Embracing compassion over perfection

Ah, summertime: long, hot days and breezy dresses, afternoons in the pool and evenings on the patio with the barbecue.

Unfortunately, summer is also accompanied by a slew of magazine headlines about how to “get beach body ready,” as if people needed to be reminded of the flaws they see in themselves. For many women, body satisfaction is already a real struggle. These “beach body” articles exacerbate women’s tendency towards self-criticism by perpetuating the mindset that you have to be perfect to enjoy life—that your dreams will come true only when you are skinny enough, pretty enough, and perfect enough. Of course, none of us will reach perfection in this world, but some mainstream women’s magazines continue to encourage us to try.

But recent studies have shed light on a link between body dissatisfaction and a general tendency to be overly critical of yourself. A 2019 study concluded that a lack of compassion for the self was “positively associated with body image shame,” and that the results suggest that healing can come from addressing self-criticism and cultivating “compassionate abilities and attitudes.”

Additionally, other studies have shown that participating in exercises that encourage self-compassion can help ameliorate body image issues. In a 2016 study of 80 college students, researchers found that participation in just one self-compassionate exercise “holds promise for improving aspects of self-compassion and [body image disorder].”

Self-compassion is the opposite of self-criticism. Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at UT Austin, says that self-compassion prioritizes self-kindness over judgment, humanity over isolation, and mindfulness over obsession. She defines self-compassion as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with criticism.” Everyone makes mistakes and experiences suffering; because “experiencing life difficulties is inevitable,” the self-compassionate response is “to be gentle” with yourself. You can’t expect perfection of yourself, because that would be expecting yourself to be something other than human.

So, instead of the killer workout or juice cleanse, try adding a self-compassionate exercise to your beach prep, because cultivating compassion for yourself produces longer-lasting results. There are many self-compassion exercises that you can work into your routine. Here are just a few exercises—some of which Dr. Neff suggests:

01. Curb your critical self-talk.

When you criticize yourself, examine the words and tone of voice you use. Write them down and work on “softening” them so that they are less blunt or cruel. For example, maybe you feel bad about yourself because you’ve just spent an unplanned 30 minutes watching cat videos on YouTube instead of preparing for the next workday. Rather than thinking, “I’m so lazy. I never get anything done,” try looking at it from a kinder, more helpful and solution-based standpoint. Perhaps you could revise that thought: “I’m feeling burnt-out again after a long day with clients and wanted to wind down, but all those cat videos just made me feel bad and unproductive. I should develop an evening routine so that I can get everything done and spend some time doing yoga to relax.” When it comes to negative self-talk, relationship coach Lisa M. Hayes reminds us: “Be careful how you are talking to yourself because you are listening.”

02. Write a letter to yourself as if you were a good friend.

In this exercise, Dr. Neff suggests that you write down how you would respond to a friend who was in the same situation and feeling bad about herself.

It’s true that you are often your own worst critic. Sometimes, it’s easier to show compassion for someone else than for yourself, and especially so if that other person is a friend. Compassion for others and compassion for the self are not linked. In her studies, researcher Angélica López found that, compared across demographics, women rated themselves higher in compassion for others than men did. From her study, Lopez suggested that compassion for others “evolved more for social well-being. . . [and] could help sustain healthy relationships.” On the other hand, compassion for the self “has a greater impact on personal well-being. . . [and helps] us feel better as individuals.” This is why talking to yourself as if you were a friend is so effective: it helps you harness your compassion for others and redirect some of it towards yourself.

03. Facilitate a conversation between the conflicting parts of yourself.

Dr. Neff suggests a sort of role-playing exercise that you can use to analyze how you feel about something and how you speak to yourself from an objective standpoint. To do the exercise, you stand or sit in three different places. Think about your body while you are sitting “in the chair of the self-critic,” Dr. Neff says. What do you say to yourself when you criticize yourself? Say these words out loud and take note of what words and tone of voice you use, how you hold your body, and what emotions you feel.

Next, move into the chair of the criticized part of yourself and “get in touch with how you feel being criticized in this manner.” Talk back to the critical part of yourself; explain out loud how you feel when your critical self says cruel things. Finally, Neff instructs, move to the seat of the “compassionate observer” and “call upon your deepest wisdom.” What would your compassionate self say to the critical part of yourself? Maybe the reproaches are actually opinions that your critical self is echoing from an external source. Or perhaps you can see that your critical self makes good points about self-improvement, but does so using discouraging, harsh language. Then, think about what your compassionate self would say to the criticized part of yourself. Can your compassionate self understand how the criticized self feels cornered and beaten down?

When you have finished role-playing each part, Neff says, reflect on “any new insights into how you treat yourself, where your patterns come from,” or “new ways of thinking about the situation that are more productive and supportive.”

04. Foster a growth mindset.

A growth mindset focuses on change, and specifically on what actions we can take to affect change. Remember that life is not a zero-sum game: someone else’s beauty or success does not compromise your own. Adopting a growth mindset means looking at differences as opportunities to appreciate others, and looking at challenges not as “insuperable obstacles” but as “chances to grow.” Coach Birgit Ohlin writes for the Positive Psychology Program suggesting that people “embrace rather than avoid challenges” and “persist in finding meaning in them.”

So next time you see someone who looks different from you or leads a different life from yours, don’t compare yourself to her. Rather than feeling jealous of that person or critical of yourself, follow Ohlin’s advice and “try to find inspiration in their successes and strengths instead of feeling threatened.”

05. Write down or meditate on what you’re thankful for.

There is a lot of literature online about the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal: check it out here, here, and here. Gratitude can help you feel more self-compassionate, too. Try writing down characteristics about yourself that you are thankful for. Think about all the things you do to keep yourself going, and about everything your body does for you, too. Maybe you are thankful that you are punctual or that you consistently make yourself healthy snacks to bring to work. Perhaps you look down at your painted nails and feel thankful for your creativity and dexterous fingers.

Incorporate these exercises into your day as the weather warms, and the
studies show that you will feel more accepting of your body, and also of
yourself as a whole. And what better way to get a beach body than to
discover the one you already have?