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The importance of self-compassion

Last Modified: October 16, 2019

Family Medicine


This post was written by Susan Stovall, LMHC, PPG – Parkview Weight Management & Bariatric Surgery

Researchers, Kristen Neff, Ph.D., and Christopher Germer, Ph.D., have studied the importance of self-compassion on one’s mental and physical health. As it relates to weight management, when we are critical of ourselves, our blood pressure increases, and our body secretes cortisol to give us the energy to confront or to avoid the threat. The body is activated for physical and emotional attacks, whether the attacker is one’s self-talk or an external source. Over time, increased cortisol levels can lead to depression. Because we are not outrunning our threats, it can also get stored as fat, particularly around the belly.

Once we accept where we are, true change can occur. Treating ourselves with the same kindness, care, and compassion as we would show a friend can help decrease cortisol levels. The core components of self-compassion are self-kindness, recognition of common humanity and mindfulness. The first step is to just pay attention and track how you talk to yourself about yourself. Developing a mindfulness practice can help with this. Then, ask yourself what you would say to a best friend in your exact situation.

In studies using a functional MRI, participants were told to imagine themselves reacting to rejection in a self-critical or self-compassionate way. Responding with self-criticism activated parts of the brain associated with error processing and problem-solving. Responding with kindness activated parts of the brain associated with compassion. This allows a person to see him or herself as a human being worthy of care versus a problem that needs to be fixed. In turn, someone who practices self-compassion is more likely to give themselves nutrition that encourages health and vitality versus food that drains us of health and vitality. Self-compassionate individuals are more likely to care for their bodies in a nurturing way.

Neff points out that a self-critical person who “breaks their diet”, is likely to have an inner dialogue that goes something like this, “I can’t believe I ate so much. I’m so disgusted with myself. I guess I might as well finish off that bowl of chips since I’m a lost cause.” It turns into a vicious cycle of self-criticism and overeating. A self-compassionate response involves forgiving one’s self for lapses. By being compassionate, a person is less likely to be driven to overeat to try to feel better. Research testing proved it to be true as well. Participants trained in self-compassion, who were given doughnuts before the session, were less likely to overeat in the taste-testing after the session than those without any training. The conclusion is that those trained in self-compassion are more likely to stick to their overall weight loss goals despite momentarily “falling off the wagon” than those without training in self-compassion.

Whenever you notice that you are in pain, emotional or physical, you can do the following: give yourself kindness and care, remind yourself that encountering pain is a part of the shared human experience, and hold your thoughts and emotions in mindful awareness without choosing behaviors that are destructive to your health. Self-compassion softens how you react if things don’t go as you had hoped, which is common with weight management, and will help you reach your goals in the long-run.   

Recommended reading:

Christopher Germer, P. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. New York: The Guilford Press.

Kristin Neff, P. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: Harper Collins.

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