Quit Being So Hard On Yourself

It's not exactly shocking, but it's comforting all the same: being a little easier on yourself could help ease depression. And there's an interesting (though also unsurprising) corollary: harsh self-judgment probably doesn't help people lose weight.

On the Times Well blog, Tara Parker-Pope profiles Kristin Neff, a leader in the relatively new field of self-compassion, or "how kindly people view themselves." Writes Parker-Pope, "people who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising." Neff has developed a scale for gauging self-compassion, measuring patients' agreement or disagreement with statements like, "I try to be understanding and patient towards those aspects of my personality I don't like" and "When I'm going through a very hard time, I give myself the caring and tenderness I need." For those who score low on the scale, she recommends therapies like, "Listing your best and worst traits, reminding yourself that nobody is perfect and thinking of steps you might take to help you feel better about yourself."

None of this sounds revolutionary — after all, telling people not to be so harsh on themselves is part of many therapists' MO. But Neff points out that many people "believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be." And it's true that, especially where weight is concerned, we're always being cautioned against "letting ourselves go." But that may be exactly the wrong advice. Parker-Pope mentions a 2007 study that found that women actually ate less when primed for self-compassion with the statement, "I hope you won't be hard on yourself. Everyone in the study eats this stuff, so I don't think there's any reason to feel real bad about it."

This is a pretty strong rebuttal to those who argue that overweight people need to be shamed into dropping pounds. And Neff's work in general is a good reminder that, as with children, often kindness and not harshness is the way to get the best out of ourselves. Her theory on self-compassion calls to mind something David Foster Wallace said to journalist David Lipsky (as told in Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself), which is worth repeating often:

If you can think of times in your life that you've treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it's probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we're here for is to learn how to do it.

Go Easy On Yourself, A New Wave Of Research Urges [Times Well Blog]

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