Extending Kindness Toward Yourself in Eating Disorder Recovery

If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.

~ Jack Kornfield

It’s hard to talk about self-compassion. Especially when in the midst of an eating disorder or on the recovery path, there are so many self-critical thoughts that pop up. The idea of self-compassion can just feel foreign, hard, and unattainable.

It can evoke many different feelings in us. At first, we usually think something like, “Oh, self-compassion! That’s a great idea and I would love to have more of that for myself!”

Then before you know it, those self-critical thoughts have started and all of a sudden, we find ourselves going from interest in the idea to deep cynicism. We question whether we could ever jump in with both feet and really embark on a journey of self-compassion.

Some of those critical thoughts might be things like:

  • Am I being selfish?
  • Do I even deserve this? I have so much shame…
  • Will self-compassion make me weak?
  • What if I lose my discipline? My edge?
  • What will happen to my motivation to be better?
  • Can’t you be too compassionate toward yourself?
  • Will self-compassion make me… fat??

Does any of this sound familiar?

We typically find ourselves willing to offer kindness to others, but skeptical of offering this same kindness toward ourselves. Why?

Perhaps it is because we are afraid it won’t produce the results we want. We might even be afraid it will bring the exact opposite of what we have been using the eating disorder as a vehicle to pursue.

It is important to know these are common concerns and fears about self-compassion when you are working on recovery from an eating disorder.

When someone first comes into treatment the idea of self-compassion can be quite scary! The eating disorder has served a purpose, perhaps even been a life-line, yet the shadow side of it comes with shame, self-criticism, and hopelessness.

A core part of seeking help for an eating disorder is engaging in the work of addressing this self-criticism and shame.

How do you do this?

Well, we know the antidote to shame is self-compassion.

And this work is not easy work! It takes courage. Our strongly held beliefs need to be challenged – particularly around automatic thoughts are regarding self-compassion.

So, in the spirit of opening our hearts to the idea of extending kindness towards ourselves, let’s explore two common myths and truths about self-compassion.

Kristen Neff, a researcher who has been studying self-compassion, talks about several different myths and truths in her work. She has found that some of the common held beliefs about self-compassion are indeed, actually myths.

Let’s take a look at some of these and see how they relate to the process of recovering from an eating disorder.

Myth # 1: Self-Compassion Stops You from Achieving, or Makes You Complacent

One of the big fears about self-compassion is that it will derail our motivation and drive to be a better person or better at something specific we want to achieve. We worry that if we are too kind to ourselves, we will become too agreeable, submissive, or just downright weak.

We are so used to motivating ourselves with self-criticism and shame it seems foreign to think that a self-compassionate approach could actually motivate us. We think taking an attitude of self-compassion toward our shortcomings will keep us stuck there, resigned to our flaws. We imagine we will live a stagnant existence, just wallowing in our own mediocrity.

Truth # 1: Self-Compassion is More Motivating than Self-Criticism

Take a minute to stop and think about it. How does self-criticism really motivate you? Would it truly be possible for anyone to stay motivated under constant self-criticism, berating, and shame? This might work momentarily, sure. But on a long-term basis, it simply cannot be sustained as motivation toward growth, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The reality is self-criticism makes us feel anxious and sad, depressed even. What it may motivate us towards is a path of self-destruction, rather than healing and hope. Self-criticism makes us feel small and unworthy. This form of “motivation” is actually quite effective at keeping us stuck in a mindset that maintains eating disorder behaviors and thoughts in our lives.

Self-compassion on the other hand, is about an attitude of kindness toward our failures or short-comings – not necessarily blind acceptance of them. This is an important part of self-compassion to understand. It is not about saying everything is ok as it is.

A self-compassionate mindset will probably shift your values of what you want to achieve, perhaps the goals become less about the eating disorder or weight loss, or perfection and more about you as a whole person, with all of your parts integrated.

But it is important to remember self-compassion is not de-motivating. Although it is sure to open your eyes to a new perspective about what is important and how you deserve to be treated.

Kristen Neff’s Self-Compassion research tells us that self-compassionate people do set high standards for themselves, but the difference is if they fail to reach a goal, they do not become berating and judgmental toward themselves. Instead, they acknowledge what went well and what mistakes were made and then set a new goal, with thriving and growth in mind. Self-compassion helps us become resilient in the face of challenges and failures in life, motivating us to keep going or try a new way.

This is such a needed skill in recovery. We set goals and meet some of them, and others we don’t. This recovery journey is a twisting, winding path and for those of you on it, I am quite certain you could use some of the resiliency and kindness that comes from an attitude of self-compassion to continue motivating yourself toward healing and a life full of meaning.

Myth # 2: Self-Compassion Makes You Selfish

We worry self-compassion is becoming self-indulgent. A common myth about self-compassion is that it is about letting ourselves off the hook and making decisions that benefit us, without concern for others – because it is the “compassionate” thing to do (for ourselves, for me, me, me!). We think about how others have it worse than we do, or think if we are so focused on self-compassionate living we won’t take action for others, or admit to our mistakes. We might even have been socialized or raised to think that our own happiness must come last and to pursue anything other than that means we are acting selfishly.

Often times, part of the struggling with an eating disorder has meant denial or restriction of things from our lives. This could take the form of food, but might also show up in denial of big emotions, of activities we love to do, of a hobby, a gift, or talent, or of deep connection with other human beings.

Truth # 2: Self-Compassion Energizes You to Care for Others (and Yourself)

When we are able to connect to the part of us that desires happiness or peace for ourselves, we can more deeply work to bring happiness or a sense of peacefulness to the life of another person.

When we express kindness toward our own short-comings, it can open up the potential for real vulnerability with another person. This vulnerability can lead to connecting on a deeper level and breaking the isolation that is part of maintaining an eating disorder.

Challenging the idea self-compassion makes you selfish means trying on a new way of being – like accepting your worthiness. You are worthy of this gift of kindness toward yourself.

We are more able to take responsibility for our actions and mistakes when we have an attitude of loving compassion toward ourselves – we know we are human, that it made sense that we behaved a certain way and that we can set a new goal for ourselves – a new way of being.

With a new way of being toward ourselves, we are likely to find a new openness to both give and receive love and care to and from others as well.

This quote from the Buddha can give us some perspective here as we challenge the myth that self-compassion makes us selfish:

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.

– The Buddha

This is a good time for a reminder on what self-compassion really is all about.

It is a sensitivity toward our own suffering with a commitment to alleviate it.

Sometimes our suffering is a result of choice, habits, or behaviors we are engaged in that truly do need to change. This is certainly true when you are seeking treatment for an eating disorder. There are some things that need to change and some values that need to be questioned or be replaced by something else.

The goal with self-compassion is not simply complacent acceptance, rather honestly looking at what is causing us suffering and taking actionable steps to improve our quality of life and overall happiness. This pursuit of a rich quality of life is not a selfish endeavor, rather connects us more deeply to the things that are meaningful and beautiful in life. Perhaps this is nature or animals.

One of our deepest hopes for you is that this also includes connection with other human beings that can help support and love you on your recovery journey.

For more on myths and self-compassion research, check out Kristen Neff’s book “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself”.