Diet Recovery: 3 Ways Self-Compassion Helps

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

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If you ask me, self-compassion is integral to the recovery process, whether you have a diagnosed eating disorder or not; that’s why it’s included in my signature service. 

I know you might be thinking…

Do I really need to learn self-compassion if I want to stop dieting?

Will applying self-compassion practices actually help me to feel better about my body and more confident about my food choices?

Aren’t there more interesting books to read or cool shows to catch than a book on self-compassion? (Just me?)

I understand the resistance to learning self-compassion. Perhaps you too? It sounds cheesy, maybe a bit lame. When the book was recommended by my therapist some time ago, I looked flatly at my library copy before consenting to give it a go. Most unexpectedly, I got so. much. from. it. Never judge a book by its cover…or its title.

In a culture that encourages us to push our limits to the edge in every conceivable way (lest we be “lazy”, an ableist construct), being kind to ourselves may feel awkward and unfamiliar. If I forgive myself and take the pressure off, won’t I just hang around doing nothing all day? Will I accomplish anything? Will I slack off at work and lose interest in being promoted to Senior Manager? Will I ever move out on my own?

I liken self-compassion to intuitive eating. Intuitive eating shows you how to make peace with all foods. Although newly minted intuitive eaters fear they will live off pizza and ice cream for the rest of their days, they’re often surprised to discover a spectrum of “craving lives” within them. Yes, we crave cheeseburgers, potato chips, and chocolate, but it’s also possible to crave so-called “healthy” foods such as cauliflower, grapes, and salads. Hot tip: the latter most easily occurs when you create unconditional permission to eat everything rather than resisting your favourite foods only to force-feed yourself carrot sticks. 

Like intuitive eating, self-compassion — in my experience — allows for unconditional permission to be who you really are, to fully accept all parts of yourself, and to find worth outside of extrinsic achievement. It also creates space for nurturing community vs. competition.

Using the 3 principles of self-compassion, I’m exploring how self-compassion supports recovery from diet culture:

Encouraging Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment

Leaving diet culture can bring up all kinds of feelings. Gaining weight in our thin-obsessed world can feel like failing. When our clothes no longer fit the same way, we may feel shame and guilt about our habits, behaviours, and ultimately ourselves. Intuitive eating can feel like learning a new language, and the journey is riddled with challenges and new discoveries as we learn the rhythms (or lack thereof) of our bodies. We may eat past fullness. We may feel as though we have an insatiable sweet or sweet tooth. In the absence of clear direction, we may lack confidence around food or feel as though we’re free falling.

Dr. Kristin Neff, esteemed self-compassion researcher, notes that “self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.” Self-compassion can encourage flexibility and diverse emotions and feelings where previously there was only rigidity.

Using self-compassion, you may accept that intuitive eating is fundamentally challenging and that you will make mistakes along the way as you learn to integrate the modality. Of course you will; it’s all new! By being warm and understanding, rather than berating yourself for not getting it “right” from the beginning, you may experience, as Neff indicates, “greater emotional equanimity.” How much more likely are you to stick with intuitive eating (or stop dieting) if you approach yourself with understanding and kindness than with judgment?

Common Humanity vs. Isolation

In my practice, I often talk about how isolating diet culture can be — and how competitive. How can you ever feel like you’re enough when you believe your body is a project to be maintained according to external values rather than cared for as determined by your internal wisdom?

Diet culture hurts all of us. We’re either shamed for the way our bodies look (particularly if we’re not straight-sized), or experience the ramifications of internalized fatphobia. Rather than appreciating the diverse beautiful bodies around us, we body check and compare, evaluating whether we “measure up.”  When things aren’t as we would like or expect — for example, our bodies don’t look the way we’d like them to, or we don’t feel as though we crave the “right” foods as other people seem to — it’s easy to become frustrated. It can feel as though we’re the only ones making “mistakes” — that what we’re doing it all wrong and by extension, something is wrong with us. 

What’s wrong with me that I can’t stay on a diet? Why can’t I crave only “healthy” foods? Why can’t I stop overeating or bingeing at night?

The reality? Very few people (if any) can stay on a diet or maintain a level of restriction over the long-term. Diets aren’t just failing you; 95% of diets fail (as in, weight is re-gained, usually with added weight, within 2-5 years.) If diets fail most people, can we create space for the possibility that maybe we’re not meant to stay on diets? Maybe our bodies aren’t designed for physiological or psychological restriction?

While diets can traumatize (yes), and making the decision to stop dieting can bring up all kinds of painful feelings, perhaps it will help you to know that you’re not alone in this. People have had the very same experiences as you. People have been hurt and shamed for their size and shape. People have struggled with the same feelings you’re now struggling with. You are not alone.

I often think of this principle. Embracing the non-diet approach requires daily practice and commitment. It can feel isolating when it seems as though everyone around you is on a diet, talking about weight loss, or engaging in diet thoughts. Thinking about the greater body positive community, all of the reasons I stopped dieting, and my core values deepens my commitment and keeps me focused on self-care vs. self-control.

Mindfulness vs. Over-identification

As Neff says, “self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective.” Can we observe our negative thoughts and emotions without trying to suppress or deny them?

When events don’t go as planned or we start to feel out of control or uncertain in our lives, food and body become default targets for control — particularly if you have an eating disorder or dieting history. Diets aren’t so much about health (or even weight) as much as they are about coping with stress and anxiety. If our objective is to move away from controlling food and body, and working toward creating food and body trust, it can be helpful if not essential to name our feeling and honour them without judging them (or ourselves).

Your turn: If you practice self-compassion, how has it helped you to improve your relationship with food and body? Leave the answer in the comments!



Further Reading:

  1. The Neuroscience of Compassion by Avriel ReShel

  2. The True Nature of Compassion by Dr. James Doty

  3. One Passage from ‘Shrill’ by Lindy West Memoir Transformed my Approach to Body Acceptance by Sadie Trombetta

  4. Weight Gain in Intuitive Eating: 4 Strategies to Cope by Vincci Tsui, RD

  5. Self-Compassion vs. Self-Criticism by Annina Schmid Counselling

how to have self-compassion

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  1. […] green smoothies, or “working on our gut health” — helps us to feel superior. Except dieting requires restriction by its very definition — either physiological or psychological — and […]

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