4 Ways to Use Self-Compassion to Combat a Negative Self-Image

Think of self-compassion as a skill that requires practice.
Image Credit: Ponomariova_Maria/iStock/GettyImages

At one time or another, most of us have looked in the mirror and felt unhappy with what we see. Maybe it's the size, shape or weight of your body that's bugging you.

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Unfortunately, feeling dissatisfied with one's physical appearance is all too common. In fact, almost 80 percent of Americans reported feeling unhappy with how their body looks sometimes, according to a 2018 Ipsos poll. And that sense of dissatisfaction was felt most strongly when people glanced in the mirror.

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Similarly, a 2014 Gallup poll found that nearly half of Americans felt concerned about their weight "all" or "some of the time."

So why is worry about weight so prevalent? While there are many factors involved, one component — weight bias — plays a prominent role in our preoccupation with how our bodies appear.

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Not only does our society promote cultural ideals of thinness, but it also blames people for their weight, says Rebecca Puhl, PhD, senior research scientist and deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. Essentially, if you don't fit into society's standards for body size, the implication is that you're lazy or you lack willpower.

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To make matters worse, these harmful messages of weight bias seep into our psyche, and we internalize them, making us loathe what we see in the mirror.

While internalized weight bias often happens on an unconscious level, we can still take action to combat its detrimental effects on self-esteem and body image. Here, Puhl shares self-compassion strategies to offset internalized weight stigma.

How to Practice Self-Compassion to Combat Weight Bias

In the face of unfair societal judgment and systemic weight bias, you must learn to protect, promote and nurture your mental health and emotional state. And the best way to do that is by being kind to yourself. That is, refraining from harsh self-criticism and practicing self-compassion, Puhl says.

"Self-compassion involves care, kindness and respect for yourself and your body, and being kind and patient toward yourself when you're suffering or feeling emotional pain," she explains.

Of course, it's not always easy to muster up compassion for yourself when you've been programmed to believe you're ​less than​.

"Practicing self-compassion can feel challenging for people who are particularly self-critical when it comes to their body size or weight, so it's helpful to think of self-compassion as a skill that takes practice each day," Puhl says.

Having some go-to positive self-statements and healthy coping strategies can help. The next time you balk at your body in the mirror, try these body-affirming statements:

1. Remember: You’re Not Responsible for Others’ Beliefs

"Rather than blaming yourself for others' stigmatizing or judgmental comments about your weight or size, remind yourself that you are not responsible for others' behavior or attitudes," Puhl says.

For example, you might tell yourself:

  • "Their comments say much more about their character than about me."

  • "This is not about me, and it is not my fault."

  • "I can't control what others say to me, but I can control how I respond."

2. Reflect on What You Like About Yourself

"Rather than punishing yourself, show some self-kindness by reflecting on what you like and appreciate about your body," Puhl says.

For example, you might say:

  • "I appreciate that my body has allowed me to bear children."
  • "I'm grateful for my arms that allow me to hug my loved ones."
  • "I love all that my body does for me."

3. Nix the Negative Self-Talk in Real Time

"Try to catch yourself before you start down the path of self-blame," Puhl says. "Before your negative thought finishes, stop it in its tracks."

For example, you might tell yourself:

  • "Continuing to think this way is destructive and unhelpful."
  • "I love myself enough not to put myself down."
  • "Today I will be a friend to my body."

4. Treat Yourself Like a Friend

"Imagine that your best friend was internalizing weight bias and feeling shame or engaging in self-blame: What would you say to them?" Puhl says. "Write these statements down and use them for yourself."

It can be easier to generate these ideas when you think about how you would support a friend in this situation, she adds. That's because many of us are more capable of showing kindness toward loved ones than to ourselves.

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