relationships, their shyness or social anxieties, it was showing compassion towards themselves that helped the most.

This may be because self-compassion builds a more balanced way of reacting to both failures in ourselves and difficult situations we find ourselves in.

And you’ll be happy to hear that the good news doesn’t stop there!

Another more recent study has found that self-compassion may be an important component in helping women avoid unhealthy eating practices that may lead to eating disorders. Women may have a more positive body image and better eating habits if they approach life’s disappointments and distresses with kindness and the recognition that these struggles are a normal part of life.

The study also concluded that it seems how we treat ourselves during difficult times that are apparently unrelated to our bodies and eating, actually has a bearing on how we feel about our bodies and our relationship with food.

Regardless of their weight, women with higher self-compassion have better body image and fewer concerns about weight, body shape and eating.

There is something about a high level of acceptance and understanding of oneself that helps people not necessarily view their bodies more positively, but rather acknowledge their bodies’ imperfections and be okay with them.

To paraphrase the American writer Eric Hoffer, compassion is an antitoxin for the soul that ensures even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless!


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