Taste a Little Self-Compassion

A recent study shows how self-compassion reduced bingeing and eating concerns—plus a mindfulness practice to build self-compassion every day. 

Rostislav Sedlacek/Dollar Photo Club

Cultivating self-compassion may reduce binge eating and ease weight concerns. Researchers randomly assigned 41 people diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder to separate three week programs. The first consisted of food planning plus self-compassion exercises in the form of Compassion-Focused therapy (CFT). The second program offered food planning plus behavioral strategies. The the last group was merely waitlisted.

While both groups who were offered a specific program reduced bingeing and eating concerns more than those subjects in the waitlisted group, study leaders found people in the CFT group did best. Once taught the CFT exercises, they were capable of increasing their self-compassion in a short period of time. Yet the study highlighted an interesting wrinkle: Fear of self-compassion could get in the way of results, and those people who expressed less fear about self-compassion gained significantly more benefit than those who were more fearful. Researchers concluded that self-compassion is a useful tool, but its benefits may depend on assessing and reducing an individual’s fears about the practice beforehand.

Try a little self-compassion right now. Here’s a practice from Tara Healey, program director for mindfulness-based learning at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and Jonathan Roberts, an administrator and copy writer there.

Looking in the Mirror with Kindness

Our faces are windows into our most intimate feelings. Yet we’re apt to treat them as strangers, reserving for them our harshest criticism.

We’re surrounded by mirrors that show us our faces. But how often do we really take the time to look at our faces, as opposed to concentrating on ways to conceal what we consider to be their less than agreeable qualities? The onslaught of internal commentary is probably familiar to us all. “My nose is too big/too small.” “I wish I had more hair/less hair!” “Why can’t I be more like my sister?” “…my brother?” “…my daughter?” “…my friend?”

Intuitively we know the face is like a stream, constantly moving and shifting in response to conditions. We witness this flux in the faces around us, and their expressions can move us to empathy. And yet when it comes to our own faces, we throw compassion out the window.

Enter mindfulness, which helps us see how things are with an attitude of receptivity, balance, and patience. Observing with unshaded eyes how we respond to ourselves, we lay the groundwork for building a relationship with ourselves—and others—steeped in trust and acceptance, as opposed to constant dodging or denial.

1. Sit in front of a mirror, in a well-lit place. Make your face the focal point, and relax it as much as possible.

2. Bring awareness to each part of your face: forehead, eyes, cheeks, nose, lips, chin, jaw. Now include your hair and ears. Note what you see objectively, without judgment. They’re not “wrinkles,” for example, but instead, as the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas put it, places where the face has left “a trace of itself.”

3. Pay attention to internal comments of liking or disliking, as well as places in your face or elsewhere in your body where you experience tightness, clenching, or discomfort. Notice if your thoughts spin out—does resistance to the shape of your nostril expand into recalling a difficult conversation earlier in the day? Notice the emotions that cling to any of these thoughts or physical sensations.

4. Releasing areas where you are holding tension, watch the topography of your face shift and settle. What do you notice?

Extend to yourself a wish of good will and well-being. It’s like the sentiment captured in these lines from Derek Walcott:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door,
in your own mirror
and each will smile
at the other’s welcome.

5. Observe your face again. Bring the attention that a grandmother would bring to the face of a beloved grandchild.

This mindfulness practice also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Mindful magazine