MINDSET SHIFT 1
I MUST BE TOUGH ON KIND TO MYSELF TO LOSE WEIGHT
“What’s the single most important tool for success on the weight-loss journey?”
That’s a question I often open with when I speak at WW workshops, in person or virtually. Then I look around the room—or at all my Zoom squares—and see people gathering their thoughts. Hands go up, members eager to share their answers.
“Eating fruits and veggies.”
Once everyone who wants to has spoken, I give my answer.
“Self-compassion,” I say.
Since it’s unexpected for many of them, even counterintuitive, I elaborate.
“You’re at the starting line of a journey. If part or most of your thinking is fueled by beliefs like ‘I’m disgusting’ or ‘I have no willpower’ or ‘I can’t believe I put myself in this position again’ or ‘I can’t like myself until I lose weight,’ do you think the journey will go well? Does that feel like a good starting place? That’s YOU you’re talking about! Are you feeling motivated, empowered, hopeful? How might it be different if you began the journey with self-compassion rather than self-criticism?”
They get it immediately. There’s universal recognition—indeed relief—that there might actually be a better way than self-degradation.
Self-compassion. I imagine you intuitively know what it means. Being kind to yourself, especially when things aren’t going the way you would like. Valuing yourself. Considering yourself worth taking care of. An outlook that frames things not as failures but as chances to learn and grow.
But self-compassion can be difficult to achieve—more so, on average, for those struggling with weight, because of the nasty characterizations that many people in our society make about weight. Many people think that being tough on themselves is the key to motivation, that the whole point of the journey is to fix flaws, and that when they lose weight, then they’ll deserve kindness. I’ve heard it too often throughout my career. I vividly remember Katie, a happily married mom (kids aged ten and twelve) and lawyer in her early forties who wanted to lose fifty pounds. During our first two weeks together, she followed our behavior modification program at Penn meticulously, met her daily goals, and lost four pounds. While she had hoped to lose even more weight, she was pleased with her progress and herself.
Week 3, life got in the way. She was in the middle of a complex case, and her kids had a stomach bug. Katie ate more than she had planned—specifically, three slices of pizza one night and a midafternoon candy bar on another day. She gained a pound.
When she saw me, Katie’s self-assessment was harsh and uncompromising. “This is terrible. I can’t believe I did it again. I ate like a pig,” she lamented. “Can you believe three slices? I’m a terrible role model for my kids. I know my husband is disgusted with me. I don’t blame him.”
The severity of her self-criticism was distressing not only to her but to me. I wondered how an extra slice of pizza could trigger such character assassination, leading her to question her suitability as parent and spouse. In practical terms, I wondered how she could find weight-loss success if each setback was followed by such a vicious self-attack.
Yet when I asked Katie to imagine sitting with a friend who had “messed up” the way she had, and if she would respond to her friend with the same vitriol she aimed at herself, she was quiet. She shook her head. “No, never,” she said.
I hear the harsh statements that Katie and so many others make about and to themselves after suffering a setback in their journey.
I had two desserts yesterday. I’m weak.
I went off track again. I have no willpower.
Would you ever use this hopeless, discouraging tone on a friend who had just experienced a setback? Would you use it with any person you know? With a stranger? If your child used such language about a perceived failure of theirs, would you encourage that tone? Would you consider it productive?
So why do you talk like that to yourself?
When you experience a setback, imagine a friend describing it. “I can’t believe it!” your friend says. “I followed the plan; I thought I was doing so well and the scale went up.”
Now what would you tell that friend? Probably something encouraging like, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Think how much it would have gone up if you didn’t do all that you did.” Or, “Hey, you’ve been doing great! Look where you’ve come from. Hang in there!”
Note that encouragement does not mean lying. The things you told your friend are not made up or fantastical. You’re not fudging facts. You’re being encouraging and hopeful but also honest and direct. A good friend can be realistic and truthful while still being kind.
What if you simply extended the same courtesy to yourself that you would to a friend after a setback, particularly if your friend had just spoken unkindly about herself?
“Self-compassion is really just turning compassion inward,” says Kristin Neff, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading self-compassion researchers, codeveloper of the Mindful Self-Compassion training program, and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. “If you think of what it feels like when you give compassion to a friend who’s struggling, whether they’re feeling bad about themselves or having some challenge in their life, we know what compassion looks like. We know how to use our tone of voice or body language. We know what to say to be supportive to someone who’s suffering. Self-compassion is simply giving that same type of warm support and understanding to ourselves.”
Extensive research shows that self-compassion “works” and can be applied to help those on a weight-loss and wellness journey. “Clinically, patients who do well over the long-term—four, five, ten years—are those who are basically able to put into practice self-compassion skills,” says Gary Bennett, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and an expert in digital obesity treatments.
In the following pages, I define self-compassion in more detail and spell out its impressive benefits, prepare you for some weight-specific bumps, and, finally, share the evidence-backed techniques you can learn for a new way of thinking and being.
What Self-Compassion Is (and Is Not) and What It Does For You
There are three crucial components to self-compassion:
being kind and understanding to yourself, rather than engaging in self-criticism, when you have setbacks or feel bad about yourself;mindfulness, or being aware of and accepting your experiences right now for what they are, without judgment; andcommon humanity, or recognizing that imperfection is human, that stumbling or not achieving a goal the first time (or fifth time) is something that happens to every single person, not just you.Self-compassion is much deeper than self-like; it’s a combination of self-understanding plus kindness. If you’re self-compassionate, you don’t blame yourself for that lousy day or beat yourself up over it. You might hate what’s going on at the moment or how it feels like a struggle. But your core, your being, you: That’s sacred. That’s worth loving and protecting.
Self-compassion makes the wellness journey a positive process, not a punitive one. You’re doing something for yourself, not against yourself.
If your starting assumption is, I’m worth taking care of, you’re in a position of strength. That’s the point I always try to lead off with at those workshops. Strength leads to power. On the other hand, if you start from a position of self-loathing, you’re at a disadvantage from the outset. You’re starting with weakness rather than strength. Your attempt to make a positive change is pretty much dead on arrival. You’re attacking your single most important ally, the one person whose support you simply can’t succeed without. With self-compassion, you’ll start stronger and stay stronger through the ups and downs.
Imagine something’s gone amok in your journey. You had a setback. You followed your program and the number on the scale didn’t move. You ate something unplanned. You got derailed. Now what?
Self-compassion works in these moments, helping you to accept what happened and hop right back on track. One study of women trying to lose weight showed the benefit of self-compassion: Participants in one group were each given a donut, then asked to do a self-compassion exercise, then given candy. Those in the control group were each given a donut, then candy—no self-compassion exercise in between. The women in the first group ate less candy than those in the second. One explanation? Those who focused on self-compassion made choices based on their intention that were healthier rather than spiraling into the self-critical thoughts that often lead to overeating. Another study divided soldiers on weight-loss plans into three groups: the control, a group that practiced mindfulness meditations, and a group that practiced self-compassion meditations. The self-compassion group lost more weight, on average, than the other two.
Research on weight loss tells us that those with higher degrees of self-compassion are better able to maintain a healthy eating pattern—likely because they’re better able to handle negative feelings, forgive themselves, and move on when eating doesn’t go the way they planned. But there are other wellness benefits that can’t be measured on the scale:
You’re more likely to take care of your health (e.g., eat well, be active, take meds when recommended) even when you’re ill, feeling low, or stressed.You’re less stressed.You’re motivated to be active for positive, internal reasons (e.g., it’s fun, it makes you feel good) and not because you feel guilty or externally pressured.You’re better able to let things go.You’re less afraid of failure, hence you don’t give up as easily or at all.You have a generally more positive outlook.You have a better sense of well-being.An impressive list! Some of the people I’ve worked with over the years have pushed back, thinking that my suggestion to practice self-compassion is really a thinly veiled way to get them to view themselves unrealistically, as if they’re perfect.
Not at all. Self-compassion does not mean that every little thing about you is awesome. You can value yourself while fully recognizing that you are flawed, like all of us, that there are things about you that you might like to change. Think of John Legend singing “love your perfect imperfections” in his hit, “All of Me.” That’s what you’re saying: I’m imperfect … and I still deserve kindness and love! No matter what. If you’re having a lousy day, you still care about yourself. In fact, you could be having a lousy day and not even like yourself very much in the moment—yet you still care about yourself. You’re still kind to yourself because you know the lousy moment will pass, and you are not lousy. Self-compassion can help you see barriers more clearly so you can work to overcome them.
But wait (you might be saying): If I’m trying to change myself, doesn’t that mean there’s something wrong with me?
Again, no. A weight-loss or wellness journey is not about changing yourself. You are not your weight. You are not your body. The mindset-shift techniques in this book are designed to help you lose weight, get healthier, and feel better—not change who you are. You must already value who you are, your essence. You can be fond of the person you are while still aspiring to change and improve certain aspects; you want to move forward from where you are to where you want to be.
Self-improvement does not require self-loathing. What it requires is self-compassion. That’s the fuel for your journey.
By thinking (or learning how to think), I’m worth taking care of or I value myself, you recognize that you’re truly worthy of kindness and increase your chance for success in losing weight, attaining wellness, and changing other areas, too. Self-compassion is not mere pop psychology, feel-good thinking. Its effects are so broad and deep because once you learn to integrate it into your thinking, it changes what you do.
My Shift: Taylor
For most of my life I was a serial quitter. So I decided to take on the 52-hike challenge—do 52 hikes in a calendar year. It wasn’t about weight loss; I just wanted to finish. The first time I tried the challenge, I got to 9 hikes before I quit. The next time, I made it to 36. In my third time trying, I finally completed all 52. But when I got to hike #52 and looked back on what I had accomplished, I realized I had done it with hate. I realized how horribly I talked to myself. The things my Inner Mean Girl was saying as I walked up the mountain—You’re too fat for this … You’re not made for this … Everyone’s passing you … You’re so slow … You’re never going to make it to the top. The thing was, I was already on the trail! I was already heading up the mountain, doing this thing that’s really hard! What good was it to tear myself down? None. I had “achieved” my 52-hike goal, but I could have enjoyed it so much more. I could have learned more.
I wondered: What would the journey have looked like if I had been compassionate to myself the entire time?
I had completed something, so I thought, What else can I not quit on? I made it my personal development project to be self-compassionate, to pour more love into myself, to bring joy into the process. Sure, we’re looking to get to the top of the mountain, literally and figuratively, but what is the experience of climbing it? How are you engaging with the people you’re with? What are you learning every day? What is the journey itself like? I realized that before I started talking more compassionately to myself, I was losing sight of all the amazing things and magic that were happening while I was climbing and reaching my “goal.”
With weight loss, I knew that recipes and types of food were important, of course, but I started to realize that mindset was key, and self-compassion was at the heart of it all. The key thing for me was consistency. That’s what made it all click. Consistency compounds. It doesn’t matter if I have one bad day or one bad week—all the good and all the intention add up over time. I learned to say to myself, Look at what I’m capable of! This is just a baseline—now I know I can get here; let’s see how much farther I can get. I was eager to see myself stand back up after getting knocked down. I saw how being compassionate to myself made me stronger, able to show up for myself, able to come back and give my family and friends the best version of me. Why wouldn’t I make that choice? To treat myself and talk to myself in that way, so that I could be the bold person I was meant to be?
Now I can rattle off in thirty seconds why I’m a badass, what I bring to the table for my career, my community, the world. It’s a list I know by heart. And any time I slip into really negative self-talk, I tell myself—just like a good friend might—to be kind to myself and realistic. That’s when I rattle off all the good stuff that I know is true about me.
Debunking Other Myths About Self-Compassion
Despite all of its benefits, many people I work with get tripped up by destructive myths about self-compassion. I’d like to address some of these misguided beliefs—beliefs that extensive research has already debunked—because they get in the way of a successful journey.
Belief: Self-compassion just means making excuses and living in a fantasyland, allowing me to pretend that uncomfortable emotions, like sadness or loneliness, don’t exist.
Reality: Self-compassion acknowledges that these emotions exist but recognizes them as part of being human. Even the happiest people don’t feel happy all the time. What’s important is that when you experience uncomfortable emotions, you show yourself kindness and patience. That helps you care about yourself enough to find activities that make you feel better.
Belief: I am who I am. I come from a family of people who are hard on themselves.
Reality: Actually, you can change. Some people naturally have more or less self-compassion, but it can be developed and improved through practice.
Belief: Self-compassion is selfish because I’ve got other people I have to take care of.
Reality: This myth can be particularly troubling for caregivers, who are predominantly women. Of course your life is busy, but there are techniques to cultivate self-compassion that require minimal time, and needn’t even be practiced on a daily basis. Are you worth “putting first”? Although the analogy has been made many times, think of the flight attendant’s pre-takeoff instructions to put on your own oxygen mask in case of emergency before helping a child or others in need. Laura, a WW member and mom of three from Indiana who eventually lost more than one hundred pounds after many attempts, says she only—finally—achieved success when she realized that “a healthier, happier, more present version of myself” was “the best gift I could have ever given my family and myself.” We are, plainly and simply, more helpful and compassionate toward others when we’re compassionate toward ourselves.
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