The Power of Self-Compassion to Heal Pandemic Eating

During this time of quarantine and lockdown from the coronavirus, people with emotional eating problems have found themselves increasingly overeating, bingeing, and dieting. It makes sense: we are more bored, depressed, anxious, and less active. Cultivating self-compassion may be the single most important ingredient to get your eating back on track.

If you binged last night should you still be compassionate to yourself this morning? Or if you didn’t work out yesterday like you promised to do should you still have self-compassion? Shouldn’t you punish yourself for your bad behavior with harsh talk so you learn your lesson once and for all? After all, isn’t being kind and forgiving just a way of letting yourself off the hook?

People assume that getting angry at themselves is a good motivator for self-improvement. They think, “If I really crack the whip and show myself I mean business by calling myself ‘fat and ugly,’ then maybe I’ll become so remorseful, I’ll just stop bingeing.” Unfortunately, yelling and criticizing yourself always backfires. It may even make you want to run to the comforting embrace of food in order to feel better!

When we are self-compassionate we speak to ourselves like a kind and loving parent speaks to a child — with tenderness, understanding, curiosity, and encouragement. We establish a state of grace with ourselves by turning away from self-punishment and turning towards self-acceptance.

Self-compassion is not about letting yourself off the hook, but rather about providing a quiet and gentle space to reflect and plan how to improve your bingeing, purging, chronic dieting, or body image dissatisfaction. It is about coming to a calm place in your heart where you accept that you do not have to achieve perfection but simply want to commit to making progress one step at a time.

Critical self-talk may jolt people to take a beginning action (“I hate my thighs. I don’t deserve to eat cookies ever again!”) But when they cannot keep up their latest drastic self-improvement plan or the severe self-talk, then either rebellion or resignation sets in, and then people throw in the towel on their eating project.

What does self-compassion look like “in action”? Here are two examples from my clients before the pandemic, but clearly applicable for today:

Pamela began bingeing furiously after the birth of her daughter, who had significant health problems. Her anxiety and fear about her child coupled with guilt for her baby’s problems led her to compulsively overeat with a vengeance. As she gradually came to terms with the sacrifices needed to raise her child and felt more organized with a plan of action, I pointed out that she would never treat her baby with the anger she treated herself.

Pamela came to the conclusion, “Yes, my stomach and I could be better friends. I really have beaten up my poor stomach with all my worried bingeing. How can I find a way to soothe myself without hurting myself? Help me find a better way.” Her more compassionate attitude to her plight allowed us an opportunity to strategize how she might comfort and care for herself without the abuse of food.

Amanda had been bulimic for over twenty years when she first came to therapy. She described a typical day: after work, she would drive to a grocery store, buy a cake, and gorge on it while driving home. Once home, she would make herself throw up. Then feeling utterly disgusted with herself, she would drive out again, buy some more cake, and throw up again.

“I must totally change my behavior right now,” Amanda declared with ferocity and self-hate. Given that she had been bulimic for so many years, I doubted that she could curtail her bingeing and purging overnight.

I suggested an alternative: She should buy her cake as usual, drive to a quiet block and park, and then calmly savor the cake, rather than wolfing it down while driving. I added, “Before tearing into the cake, give it a kiss and thank it for helping you cope with whatever anxiety you are feeling at that time. Then relish it slowly, try to stop eating when you’re full, and let it stay inside your tummy.”

“That sounds really weird,” Amanda said. But the following week she reported several peaceful rendezvous with the cake. Self-loathing and yelling at herself had not helped motivate her to stop gorging and purging. A shift in attitude made a difference. My suggestion enabled her to realize that devouring the cake was her way of comforting and taking care of herself. It did not mean she was a bad person. She developed more self-compassion and self-acceptance — and with that came hope.

Slowly and gently, Amanda became more motivated to make increasingly supportive changes and began to progress in ending her bulimia. One step at a time. One day at a time.

The author and philosopher, Tara Brach, believes that feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.

Quotes that can help us stimulate self-compassion:

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller

“Dreams without goals are just dreams. And they ultimately fuel disappointment. I try to give myself a goal every day.” – Denzel Washington

“Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” – Golda Meir

“Compassion is the strongest human therapeutic agent in existence. Its potential for constructive growth and human creative possibility is almost limitless.” – Dr. Theodore Rubin.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing imperfectly.”

Even Facebook has become more compassionate! The emoji of “I feel fat” with its fat cheeks and double chin was removed from the site in 2015 following a petition of 17,000 signatures against this fat-shaming symbol.

I recommend to all my clients: “Cultivate the language of curiosity not criticism and learn to practice self-reflection not self-attack.”

Each day we should take a moment to declare our heartfelt and genuine promise to be gentle with ourselves and to reach out for support when we need it.

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