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Why Is Self-compassion So Hard for Dysregulated Eaters?

In my early years working with dysregulated eaters, I was surprised to discover what a  difficult time they have with self-compassion. It seems like an odd trait for people to struggle with—being nice, kind, and forgiving of themselves. Over the decades, however, I’ve learned a great deal about what kind of thinking prevents people from extending compassion to themselves. If this is an issue for you, read on.

Part of the problem is a total misunderstanding of what the term means. So, one more time, according to Kristen Neff in her book Self-compassion, compassion means meeting suffering with kindness. That definition implies that self-compassion means meeting one’s own suffering with kindness. If I ask clients to offer compassion to others, they usually comprehend the concept because dysregulated eaters are generally very nice to others. If friends make a mistake, they reach out to assuage their guilt or shame. If a spouse or partner hurts them, they go overboard making excuses for bad behavior. But, ask them to offer themselves charity or mercy, and it’s a whole ‘nother ballgame.

Here’s why. One misunderstanding they have is that compassion means letting yourself off the hook. That is not what it means. You can remain responsible and accountable for what you do and still feel self-compassion. You just stop disliking yourself for your transgressions. You recognize that you didn’t intend to polish off an entire bag of chocolate cookies but couldn’t help yourself. If you could have, you would have. You’re not bad because of what you did, and you’ll try to do better. You’re human!

Another misunderstanding is that you must dislike yourself for your behavior. Wrong. You can abhor a behavior but keep on loving yourself in spite of engaging in it. For example, you can be unhappy about hitting a fast food restaurant on your way home from work but not feel disgusted with yourself. You can be disappointed at what you did, but not angry at who you are because you are far more than this one act of indulgence, even if you’ve engaged in it repeatedly. Though you stopped at the drive-through, you also graciously filled in last minute for a co-worker, patiently helped your kids with their homework, and found time to call your mother on her birthday. The goal is to separate behavior from identity.

Ironically, when we make a boo-boo, we need more, not less, compassion. Without self-compassion, you won’t become a “normal” eater. In fact, your eating disorder may keep sticking around to teach you this crucial life skill and likely, when you learn and practice it regularly, your eating will suddenly become a good deal more manageable.



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