The holiday season is here. We’re buying, wrapping, baking, partying, decorating, as well as keeping up with the usual stuff of life. This busyness challenges our day-to-day schedules and the time we take to exercise. Do you work out or make the appetizer you said you’d bring to tonight’s party? The workout doesn’t always win.
Slip-ups in our diet and exercise routines happen. And the secret to getting back on target with your goals is self-compassion.
Choose Compassion over Criticism
Unfortunately, many people, women in particular, berate themselves when they don’t meet their own expectations for their behavior, and that self-criticism may lead to further unhealthy choices.
Take this example: You are at a holiday gathering, and plates and plates of finger foods spread across the buffet table. You say to yourself, I’m watching my weight, I’m just going to have the carrot sticks. But then your friend bites into a luscious chocolate, caramel cookie and revels in its deliciousness. You simply can’t resist. You eat one, tasting every rich morsel as you simultaneously count the fat and calorie load. By the time you’ve cleaned the crumbs from your fingers, you feel guilty for giving in to temptation, disappointed in your lack of resolve, you feel bad about you.
And here’s what happens next: you eat another and maybe another in an attempt to assuage the bad feelings. Studies show that when people disparage themselves over a diet slip-up, they tend to turn to food for comfort. Over time, this pattern of slip-up, self-degradation, and self-soothing with food, sabotages weight management.
The healthier way to comfort yourself is with self-compassion, says Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor in the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of the book Self Compassion.
Show Yourself a Little Love
Whether you’ve over-indulged in food, under-performed in getting to Curves, or neglected some other healthy behavior, don’t judge yourself harshly. Acknowledge the slip-up, recognize that for everyone things don’t always go as planned, and forgive yourself. Self-compassion is affirming. It calms negative emotion that can drive you to continue to eat those cookies or skip your workouts. It allows you to look objectively at slip-ups so that you can keep sight of your goals and successfully manage your behavior going forward.
Preliminary studies suggest that when women dieters allow self-compassion after indulging in a “forbidden” food, like a donut or milkshake, they are able to look ahead to their weight-loss goals and reclaim control of their eating, rather than sink in negativity and stuff their perceived failure in gobbling up more goodies.
“Women are especially hard on themselves,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, chair of the Curves Science Advisory Board and author of Body for Life for Women.
“Shoot for progress not perfection,” advises Peeke. “Make it your golden rule simply to do your absolute best under the circumstances life has given you. And instead of aiming for 100 percent, aim for 80 percent; the other 20 percent is being human.”
Neff, who offers self-compassion exercises on her website, recommends the following technique to use anywhere, anytime you begin to feel disappointed in yourself. She asks you take a moment to find a physical gesture that’s personally soothing, such as placing your hands over your heart. Take a few minutes to feel it—feel the warmth of your hands and the beating of your heart.
At the same time, speak words of self-compassion, such as I don’t feel good about what just happened, but mistakes like these are a part of living. May I be kind to myself, and may I feel the compassion I need right now. Frame those words in a way that feels comforting and right for you and for the moment.
Think about how you would act with a friend who feels she has failed; then treat yourself with the same loving kindness. That kindness will carry you forward toward your goals and accomplishment.