Losing weight is extremely difficult because high-calorie, tasty foods are easily accessible. Despite our best intentions, it’s normal to overeat. These setbacks can be frustrating and depressing, prompting people to abandon their aspirations. A new study from Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences’ Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Sciences (WELL Center) explores how practicing self-compassion — or the care and kindness people usually treat their loved ones with themselves — can reduce this excess. Helps people become more resilient to eating disorders.
Recently published in Appetite, researchers found that when study participants responded more self-compassionately to their bereavement, they reported better mood and self-control over their eating and exercise behaviors in the hours following the bereavement. The results suggest that self-compassion helps people engage in healthy weight loss behaviors by helping them become less depressed by setbacks.
“Many worry that self-compassion will lead to complacency and lead them to settle for inadequacies, but this study is a great example of how self-compassion can help people be more successful in meeting their goals,” said Charlotte Hagerman, PhD, a. College Assistant Research Professor and lead author. “The road to achieving difficult goals—especially weight loss—is paved with obstacles. Practicing self-compassion helps people deal with self-defeating thoughts and feelings in response to setbacks so that they are less debilitated by them. Instead, they can do more, faster. Start pursuing their goals.”
Hagerman and colleagues collected data from a group of 140 participants trying to lose weight through a group-based lifestyle change program. Participants responded to surveys on their smartphones multiple times a day about whether they had experienced dietary errors – eating more than they intended, eating foods they didn’t want, or at times they didn’t want – and how much they were responding to those errors with self-compassion. The researchers also asked participants about their mood and how well they had been able to exercise self-control over their eating and exercise behaviors since they last responded to the survey.
Hagerman notes that weight loss and maintenance is extremely difficult, and people usually blame themselves for a lack of willpower.
“In reality, we live in a food environment that sets everyone up to fail. Practicing self-compassion rather than self-criticism is a key strategy for building resilience during the difficult process of weight loss,” says Hagerman. “The next time you feel the urge to criticize yourself for your eating behavior, try talking to yourself with the kindness you would talk to a friend or loved one instead.”
For example, instead of a person saying to themselves, “You have no willpower,” reframe it as a kind — and true — statement: “You’re doing the best you can in a world that makes it very difficult to lose weight.” Hagerman adds that It’s not letting yourself “off the hook” but giving yourself the grace to move forward in a very challenging process.
The research team hopes that this will lead to more effective interventions that teach people how to practice self-compassion in moments when they experience disasters such as overeating or weight gain. They hope to study the best techniques for teaching people how to practice true self-compassion, reduce self-blame and criticism, as well as hold themselves accountable to their personal values and goals.
“It can be easy for the message of self-compassion to get muddled, as people practice total self-forgiveness and dismiss the goals they set for themselves,” Hagerman said. “But we’ve shown that self-compassion and accountability can work together.”