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Do Better at Your Diet: Self-Compassion

by Dr. Frederick Navarro
Home/Blog/Protect Your Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

It’s rare to find someone who has no trouble sticking to a diet. If you do a quick search on “failing at a diet”, you’ll find tons of links like, “5 Reasons Why Most Diets Fail in 7 Days,” “10 Reasons Why Most Diets Fail,” “Top 4 Reasons Diets Fail,” “The Number 1 Reason People FAIL to Lose Weight”. There are lots of ways to fail at a diet; no diet is immune to producing failure.

This is certainly true of the Paleo Diet.  It’s not hard to find articles about people failing at the Paleo Diet. Like many diets, there’s a common theme to blame: You. One Paleo article listed things like, “You Don’t Eat Enough,” “You’re Not Planning,” “You’re Expecting Miracles Too Fast” [1]. Another one article talked about personal failings like “Noncommitment” and “Extremism” [2]. A third focused on the inability to “make the necessary shift in mind set…” [3]. In fact, a person who gave up on the Paleo diet was told she “…simply didn’t stick with it for long enough’”[4].

Much of my past work has focused on understanding how people are different in terms of how they respond to health.  My research has shown that most people’s responses to health conform to a pattern [5].  In fact, most people tend to conform to one of a number of patterns. These patterns are a big part of the way we are; they shape those aspects of health that work of us, and those that don’t.

To me this means that when diets fail, it’s not the person’s fault: it’s the diet’s fault. There is an old wise saying: The stiffest tree is readiest for the axe.  Diets eventually get the axe if they are inflexible, demand strict adherence, and are unable to adapt to the individual.  People give them up.  Strict diets are up against a much larger and stronger reality: our natural inescapable differences.  A “good” diet has to have two qualities: 1) improve your health, and 2) fit with the way you do things.

This gets me to the point of my article: self-compassion.

Self-compassion is defined by several factors: “(a) being kind and understanding toward oneself in times of pain or failure, (b) perceiving one’s own suffering as part of a larger human experience, and (c) holding painful feelings and thoughts in mindful awareness” [6].

Self-Compassion Research

Table of Contents

Self-compassion has positive associations to measures of happiness, optimism, positive feelings, wisdom, initiative, curiosity, exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness [7].  Self-compassion can lessen people’s reactions to negative events in ways that are distinct from and, in some cases, more beneficial than self-esteem. In a comparison of people focused on self-compassion versus self esteem those focusing on self-compassion reported greater motivation to succeed at a task, spent more time studying after failure, showed better ability to focus on improvement versus personal weakness, and greater motivation to improve a the weakness [8].

Studies of self-compassion have shown that it can reduce emotional arousal and cognitive reactions to negative life events; it can protect a person from negative self-feelings when thinking about negative social events; it protects against negative emotions particularly among those with poor self esteem, and it allows people to admit their role in contributing to negative outcomes without being weighed down with emotions of guilt [9]. Those who practice self-compassion show more psychological resilience; they are better able to recover quickly and bounce back when faced with failure and negative feedback [10].

Self-Compassion Can Help You Stick to Your Diet

A study of college-aged women looked at self-compassion relative to two aspects of strict controlled eating: 1) the desire and effort to avoid eating unhealthy foods, and 2) eating guilt after eating unhealthy foods.  Half the women were asked to focus on thinking self–compassionately about their eating and the other half were not. Later comparison of the two groups of women found that those asked to focus on self–compassion showed reduced distress, less self-guilt, and reduced unhealthy eating.  The women who focused on self-compassion had better success with the strict diet, which  shows the benefits of self–compassionate eating attitudes [11].

If you find you are failing or have failed at a diet, don’t listen to the diet devotees who want you to focus on your failings. Guilt is not a diet motivator. Instead, show yourself compassion.  I do, and it has helped me a lot. In fact, it has helped me get past failure and gain success many times. When you fail, realize that we all do and focus on self-compassion instead.

  1. Why can’t I Stick with Paleo? http://paleoleap.com/cant-stick-paleo/
  2. Why People Fail On A Paleo Diet http://paleoleap.com/why-people-fail-paleo-diet/
  3. Why Paleo Fails http://undergroundwellness.com/why-paleo-fails/
  4. Abramson, W. (2013, April 23). Why Paleo didn’t work for me. Retrieved fromhttp://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-8988/why-paleo-didnt-work-for-me.html
  5. Navarro, F. (2014). Pattern of Health. Quantum Publishing (http://patternofhealth.com)
  6. Barnard, L. K., & Curry, J. F. (2011). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, & interventions. Review of General Psychology, 15(4), 289.
  7. Neff, K. D., Rude, S. S., & Kirkpatrick, K. L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(4), 908-916.
  8. Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143.
  9. Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: the implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 887.
  10. Neff, K. D., & McGehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity, 9(3), 225-240.
  11. Adams, C. E., & Leary, M. R. (2007). Promoting self-compassionate attitudes toward eating among restrictive and guilty eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(10), 1120-1144.
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