Want to Make a Change? First be Kind to Yourself

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Would you ever talk to your loved ones the way you talk to yourself in your head? Are you someone who uses adjectives like “lazy,” “pathetic” or “stupid” to describe yourself even though you would never describe others that way?

If so, you are not alone. There is a whole new area of psychological research called self compassion which focuses on how kindly people view themselves. The research shows that many people are very kind and supportive of others yet endlessly berate themselves.

The interesting part from a health point of view is that people who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.

I have talked to many patients about the fact that self compassion is a very important first step in behavior change. The response I most often get is: “But if I don’t yell at myself, then I will never change anything”. The belief is that if you don’t whip yourself into shape, then you will stay on the couch forever.

The truth is that self compassion is not the same as self indulgence. If you care about yourself and view yourself kindly, you will most likely choose to treat yourself in a more healthful way.

This approach is backed up by a 2007 study at Wake Forest University. 84 female college students were asked to take part in what they thought was a food-tasting experiment. At the beginning of the study, the women were asked to eat donuts.

One group was instructed to be compassionate with themselves in relation to the food. “I hope you won’t be hard on yourself,” the instructor said. “Everyone in the study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel real bad about it.”

The researchers found that women who were regular dieters or had guilt feelings about forbidden foods ate less after hearing the instructor’s reassurance. Those not given the message of reassurance ate more.

The hypothesis is that the women who felt bad about the donuts ate more as a result of emotional eating. The women who gave themselves permission to enjoy the sweets did not overeat.

Think about how you might respond to a friend who is struggling with his exercise plan. Would you yell at him, tell him he has no self-discipline and that you won’t like him until he starts exercising? If you did that, do you think he would be more motivated to make positive changes?

So why do we think that approach will work well for ourselves? We are more motivated to make changes when we accept our strengths and weaknesses and are kind to ourselves.

Many of us have longstanding habits of being mean to ourselves. We need to actively develop more self compassion. It can be helpful to start by writing down the negative things we tell ourselves. It can be eye opening to just start to notice what those things are and how often we are saying them.

The next step may be to build self compassion into our regular routines. Can you stop for a moment and rub your neck or your shoulders? Can you take an extra ten minutes to make the food on your lunch plate look attractive? Can you tell yourself some of the kind things you say to your friends?

Kindness truly can move mountains. You may notice that you feel more relaxed and that you even have more energy for the changes you want to make. Here’s to self compassion – give it a try and see what you think.


Adams, CE; Leary, MR. (2007) Promoting Self-Compassionate Attitudes Toward Eating Among Restrictive and Guilty Eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Sociology. 26(10):1120-1144.

Parker-Pope, T. (2011, Feb). Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges. New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2011 from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/go-easy-on-yourself-a-new-wave-of-research-urges/