When I was really immersed in my weight struggles, my weight going up and down over and over again, the same thoughts kept echoing repeatedly in the back of my mind:
Ug, you’re such a mess. Why do you keep doing this?
What the hell is wrong with you?
You’re so gross! So fat! So stupid!
I look disgusting!
I really didn’t think anything about these thoughts at the time. I thought this was a “normal” way to talk to oneself and since the thoughts were automatic, I accepted them as being correct. As being the truth. I was rotten to myself. I was judgy and cruel but I thought that was par for the course and I had no choice in the matter.
But something I have learned along the way is that we have a choice in what thoughts become a part of our regular repertoire. We have a choice in how much energy and attention we give to each thought, even if we can’t control when and how they pop up. We can decide if we’re just going to let them pop up and pass through or if we’re going to grab onto it and make it mean something about us. I had grabbed on to these thoughts so frequently that they had become ingrained. I didn’t know that I had a choice in whether to indulge them or not – I indulged them because I believed them to be true.
Letting so many negative thoughts about myself fester eventually led to having zero compassion for myself. Or maybe it was the otherway around? I had no compassion for myself because of the actions I was taking so negative thoughts had an easy time settling in. Either way, I saw everything I did around food or my weight as my “fault”, evidence of being “fucked up” and the reason why I didn’t have the things I wanted in life. I started to believe that I was gross, that I was fat, that I was stupid and all these things meant I deserved the unhappiness that I found myself in.
Believing all that kept me in the exact place I wanted to get out of. If I believed that I was gross, believed that I was stupid and that there was so much wrong with me, I would continue to do what I had been doing to begin with. There was no incentive, motivation or reason to stop doing it – because these were clearly major character flaws that were “who I was”. I didn’t see any sense in changing because I was only going to end up in the exact same place again. So the cycle continued. . .diet, binge, diet, binge etc.
To get out of this “mess”, we really have to stop looking so harshly at our external circumstances (weight, food) and move our focus to the internal ones (thoughts, feelings, patterns). Obviously the food we put in our mouths has a major effect on our weight, our mood, our energy and what we eat can even cause us to eat more than we need but, it’s the stuff that goes on inside that gets us into the sticky place with the external stuff. I thought that I was a “gross fatty” because I had a voracious appetite but really my struggles were related to me not having any compassion for myself. I had no sympathy for my situation – I got myself there because I couldn’t keep my hand out of my mouth, right? It’s hard to care about someone’s well being when you don’t have any sympathy for them – when we think they “deserve” their plight.
One of the things you will hear me say over and over if we work together is that we have to cultivate self-love (and acceptance). You cannot keep weight off permanently and you cannot avoid bingeing if you do not love yourself. I know that sounds cheesy as hell. But it’s essential. If I don’t value myself, if I don’t love me with any and all real or perceived flaws, as I am today, then why would I take good care of myself? Why would I choose to treat my body with love with nutritious food? Why would I only eat as much as I need and no more? If I don’t care about me, if I don’t think I’m worthy or deserving of anything I want, then I may as well “treat” myself with too much food that is terrible for me – because it’s the only thing I seem to be able to give myself. Also, I deserve the suffering that comes after eating it because I’m a lazy pig. (Sound familiar??)
It feels way easier to “give” yourself a binge for comfort after a rough day than it is to give yourself compassion and love unconditionally. But really, giving yourself more compassion actually is easier – but it does take some time and effort. It’s not as instantaneous as that binge, but the results are certainly better. When you feel love and have compassion for yourself, when you aren’t judging yourself so harshly day after day, you’ll really find that food feels less like a battle.
Is compassion 100% going to fix your struggles? No, of course not, you also need to feel those feelings, be mindful while eating and all the other stuff we’ve talked about here. But all of those things will have more purpose and feel more linear if you are building them on a foundation of love and understanding of yourself!
How can we have more compassion for ourselves if we’re stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk / negative self-thoughts?
Here are some beginner steps to generating more compassion for yourself:
1. Notice what thoughts pop up for you regularly. No judgement – just, what sort of things do you find yourself thinking about your body? about who you are? about your abilities and worthiness?
2. Notice what you tend to do with those thoughts when you have them. Do you give them your full attention? Do you let them pass by without much attention? (probably not!) Do you repeat thinking them over and over again as punishment?
3. Don’t look for evidence. If you collect the negative thoughts and find yourself focusing on them, indulging them, analyzing them or looking for additional evidence that they are “true”, try thinking (or saying) this instead: “I’m not going to give my attention to that thought right now”. You can acknowledge the thought but you don’t have to let it build by giving it additional attention beyond that. Think of it like this: you can’t control someone you don’t like from attending the same party as you, but you can be in charge in how much you interact with them. You even have the right to leave the party!
4. Try a neutral thought in place of the negative thought. You’re not going to be able to jump from “I’m disgusting.” to “I am the most amazing person in the world” in a day and actually believe it. So why not start with something you already believe? When you have a negative thought about your body or about yourself, swap it out with something totally innocuous. A thought of “I’m stupid” could simply turn into “I have a brain”. You may not be able to say “I’m smart” yet but I’m pretty sure that there a 3lb object in your head and you can’t deny that. “My body is so fat.” could be “I have a body.” While these statements sound kind of silly, they are at least without a doubt true so you can’t doubt them. Think of this as a stepping stone from negativity to compassion and love.
5. Evaluate your compassion for others. One of the things I’ve noted about myself (and have had clients repeat to me) is that when I’m really struggling with self-compassion because of my actions with food, I also tend to be less compassionate towards others. It’s probably risky to admit this publicly, but when I’m deep in my own “shit” I am really judgemental. I have seen someone who is really overweight and had negative thoughts about them – or made assumptions about their habits, their life. I’ve seen other women and compared myself to them – wondering if I’m prettier than her? And then patting myself on the back when I find something in her appearance that I feel confident is less appealing than something about me. It feels terrible to admit that I’ve had those thoughts. But this tearing down and lack of compassion for other people goes away when I’m feeling loving towards me (and I know that is who I really am at my core). If you don’t have compassion for yourself, it’s going to appear in how you see other people too. And it’s really not about them – your judgement is really about how you feel about YOU!
Are you hyper critical of the appearance of others? Do you take pride in seeing faults or weaknesses in other people? Do you look for the worst in others?
6. Put yourself in their shoes and try being more compassionate to the very people you feel judgement towards. If you relate to the judgemental stuff I talk about in #5, then the next step for you is to put yourself in the shoes of those who you are having difficulty feeling compassion towards or people who you feel really judgemental towards. Do the opposite of judging them. Be curious and think about how you can empathize with them. And show them your compassion when you can.
What if you looked at these people with love?
The really heavy woman in the grocery store. What might her day be like? What sort of suffering might she deal with on a daily basis because of her weight? How would you feel if you were her?
The family member who keeps screwing up their life and coming to you for help. What might it feel like to be them? To know that every time they reach out that they are probably being judged for their life choices? What painful thing has happened in their life that has contributed to them making the choices they keep making?
The pretty girl at the coffee shop who has a scowl on her face. Maybe she’s not a stuck up bitch like you’re thinking – maybe something terrible has happened to her today. Or maybe she just has resting bitch face. Or maybe she might be shy and scowls so that she invites less unwanted attention. If you were her for a minute, what would she want you to know about her? How has her life not been perfect? How has she struggled? What is painful for her?
Anyone you feel “judgy” towards. The guy who cut you off in traffic. The homeless person on the subway. The waitress who didn’t ask you how your meal was. Your boss. Anyone. Why might they be the way they are? What good things can you see in them? In what way might your judgement about them be completely wrong and off base? If you were them, what would you want other’s to know about you? What sort of pain and suffering might they be dealing with? What is their presence or situation triggering in you?
7. Catch yourself. Be an observer of your thoughts so that you can practice all of this. What I mean by that, is now that you are aware of what thoughts you are having, what you do with them, how you collect evidence, how our lack of compassion for others is really a lack of compassion for ourselves, how to turn a negative thought into a neutral one and how to generate compassion for yourself by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, your job is to continue being aware when your negative self talk pops up, not indulge the negative thoughts, make them neutral if necessary and check yourself when you start judging someone else. As with everything I write about – it’s all about putting things into practice.
One of the ways we can have more compassion for ourselves is by having more compassion for others. When we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see why they might be the way they are, how they got in whatever situation they might be in, we realize that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns just because it might look that way on the outside. When you do this regularly, it will change you. You will genuinely start to judge other people less and you will have more love and compassion for them because you can understand that their life might be different than you think. We never know what someone else has gone through – the prettiest girl in the world has had bad shit happen to her too – we all deserve some understanding and compassion. Practice putting yourself in the shoes of people who feel judgy towards and it will be easier for you to have compassion for yourself.
One final tip: If I’m having a hard time finding a soft spot for someone (myself included), I try to think of what I would feel if they were a child. It’s really hard to feel judgy towards someone who is only beginning their life and isn’t yet responsible for all their life choices. View people as the child they were – can you feel more gentle towards them?
Compassion for you, compassion for them – it’s all connected. Whether you see it or not. The urge to pick apart, the compulsion to criticise and compare – it all comes from a place of “lack” inside us. If you don’t feel that you are lacking or undeserving or unworthy, you won’t need to tear others down. And since it’s far easier to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes (a benefit to stepping outside of ourselves) – that’s where we start to generate compassion for ourselves.
Feel love more often for everyone in your life and you will be able to feel it more for yourself. Do that and food will be less charged for you.
If you looked at yourself with compassion (like we do to others in step #6), what would you want judgy you to know about you?
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