In a truly delightful piece for the New York Times “Well” blog, Tara Parker-Pope outlines new research which urges, of all things, self-compassion as a road to health. We need to go easier on ourselves, she suggests, a notion that runs counter to much of the mainstream self-help literature, which tells us that discipline is the key to health and professional success. Not so, says Parker-Pope, who says that people who “score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic.” Self-compassion may even help some people lose weight.
The column opens with a simple question: “Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family?” For me, the answer was more complicated. It amounted to “sometimes, but not really,” a response that I suspect would resonate with many other people. I know that I tend to have higher expectations for myself than for others, and am more disappointed when I don’t live up to them. This is despite the fact that, as Parker-Pope points out, if I had a friend who was struggling in any arena of her life, I would do my best to support her, but also urge her to forgive herself for being human. Forgiving myself is much harder, but it may be key to health and well-being.
One fascinating study, which provides hard evidence to corroborate these “warm and fuzzy” sentiments, showed that self-esteem was connected to eating habits. Female college students were asked to take part in what they thought was a food-tasting experiment, where they were asked to eat doughnuts, but one group was given a lesson in self-compassion beforehand. “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.” Later, when the women were asked to taste candies from a bowl, the ones who had been part of the self-compassion group ate less than the women who had not been exposed to the brief lesson in forgiveness.
“Self-compassion is the missing ingredient in every diet and weight-loss plan,” said Jean Fain, the author of the new book “The Self-Compassion Diet.” “Most plans revolve around self-discipline, deprivation and neglect.”
Dr. Kristen Neff says that self-compassion is not to be confused with self-indulgence. She suggests some exercises for people who have low tolerance for their own weaknesses, like writing yourself a letter of support or listing best and worst traits and reminding yourself that nobody is perfect.
This article was, for me, a breath of fresh air. As a senior in college, I’m surrounded by constant pressure to conform to ideals of effortless perfection (you have to do everything right, but not call attention to your difficulties or challenges), it’s a relief to hear that there are concrete positive benefits associated with giving myself a break. Although I’ve always thought that we should always aspire to be kind to ourselves, it’s great to have another reminder.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.