Self compassion is an important part of binge eating disorder treatment, and even less severe cases of emotional eating.
Of course, nutrition is also important. Self-compassion won’t solve all your problems.
But self-compassion is needed in this journey of healing and recovery for one simple reason.
Binge eating can be notoriously fickle and frustrating and, despite best efforts, success can feel entirely out of one’s own efforts.
You must develop a way where you can handle the ups and downs of binge eating and other struggles that life brings to your doorstep, with grace.
Dr. Kristin Neff, associate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s department of educational psychology, offers wisdom on how we can relate to life’s tragic events with grace, dignity and compassion.
Kristin is the pioneer of Mindful Self-Compassion, a unique combination of mindfulness and healing.
A few decades ago, Kristin conducted the first empirical studies on Mindful Self-Compassion and since then the concept has found much support in academic research.
Kristin’s personal story serves as a model of Self-Compassion when her son was diagnosed with autism.
Her son’s diagnosis sparked the bestselling book and award-winning documentary The Horse Boy, which features her journey to Mongolia to find shamans to heal her son. Despite her demanding career, she found the ability to show up and help her family.
It’s Kristin’s ability to show up, which most exemplifies the benefits of mindful self-compassion.
I have my own small personal story with Kristin as well, just a little tidbit which shows that her compassion comes through even in small interactions.
Back when I was applying to graduate school, I emailed Kristin Neff because I was interested in applying to the University of Texas.
Despite never having met her, nor being accepted into the program, nor having done any relevant undergraduate research related to Mindful Self-Compassion, Dr. Neff still went back and forth with me over email and gave me direction on graduate school.
She even encouraged me to apply!
I always felt stunned that a celebrity researcher, TEDx speaker, wife and mother would have the time to dialogue with a stranger.
Ultimately Mindful Self-Compassion brings us to being able to handle the big struggles in life without getting dragged down into despair and depression.
It’s a message that ultimately we have the inner resources to provide hope and kindness to not only our loved ones, but even strangers as well, and to show up for ourselves no matter what.
Why The Self-Compassion Mindset Is Important For Eating Disorder Recovery and Treatment
In treatment for an eating disorder, or even if you are simply pursuing your individual healing and recovery from emotional eating at home …
I believe that mindful self compassion is necessary for eating disorder recovery of every type, from the less severe less of emotional eating all the way up to full flown eating disorder that requires treatment.
Why? Mindful self-compassion begins to help you heal the relationship with yourself.
It’s much more comprehensive than simply trying to think positive thoughts and hope your recovery happens.
Mindful compassion provides real, grounded tools to help treat eating disorders of all types.
At Eating Enlightenment we believe that eating can be a spiritual path.
In some ways, you can think of eating disorders as spiritual teachers, messengers that are forcing you to learn compassion for yourself.
Because being mean and critical to yourself just doesn’t work for you or a loved one!
In fact, self-criticism is one of the roots of eating disorders.
So learning to address this root is why self compassion to treat binge eating disorder is so important.
What is Self-Compassion?
Dr. Neff would say that self-compassion is just like the compassion we would have for others, but in self-compassion we are sure to include ourselves as well!
Compassion for others is a concept most people are familiar with.
In its simplest form, compassion is noticing that another person is suffering, whether it be the homeless person on the street, or your child who stubbed their pinky toe while walking outside and is now hollering in pain.
When you really feel, understand and empathize with another person’s pain, then your heart naturally responds with the desire to help alleviate that person’s pain.
Hence, the most well known definition of compassion is “to suffer with”.
Overall, compassion is a warm caring response, not a judgmental harsh response because you realize that all humans get hurt, and judgment doesn’t help.
I know an eating disorder might seem like something that only a few people suffer from. Yet the truth is different.
Many people struggle with food, and many people could be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Food is a universal struggle.
Humans have been struggling with food since the dawn of time.
It’s a human struggle.
Self-compassion is taking that same compassion for others, and directing it towards yourself.
As Kristin details in her various books, she struggled mightily with not having self-compassion after the diagnosis of her son with autism. She couldn’t stop blaming herself and she went from doctor to doctor.
She was locked into a pattern of stress and depression that seemed to endlessly repeat itself.
These struggles ultimately helped Kristin with the motivation to transform her suffering into self-compassion (and we’ll cover more how in this post).
Overall, by shifting away from self-blame, Kristin started to realize that despite her autistic son, she had a lot more to give to life. What an example!
As a simple example of self-compassion when you go through a difficulty in life, instead of ignoring your emotional pain and plowing headfirst into some other activity despite your exhaustion and fatigue, you could take a moment to feel your pain.
And instead of judging yourself for being weak or seemingly unhealthy when you feel this pain, you could realize that this suffering is not unique – other people are suffering right now just like you.
This is the practice of self-compassion.
As you relate to yourself with empathy and a kind perspective, you become more able to ask yourself “what do I need right now?” and you become more able to take care of yourself as a natural response to the pain your heart is in.
This space, where we are present with our suffering but not judgmental towards it, becomes our inner resource with practice.
It’s how we become available to others even in the toughest times, and how we can continue onwards towards vitality and life while keeping our humanity intact, even despite seemingly insurmountable challenges that are outside of our control.
The Three Elements of Self-Compassion
“To suffer with” can seem like a noble sentiment, but perhaps impractical in real life. It can be all too easy to suffer from burnout as well, as you take on the suffering of others.
However, self-compassion is entirely different than being overburdened by the suffering of others, or laying down in the face of difficulties.
To better understand self-compassion, Dr. Neff teaches three components:
- Common Humanity
I’ll cover these components down below, but just as an overview, you can think of these components like the three legs of a stool. You take away one leg and the stool falls down. But if you have all three components, you can handle a lot of pressure that gets put on you by life.
Self-kindness can be a revolutionary stance for many people.
I know that for me, my tendencies are to be hard on myself when I make mistakes. I believe this tendency is deeply ingrained in the Western consciousness, exemplified by slogans like “Just Do It” or “No Pain, No Gain”.
In many ways, self-kindness is the opposite of harsh self-judgment.
When faced with failure or difficulty, instead of berating yourself with a judgment or having the infamous ‘inner critic’, self-kindness asks you to speak kindly, warmly and gently to yourself.
Instead of pushing through pain or criticizing yourself, you can practice saying instead ”Wow, this is really difficult right now.
I’m really struggling, and you know what, that’s ok that I’m struggling”.
Or try this out, “I’m not supposed to be perfect. I don’t have to be perfect. It’s ok to make mistakes.”
For many people, whenever we make mistakes, we typically say the opposite of these things. Our inner critic goes off on a hurricane of negativity: “You worthless piece of ..” or “You always fail like this …”.
The same thing happens in binge eating struggles, where it’s common for women (and men) to somehow think that they failed, that they themselves are personally responsible.
Hence the reason why self compassion to treat binge eating disorder and other struggles is so necessary.
In contrast, Instead of being overwhelmed with guilt, self-kindness asks you to lighten up a little bit and to give yourself some credit.
You’re trying after all, despite setbacks, and that deserves recognition.
This practice can seem light, even trivial, but it’s not. Too often we beat the crap out of ourselves to no avail.
Our inner critic drains of us creativity, hope and healing.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Changing this is hard. Self-kindness is not something for wimps. It takes strength to practice self-kindness.
Of course, catching negative thoughts and being kinder to yourself is a practice.
And this can be a difficult practice, especially if an individual is setting their standards too high for themselves.
But, nobody ever said self-compassion to treat binge eating disorder was easy!
But when the times get tough, compassion, not criticism, is the key mindset to have.
That’s why the second component of Self-Compassion is …
It’s easy to get down on yourself.
However, negativity and stress unfortunately fuel each other in a negative cycle.
More negativity leads to more stress, and more stress leads to a further restriction of perspective.
This in turn leads the individual to focus more on their problems and think of themselves as more of a victim, which in turn creates a perception of more stress.
How do you get out of this cycle? Practicing self-kindness is a great way, and another way is taking the perspective of Common Humanity.
Common Humanity is very simple, it’s just recognizing the fact that humans suffer.
That, as some Buddhists would like to point out, life itself is filled with suffering; we are born, we get sick, we grow old, and we die. All of us. No one is spared a life free of suffering.
Some suffer less, others suffer more, but life is painful.
With respect to binge eating, it’s really important to understand that binge eating struggles are found throughout the world, throughout time, throughout different cultures.
This is why self compassion to treat binge eating disorder and other eating disorders can be so useful.
There is a universality to binge eating struggles.
If you think about this in terms of Common Humanity, the meaning is simple – you are not alone in your suffering. Other people are suffering alongside you.
This simple truth is meant to help people shift out of the trap of their limited perspective.
Often what happens is people are focused on themselves, their problems, and their pain.
As we discussed above, this painful self-focus can lead to a restriction of perspective and more pain.
But, a useful antidote when paired with self-kindness is taking the perspective of a Common Humanity.
The shift in realizing that other people are suffering too can help open the doors to empathy, away from a self-centered focus on pain.
This shift to empathy then can lead to more self-kindness.
Self-kindness and Common Humanity can act within a virtuous cycle.
Self-kindness leads to less stress, with a corresponding increase in one’s perspective; and this cycles back because a greater perspective leads to empathy and then self-kindness.
For example, you are gentle with yourself. Gentleness helps your body relax.
On the other hand, self-critical thoughts make your body tense up. With a tighter body you feel more stressed out.
Like all the components of Self-Compassion, the duo of Self-Kindness and Common Humanity work interchangeably together.
Here’s an example: “My struggles really suck. Like really suck. But damn, a lot of other women are going through this as well. My struggles aren’t just about me. They happen to everyone.”
Can you feel the shift?
The problems are still there, but there’s a different relationship to the problems.
Mindfulness is the next step, the third of the three components.
Being mindful means is a balanced perspective where we neither ignore the pain, nor over identify with the pain.
It involves feeling the pain, whether emotional or physical, and learning to breathe and relax the body to be able to feel without restriction.
Mindfulness provides an energetic grounding to Self-Compassion. With mindfulness we notice the energy and sensations in our body.
Pain, for example, can be a sensation or energetic experience in the body.
With mindfulness we learn to stay with the pain, not for too long or in a masochistic way, but simply acknowledging the pain. Taking a breath or two with the pain, and noticing any sort of physical tension that arises in our body.
For example, you may have just received some devastating news, and if you are mindful, you can notice how your body reacts to the news.
You may cry.
You may feel greater tension in your body as your heart aches. And mindfulness simply asks you to breathe with these sensations, to relax for a moment and to notice how you’re feeling.
Overall, there’s a lot to be said about mindfulness. If you want to learn more about this ancient practice, check out my Mindfulness 101 article here.
How Mindfulness, Self-Kindness, and Common Humanity Work Together
The three components of Self Compassion go together seamlessly.
- Mindfulness helps the body relax, which can help open up someone’s perception for more empathy and foster a more open, friendlier voice to themselves.
- Self-Kindness is infinitely better than self-criticism, which only leads to more tightness and less empathy. By speaking kindly to and about oneself, one has a chance to shift perspective and be more open, and one also has a better chance to relax their muscles and stay present.
- Empathy can help shift a locked perspective to be more empathetic and can also help the body to relax and the mind to stay present.
Overall, Self-Compassion helps people unlock their sense of love by using the keys of empathy, mindfulness and kindness.
This in turn means that self compassion to treat binge eating disorder and other eating disorders can be very wise.
These three components work together and help a person get unstuck, especially when a person is faced with circumstances that are outside of their control and not their fault, e.g., binge eating.
I’d encourage you to learn more about Self-Compassion at Kristin Neff’s website, Self-Compassion.org.
There are a variety of resources available there, like self compassion practices, audio recordings and a bunch of scientific articles which demonstrate how practical and effective learning Self-Compassion can be for difficult times.