Home » How to recover without your inner critic
The fundamental concept of self-compassion could be described as treating ourselves the way we would treat a loved one. When a friend is having a difficult day, we would support them with kindness, empathy and reassurance. So why do we find it so hard to treat ourselves in the same way?
Almost everyone experiencing disordered eating or an eating disorder would be very familiar with self-criticism and its effect on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Sometimes the purpose of self-criticism is to motivate ourselves to be better or to punish ourselves for our mistakes. In eating disorders, this takes the form of both harmful thoughts and harmful behaviours.
What if we took a different approach? What if instead of treating ourselves with resentment and judgement, we used the principles of self-compassion to better meet our own needs?
This may feel like a completely foreign concept to you – in fact, self-loathing is more likely the familiar frame of mind. But there are hundreds (if not thousands) of studies purporting the effects of self-compassion in various areas of life, including sports, culture, sexual orientation, trauma and, of course, eating disorders. If you’re as into reading research papers as we are, you can find a tonne about self-compassion here.
There are three key elements of self-compassion:
When we talk about what self-compassion is, it’s also important to talk about what self-compassion is not – because it is easily confused with other concepts! For example, self-compassion is not:
Firstly, to state the obvious, eating disorder thoughts are highly critical and shame-driven. Internally responding to those thoughts with a kinder dialogue from your healthy, compassionate self is one way of offering yourself compassion while also turning the volume down on your ED voice. You can learn more about how to do that here. As a brief overview, this is typically in line with how you would respond to a friend or a small child who was speaking about themselves in the same critical way that you speak to yourself.
Secondly, eating disorders are isolating, and they thrive on loneliness and secrecy. The principles of self-compassion, however, encourage you to connect with yourself and with others to acknowledge that you are not alone in your suffering.
You might find support in a team of health professionals who specialise in eating disorders, or even a support group of people experiencing similar challenges to you. Beat UK run a number of online support groups to help you feel less isolated, which you can find information about here.
Thirdly, a significant component of self-compassion is reconnection with your self – both your physical self and internal self.
Being aware of your physical body and treating it with gentle kindness shifts your perspective from external to internal. Consider your body with curiosity. You might like to approach this through embodiment practices, which involve noticing what is happening within your body without judgement. This includes practices like body scans, mindfulness and breathing techniques. This can help to take the focus off what your body looks like at any given moment and redirect your attention to what it feels like. It can also allow you to experience your body in a neutral way for what might be the first time in a long time.
Self-compassion is not just good for our mental health! A recent meta-analysis found that people with greater self-compassion are more likely to have better overall health, improved immune function, better sleep quality, greater physical fitness, fewer stress hormones and better cardiovascular health.1 This is thought to be due to individuals with high levels of self-compassion being more likely to engage in more health-promoting behaviours such as engaging in physical activity and eating a varied and nutritious diet.2
In terms of our psychological wellbeing, practices of meditation and mindfulness are key strategies for increasing self-compassion in relation to disordered thoughts and beliefs.
Additionally, a comparative review of 28 studies consistently found that greater self-compassion was linked to fewer disordered eating behaviours and improved body image.4
To develop your self-compassion practice further, you might like to explore this webpage full of resources, meditations and exercises relating to self-compassion.
We would love to support you on your journey towards recovery. Reach out to us at [email protected] to find out how we can guide you towards a life of food freedom.
Karli Battaglia, APD
EHL Team x
Embody Health London champions food freedom, positive body image, mental health and emotional wellbeing through a uniquely blended scientific and holistic approach. The EHL team specialises in treating chronic dieting and eating disorders by coaching clients to build confidence and reduce anxiety around their eating habits and food choices.
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