Offer yourself empathy. This is a very important step in self-care. I started to say it’s one of the top three lessons I’ve learned in the past couple of years of self-care. Really, it’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my whole life.
Before the start of 2006, before I began offering myself empathy, my goals around self-care—most profoundly with weight loss—had to do with that supposedly magic word: willpower. I believed that if I just worked hard enough to whip myself into shape, I could make myself do anything and stick with it long-term. If only I had enough self-discipline, I could do it. When I failed at something, it meant that it was a failure of my willpower. It wasn’t that my timing was bad or that the decision wasn’t the best one for me or that my life stressors were too great to make good decisions at the moment. Instead, it meant that I had a major character flaw that I needed to correct. I would get so upset with myself at times that I’d end up in tears or with a racing heart from my inner self-flagellation. Inevitably deflated as my willpower for a given diet flagged (how long can a person struggle against herself, after all?), I fought the guilt and upset with myself by rebelling against the diet. (If I’m going to mess up, better do it in style.) The guilt returned; my enthusiasm for the diet was gone. I ate unhealthy, temporary feel-good fixes, and my weight rose again. I was miserable with myself for losing a bit of weight and then regaining it yet again.
I did have a character flaw preventing my weight loss, as it turned out, but it didn’t have to do with willpower. Quite the opposite: it had to do with me being too hard on myself. Miniature failings equaled character flaw equaled an angry interior voice: “What’s wrong with you that you can never succeed at this?”
Then I read an article about weight loss by the marvelous Martha Beck in O Magazine, and it changed things for me. In the brief article, Martha described “becoming the watcher,” a term (originally from Buddhist thought, I believe) that means looking at yourself objectively in order to see yourself objectively and then give yourself the emotional support that you need. When you feel panicked, exhausted, angry, whatever, instead of trying to force yourself to feel something different or chastising yourself for how you’re feeling, you offer yourself the same heartfelt emotion that you would offer a friend, “I’m so sorry that you’re ____, my body. That is a difficult and frustrating way to feel.” . . . The first few times I did it, I felt loony, talking to myself like that. But you know what? It worked.
It works, I should say—I do it to this day. After a while, I discovered it works even better if I continue the talk with my body by listening to what my body is trying to tell me underneath the lashing-out emotion or intense (often seemingly irrational) desire. After a while of forcing myself to take a deep breath and an empathetic approach when I felt off-kilter, the gentle conversation with myself mostly became second nature to me. Instead of, “What the hell is wrong with me? Why can’t I just do right?!” I began offering myself compassion. Feeling cranky and don’t know why? “I’m so sorry that you’re feeling out of sorts, my body. That’s no fun at all. What needs to change in my life in this moment to ease that feeling?” Have a craving for a food even though I know I’m not hungry? “I’m so sorry you’re confused about what you want, body. You’re really tired, I see, and it makes you think that you want to eat chocolate, when what you really want is a good nap. I want you to know that I’m going to take a nap as soon as I get home from work today so that you start to feel more balanced.”
When I work with myself instead of fighting myself, my mind calms down. When I pay attention to myself, my systems stop screaming for attention because it recognizes I will usually choose to answer the more subtle messages it’s giving me. Over time, I’m more and more able to ascertain what it is my body, spirit, and mind need from me to make my life more fulfilling.
I think there’s a tendency, among those of us who normally beat ourselves up, to think (in our worst moments) that we don’t actually deserve to feel any better than we feel when we feel bad. That is, of course, ludicrous—we have just as much right to recognize our needs and feelings, and to seek true satisfaction of those needs and feelings, as anyone else does. Take the person you love the most in this whole world—your child, your spouse, your best friend, your parent. The goal is to treat yourself with as much kindness as you would offer that person. And if you can’t think of anyone you normally treat with empathy because you’re someone who has been stuck in an unhappy mode of constant, harsh judgment of others and yourself, changing your inner voice to a more empathetic one can be the first step in broadening your boundaries enough to give yourself and others the breathing room to be imperfect . . . and grow.
It’s not just about weight loss, though self-empathy helps with weight loss. It’s about finding fulfillment in life by honoring your needs. That starts with gentle listening.
“Taking the Weight Off . . . Again” by Martha Beck (the article that got me started in offering myself empathy)
Martha Beck’s blog (If you haven’t been reading Martha Beck’s writing, it’s entirely possible that you really should be. I started reading her in O Magazine at the ripe old age of 14, and she’s been a writer who’s had one of the largest impacts on my life.)
“The Use of Mindfulness in the Treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” by Jeffery Schwartz: This is the study that Martha Beck references in her article. I found the study fascinating and gratifying; reading about it encouraged me to take becoming the watcher seriously.
Previous Posts in the Year of Self-Care
Intro to the Year of Self-Care
Step One: Embrace Gradual Change
Mid-Point Support for Step One
Step Two: Commit to Weekly Grocery Planning
Mid-Point Support for Step Two
Step Three: Eat Breakfast Every Morning