You have a big presentation to give for work. You have prepared well but are a little anxious about how it will go. You picked out an outfit to wear and feel pretty good after all you’ve been working out and eating well, you’re trying. The morning of your presentation you get to the conference room early. There’s the usual unhealthy work meeting fare: the bagel platter, the Danishes and of course the plate of cookies (your favorite). You remind yourself you’re “being good” and take a cup of already burnt tasting coffee and review your notes. The presentation is well received and you’re relieved. As you leave the room you grab 2 chocolate chip cookies, you deserve a treat, right? You eat the cookies on your way back to the office. Once in your office mental scolding begins “how could I have just had those? I really blew it. Why can’t I avoid the sweets?” Pretty soon someone sticks their head in and tells you there’s pizza that was ordered. You’re in a bad mood; the day is ruined and you polish off 3 pieces of pizza.
The above scenario isn’t about anyone in particular but I hear a version of this from clients almost daily. What went on here? The person just described associated getting through something difficult with a reward. In itself that isn't the problem. However, she wasn’t able to eat the cookies guilt free. She berated herself which didn’t make her snap out of it; instead it perpetuated the poor eating.
The New York Times Well Blog recently ran a piece describing a burgeoning area of research called self-compassion. The woman above would probably have a poor self-compassion score, as many of us do. Yet there is reason to improve self-compassion as “preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.” I know exactly how the nutrition session would go following my imaginary client’s cookie, pizza and god-knows-what-else eating. She would come into the office and the first thing out of her mouth would be something to the effect of “I really screwed up, I’m so annoyed because I was doing so well and then I just lost it. I just can’t manage to put a week together without something coming up.” I would then say “OK, now tell me what you would say if a friend was complaining to you about their eating.” Most of us know how to comfort another person, we have compassion just not for ourselves.
One of the tools I use with Foodtrainers clients is Treat Training. Clients practice treating themselves using four criteria 1) treats should be planed 2) treats should be portioned (two cookies not 10). 3) Treats should consumed guilt free and 4) next meal or snack on track. These steps help turn something guilt-ridden into something enjoyable. The Times article described a study conducted on female college students. Students thought they were doing taste tests. Two groups were given doughnuts. One group was told not to be hard on themselves that everyone in the study eats this stuff. Later women were asked to taste candies. The women not given the self-compassion message ate more.
So when you hear yourself using your critical voice try to frame things more positively. I have clients list their victories or behaviors they feel good about each day. Perhaps you ate a good breakfast or made it to the gym or avoided the cookies but dwell on these things versus the others…and if you don’t I’ll kill you!
Do you have self-compassion? What strategies to you use to be more kind to yourself? What are your victories today?