Self-Compassion as a Stepping Stone to Health Behavior Change


Since I started working in health, the question on motivation and health behavior change has always intrigued me. So to deepen my understanding on managing health behavior, I focused a lot of my energy on finding out what weight management participants had to face throughout their weight loss journeys.  I learned that there were specific emotional turning points that utilized both internal and external resources, but the one element that would get them from one step to another was always self-compassion.

Self-compassion, as it turns out, demands that we go beyond our comfort zones. While compassion may seem like the complete opposite of courage, I soon learned that courage and self-compassion actually came hand-in-hand.  Research shows that self-awareness plays a huge part in developing health behavior change, but if the awareness of ourselves is generally unpleasant, then we may look to food or other concrete aspects (like cigarettes, alcohol, etc) of life instead of long-term health goals (Adams & Leary, 2007).  Through better understanding of the self, however, my research has shown that self-compassion can help us acknowledge visible flaws that we might be willing to act upon. 

So what does self-compassion take? Well, a basic definition of self-compassion is the ability to treat oneself with kindness, care, and concern in the face of difficulty. Psychologist, Kristin Neff (2003a) would add that self-compassion is composed of 3 facets: (1) self-kindness - our ability to look at our situation without judgement or criticism. , (2) common humanity - recognizing that our difficulties are all part of a process and that others have gotten through a similar experience, and (c) mindfulness - acknowledging our accompanying thoughts and feelings when faced with a challenge.

My research showed me that participants who showed more self-compassion facilitated better health behavior, making room for increased emotional self-regulation and a sense of confidence. This happened in the following ways:

1. A compassionate support system. As it turns out, theorists like Lorna Smith Benjamin (Structural Analysis of Social Behavior) were right in saying that the way someone is treated by the people around him, is how they learn how to treat themselves. For any change to occur and self-compassion to develop, it is imperative that there is a compassionate support system around an individual. This teaches them that despite set backs, they can learn to be kind to themselves, instead of drilling in their mistakes.

2. Organization and understanding as a key. Wherein most health issues began in adolescence, my research showed me that developing a sense of organization and self-understanding was key to initiating the desire for change. 

3. Anchoring on Positivity. Nelissen, de Vet, & Zeelenberg (2011) observed that "positive feelings elicit a tendency to broaden content of cognition" allowing one to consider "new goals and opportunities". Anchoring on the positive feelings was the boost participants needed to stay on track. Wherein they were able to look at themselves with a sense of kindness, aware of their own weaknesses, positive feelings anchored participants into a kind of drive that would encourage them to reach for more. 






Adams, C., & Leary, M. R. (2007). Promoting self-compassionate attitudes toward eating among restrictive and guilty eaters, Journal for social and clinical psychology, 26(10), 1120-1144.

Benjamin, L. (1994). SASB: A bridge between personality theory and clinical psychology. Psychological Inquiry, 5(4), 273-316.

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2003). Sef-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal for Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.

Nelissen, R., de Vet, E., & Zeelenberg, M., (2011). Anticipated emotions and effort allocation in weight goal striving. British Journal of Health Psychology, 16, 201-212.