If you think you need to channel your inner drill sergeant to eat your vegetables and get to the gym, think again. Research shows that a healthy dose of self-compassion helps form habits that support good health.
In the past decade, numerous studies have revealed that being kind to yourself is important for mental and emotional health and well-being. Newer research also indicates it plays a role in physical health.
According to researcher Kristin Neff, author of “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” there are three elements to self-compassion:
• Mindfulness, which is being aware of negative thoughts, feelings and experiences without judging them or dwelling on them.
• Common humanity, or recognizing that we are all imperfect and that we all suffer.
• Self-kindness, which is showing yourself care and understanding when you experience those all-too-human imperfections.
The opposite of self-compassion is emotional reactivity, isolation, self-judgment and unhealthy perfectionism, all of which have been linked to depression, stress and reduced quality of life.
A 2017 study published in Health Psychology Open found that people who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better: They have less of a physical stress response when they are stuck in traffic, have an argument with their spouse or fail to get that job offer.
They also spend less time reactivating stressful events by dwelling on them. That’s important, because chronic stress can directly harm our health — including spikes in blood pressure and blood sugar, along with suppression of the immune system. And by reacting strongly to stress, we’re more likely to use unhealthy short-term coping mechanisms such as smoking or numbing your feelings with food or alcohol.
The study also found that self-compassionate people are more likely to adopt health-promoting behaviors and maintain them, even if they don’t appear to be paying off in the short term. This may be especially important in the face of a health-related setback such as an injury or illness because self-compassion takes the edge off negative emotions — fear, frustration, disappointment — that might arise.
Another plus it that when you make changes out of self-compassion, those changes are more sustainable than ones you make because you feel unacceptable the way you are. You’re also more likely to make daily choices that support long-term well-being, rather than indulging in short-term impulses. That may mean going for a walk instead of crashing on the couch, or putting down your fork when you’re satisfied, not stuffed.
To cultivate self-compassion, start practicing mindfulness. Practice observing your thoughts. Are they compassionate or critical? Be curious and nonjudgmental.
Remind yourself — often — that to err is human. And show yourself kindness in ways that nurture mind, body and spirit. Take time to go for a walk, do some yoga or prepare a nutritious meal. Incorporate activities that bring you joy, such as reading a novel, puttering in the garden or listening to your favorite music. Strengthen connections with people important to you.
Think love, not tough love.