THE BLOG
02/08/2011 08:56 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Self-Compassion: Kiss Your Inner Drill Sergeant Goodbye

Bullying yourself slim may make for good TV drama (think fitness trainer Jackie Warner tormenting her overweight trainees), but if you're serious about slimming down, the bully shape-up strategy is nothing but bad news. If I hadn't yo-yo dieted through my teens, dedicated my career to helping clients with eating issues and researched winning weight-loss approaches, I might never have gained this uncommon wisdom: Loving kindness, not punishing self-discipline, is the key to losing weight and keeping it off. It's the only way to create a harmonious relationship with food. Self-discipline, it turns out, is a much better strategy for gaining than losing weight.

If you're thinking that "self-compassion" is another word for "self-indulgence" -- giving in to your every craving for sweets and other treats -- think again. Self-compassion means treating yourself like a newborn -- with love and kindness. If your baby girl's hungry, you'd never call her "fat," "hopeless" and other mean, nasty names; you'd feed her. If she's tired, you wouldn't force her to crawl into a sweat suit; you'd put her down for a nap. When you treat yourself like a beloved child, you're more apt to eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full, rest when you're tired, and move when you feel energized. And when you do that, you lose weight naturally.

Curb Emotional Eating

The American way is self-discipline, not self-compassion. If you're an American dieter, you focus on what you don't like about yourself, hoping your deep dislikes will motivate you to stick to the plan. If you're starving, keep eating tiny portions. If you're bone-tired, drag yourself to the gym. Impossible to maintain, this singled-minded focus is not very compassionate. It's not very effective, and it's no fun! Self-discipline predictably backfires, trapping dieters in a vicious cycle of under-eating and overindulging. Think about it: When you eat tiny portions of tasteless diet food, isn't it just a matter of time before you're throwing yourself an all-you-can-eat buffet at the kitchen counter?

The scientific evidence helped confirm my suspicions from two decades of clinical practice: Dieters don't lack self-discipline -- they lack self-compassion. But the study that convinced me the road to healthy slimness is paved with compassionate intentions comes from Wake Forest University. After luring veteran dieters off the "diet" wagon with donuts, researchers encouraged one group of dieters to think self-kind thoughts. Another group was left alone with their self-criticism. Long study short: A modest dose of self-compassion prevents the negativity and emotional distress that inevitably sends even the most disciplined dieter to the fridge. You read right: Self-compassion curbs emotional eating.

What's more, self-compassion has been shown in study after study to work like antidepressants without the negative side effects. Treat yourself kindly and almost immediately you'll feel calmer, happier and more capable of changing for good.

It's one thing to hear about the illuminating research; it's quite another to see what a difference self-compassion makes. Why not try this two-part experiment and draw your own conclusion?

Listen to Your Inner Drill Seargeant

Call to mind your inner drill sergeant -- that aspect of yourself who insults you when you've put on a few pounds. Visualize as many details as you can: the trim figure, the ripped abs, the critical stance. More important, bring on the insulting comments you've come to expect when trying on a new bathing suit or squeezing into uncomfortably tight jeans: "You're fat!"; "You're disgusting!"; "You're out of control!"

After you remind yourself, for the umpteenth time, to stop making excuses and start shaping up now, pay close attention to the subtle shifts in your mind and body. Are your thoughts more or less self-critical? Do your muscles feel tighter or more relaxed? Are the corners of your mouth curling up or frown-ward? Notice how you feel, but suspend judgment and continue the experiment.

Consult Your Compassionate Advisor

Shift your focus to more encouraging words: "love," "kindness," "self-compassion." Better yet, make yourself comfortable, and follow these five easy steps:

  1. Imagine a compassionate being -- the embodiment of loving-kindness. It could be a dear friend or relative, a favorite movie character (Yoda, Glinda the Good Witch), a religious or political inspiration (the Dalai Lama, Gandhi). Or, it could be a force of nature (the ocean, a sunbeam).

  • Use your senses to bring your advisor to life, noticing how he or she looks, sounds and acts. If your advisor is a force of nature, notice colors, shapes and textures. However compassion manifests, open your mind and heart to it.
  • Think about what troubles you most about your eating habits, then ask your advisor for help, guidance, support -- whatever you need. Ask, and you shall not only receive -- you'll soak up what's so hard to come by in every life: unconditional love.
  • If the consultation leaves you wanting more, try again later. The advisor is always within.
  • Finally, scan mind and body for any and all changes. Pay careful attention to the difference in your mood, outlook and sense of well being. How do you feel now? Better?
  • If that's any kind of a "yes," there's no time like the present to kiss your inner drill sergeant goodbye and your compassionate advisor hello.

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    Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see www.jeanfain.com.