Friday, March 4, 2011

Be Nice to Yourself

Quite a while ago, I wrote a blog post that made a lot of people angry. In this post, I described a number of different bloggers that I had come across in the weight loss community and in so doing, I ruffled a lot of feathers. A few bloggers wrote in to say how hurt they were by my description of the loathing and self-hate-talk they poured upon themselves.

My intention was definitely not to make these people feel worse. I was shocked and saddened by how bad they felt about themselves and how much they seemed to blame and hate themselves for a situation (being overweight) that they saw as being entirely of the own making.

Personally, I have never found that blaming and shaming makes any difference to our behaviour and in fact, adopting an attitude of self-hatred actually makes the whole situation (whatever it may be) actually worse.

Well, this article, which appeared in the New York Times appears to support my view. "Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges" talks about the idea of "self compassion"--treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would treat others. What's really shocking, according to this article is that

People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.

The problem is that people believe that it is only by berating themselves that they will stay in line and behave in ways they feel they need to to "improve" themselves. Our culture rewards meanness. Certainly, in the dieting world, nastiness, hectoring and badgering are the hallmark of weight loss shows, in particular "The Biggest Loser" in the US and "X-Weighted" and "Village on a Diet" here in Canada.

As the article points out, one of the reasons why many people hate themselves so much is because we tend to confuse self-compassion with self-indulgence and lower standards. In other words, if I don't constantly tell myself what a spineless, lazy idiot I am, that's precisely what I'll become.

The NYT article refers to a new book on self-compassion by Dr. Christine Neff, which will be coming out in April. I don't know Dr. Neff and I don't know whether I'll buy her book or not, but I did look over the self-compassion scale that her website links to and frankly, I was not surprised at how badly I score.

I am right up there with the best of the self-haters, it's just that my own particular version of self-hate does not focus on my weight. I have done too much reading on how complicated weight loss is to blame myself for not succeeding in something that is almost impossible to attain. I know that "eat less, exercise more" is one of the most facile pieces of pseudo-information you can give anyone and that overeating--if that is your problem--is first and foremost a problem tied to self-image and other psychological issues rather than a problem that is simply solved by putting down your fork.

The one weakness in the NYT article is how it insidiously comes back to weight loss: if you love yourself more, and beat yourself up will lose weight! All roads must lead to weight loss it would seem. This is a shame. Once again, I find it necessary to stress that I believe in striving for physical health--through eating a variety of foods (including foods that just make you feel nice, like chocolate, yum) in reasonable portions, honouring both your fullness and your hunger and helping your body to feel happier and healthier through movement. And I believe in psychological health, through (amongst other things) self-compassion.

There are many factors beyond our control that are not only physical (like heredity and genetics) but also societal in nature. When you have to work two jobs to make ends meet, it's hard to find time to go for a nice walk. When you can't make a decent living, it's hard to serve yourself and your family good, nourishing food. I don't want to minimize these factors, by any means. However, I do think that self-hate (and conversely, a lack of self-compassion) is at the top of the list of psychologically (and ultimately physically) damaging things we do to ourselves.


  1. Good post - ha! I keep an old Melody Beattie book around "Stop Being Mean to Yourself", strictly bcz I LOVE the title!
    Can't say that I've had much success in applying these principles; I tend to talk to myself like an old muleskinner...

  2. It is difficult if not impossible for people to treat themselves with empathy or compassion when they feel like things, or objects, which need to be manipulated and controlled. This is the internalized tyranny I have mentioned previously. Even the idea that we should use calories as units of value, like money, to be "spent" or "saved" is unbelieveably mechanistic and dehumanizing. The idea that we should force our bodies to fit into a wholly socially constructed category of appropriateness (BMI) is symbolic of the human tragedy that is now our sad species.

    Thanks for yet another provocative and thoughtful essay!