by Melissa Parks, PhD
Imagine that you’ve just sat down for drinks with your dear friend. After taking a minute to size her up from head to toe, you launch into a detailed critique of all of the things you don’t like about her body:
- Your butt is too big
- Your belly is disgusting
- Your legs are too short
- Your hair is too frizzy
- Can’t your body just look normal for once?
Can you actually imagine saying such hurtful comments to someone you care about?
Chances are, you wouldn’t dare to say such horrible things to your friends. However, how often have you greeted your own reflection in the mirror with these same types of critical comments?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably “pretty often.” Given the fact that an estimated 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their bodies, this type of harsh, critical self-talk is all too common when looking in the mirror. Even more concerning is that this inner dialogue is so automatic that unless we stop to intentionally reflect on it, we might not even recognize that there’s a problem in commenting on our appearance in this way.
From an early age, our society bombards us with messages that tell us that our worthiness depends on our bodies looking a certain way, and that, if we treat our bodies like machines, we can have complete control over what they look like. We unconsciously internalize these messages and they come roaring to life, as part of our own inner critical dialogue, when we look in the mirror.
Although this may be the way that we’re accustomed to speaking about our bodies, the good news is that there’s something that can help us learn a new way to speak to ourselves when we look in the mirror. It’s proven by research to reduce body dissatisfaction, body shame, and how much you compare your body to others. And moreover, it can actually increase your ability to like, accept, and respect your body, regardless of your weight, shape, and imperfections.
It’s called self-compassion.
Self-compassion involves treating yourself just like you’d treat a friend. More specifically, it asks you to validate yourself when you’re hurting, instead of minimizing or avoiding how you’re feeling. It also involves recognizing the fact that being an imperfect human is hard, but that we are all in this together. Finally, it allows you to turn towards yourself with kindness, rather than criticism, in difficult moments.
Although self-compassion is often gentle and soothing, it can also be fierce, such as when we stand up for ourselves when someone, or something, is hurting us.
Often, when I introduce the idea of self-compassion to my coaching clients, they’re resistant to the idea. Considering that we live in a world that’s working hard to make us dislike ourselves, especially our bodies, beginning to treat yourself with kindness truly is a radical act. It’s completely normal that you might feel hesitant about venturing into uncharted territory.
One of the most common fears surrounding self-compassion goes something like this—“If I stop being hard on myself, I’m going to become a couch potato.”
There’s a real concern that if we stop with the self-flagellation we’ll stop caring at all. However, research suggests that this doesn’t tend to be the case.
Self-Compassion as Motivation
In fact, motivating ourselves with self-compassion actually makes us feel more confident and capable than motivating ourselves with criticism.
Self-compassion is like strengthening the voice of an inner coach, or friend, who is encouraging, believes in you, and reminds you of what’s deeply important to you (your values or your “why”).
How would you like to look in the mirror and have this voice speak up when any critical thoughts arise?
Cultivating self-compassion takes practice, but like any skill, it’s something that can be learned over time.
Here are a few ways you can get started with self-compassion today:
- Take a self-compassion break. A self-compassion break is a quick exercise that you can do whenever you’re feeling an uncomfortable feeling. It helps you acknowledge that you’re hurting, remind you that you’re not alone, and tap into the encouraging words of your inner coach. Here’s an example of what you might say (but feel free to alter to make it more authentic for you): “I’m so sorry you’re hurting right now. It’s so hard to live in a world that encourages body criticism. Please know you’re not alone, there are so many people feeling this same way right now. Being human is hard. I want you to know that I’m here for you.”
- Write a self-compassion letter. Imagine you have a friend who is going through a tough time and criticizing her body a lot. What would you want to say to her? Can you remind her of the millions of amazing things her body does for her each day that aren’t related to her appearance? Or what’s deeply important to her and what she doesn’t want negative body thoughts to hold her back from doing? Don’t forget to remind her that she’s enough, right now, just as she is. Now, can you read that letter to yourself?
- Try a self-compassionate body scan. One of the leading researchers in the field of self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff, offers a guided version of this exercise on her website. This exercise helps you to shift the way you relate to your body. Instead of approaching your body with criticism, it encourages approaching it with a more neutral, and even affectionate stance.
- Practice fierce self-compassion by removing things from your life that make you feel worse. This could include unfollowing accounts on social media, doing a media detox, or not going to exercise classes where the focus is on weight loss or burning calories. You can also ask friends and family to not criticize their bodies around you.
- Consider seeking the support of a professional. Beginning to befriend your body can be incredibly challenging. Sometimes the first step towards self-compassion is to seek out a professional to support you on your journey. Consider searching for someone who specializes in intuitive eating and Health at Every Size, which are both principles that incorporate self-compassion and emphasize that self-worth is not dependent your body’s weight or shape.
About Melissa Parks
Melissa Parks has her PhD in Clinical and Health Psychology and works as a coach for global citizens, helping them to live authentic and fulfilling lives, wherever in the world they call home. She’s trained to teach Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) and is the co-founder of an online community for location-independent mental health professionals. After spending 10 years living abroad, she is now in her hometown of Seattle, WA. You can connect with her on www.intentionalexpat.com