This blog topic comes from a discussion with a client who was often highly critical about her body and overeating and who feared that if she showed herself “compassion” for making mistakes with food and “accepted” her weight, she wouldn’t try to change. Perhaps you too fall back on a sharp tongue lashing or a swift kick in the butt for motivation, rather than non-judgmentally exploring your behavior and figuring out how to do better next time. This client decided, instead, to show herself mercy, a term filled with benevolence, self-love, kindness and forgiveness.

Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary has to say about acceptance and compassion. To accept is, “To receive gladly; take willingly; To receive as adequate or satisfactory.” Compassion is, “The deep feeling of sharing the suffering of another in the inclination to give aid or support, or to show mercy.” Do these sound like synonyms to you? Not to my ears, they don’t. In fact, they sound like two entirely different concepts.

Accept means being happy with. It’s okay to be dissatisfied with your disregulated eating or with being at an unhealthy weight. It’s useful to be a bit uncomfortable with behavior you want to change: If you don’t experience enough discomfort, you won’t change the behavior. So “acceptance” is really not the right word to use about behavior or weight. Compassion, however, is something you want to feel towards yourself 24/7--acknowledging and validating your own suffering, showing understanding, cutting yourself slack. Better yet, I love the term mercy which means coming from a place in your heart that is kind, open and caring. Mercy is the opposite of judgment. When you show yourself mercy, you don’t beat yourself up, call yourself names, or punish yourself for misdeeds, but deeply acknowledge the tottering frailty of your humanity.

For those of you stuck on fearing that compassion will make you believe everything about you is fine and dandy, it’s time to shift your thinking in a big way. What words can you use that express compassion and mercy? What is best not to tell yourself because it is judgmental and punishing? Work on feeling compassion without saying that everything is as it should be when it’s not. This is the whole idea behind compassion and mercy: You don’t need them when things are going swimmingly, but they’re a must when things go wrong. That’s when it’s a challenge to feel kindly toward yourself, but also essential. What a wonderful gift to give yourself when you’re in trouble—precisely what you need to help yourself get out of it.