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Kindness: the biggest motivator for our health.

Be kinder to yourself. Research shows it’s one of the best things you can do for your health

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As 2021 comes to its close and the New Year’s festivities wrap up, many of us are taking stock of our health habits from last year and making little mental tweaks on how this year we can achieve better mental and physical health. 

As many as 70% of Americans will resolve to eat healthier in 2022. Others will set a goal to exercise or practice mindfulness regularly for our mental and physical well-being. 

This is the time of year we are likely feeling most inspired to make habit changes we know will improve our health like, “learn to cook healthier meals,” “rekindle my meditation practice,” and “start doing yoga regularly.” Just making these resolutions to take better care of our mind and bodies often gives us a healthy boost of self-confidence.

This is where many of us fall into the very familiar mind trap that will soon sabotage all of our best intentions. What mental myth am I referring to? 


The motivation myth

Many of us often fall into the mind trap that if we were just a little harder on ourselves and pushed ourselves a little more relentlessly we will somehow be able to achieve the body we’ve always wanted or the performance we’re striving for. 

We do this at work, at home, and perhaps most damaging we do it around our food, emotions and health routines. It sounds something like this:

“Come on, get it together and lose those last 10 pounds already, what’s wrong with you?” 

“Get your @$$ in gear and out the door for your morning jog, what are you waiting for?”

“You are already up. All you have to do is put down your phone and sit on your meditation cushion. What is wrong with you?” 

However, the myth that self-criticism motivates us to reach our goals or keep our promises to ourselves is perhaps the most untrue when it comes to our health.

For me personally this “no sweat, no tears, no results” mental coach attitude might barely push me out the door on day one for a brisk walk or run, but it’s not likely to motivate me on day three, five, or let’s be honest, ever again.

Three days into my new movement routine when I’m trying to motivate myself to get out the door for a jog in 30 degree New England weather – which often comes with some sort of frozen precipitation this time of year AND I’m exhausted because my two-year old son woke me up twice the night before – the chances of me feeling motivated by a series of degrading mental insults are slim to none

Let’s externalize it, imagine your significant other or friend saying first thing in the morning, you are so fat and lazy. Get up. Would your response be, Wow you’re right! I am fat and lazy. Thank you for pointing that out. I never thought of it like that before. Wow, all of the sudden I feel heaps of joyful motivation!

No. The more realistic response to the “no pain, no gain” mental coach in my brain under these conditions is to reply, “Hell, no, you can shove it up your @$$. I quit!

On the flip side, studies have found that self-compassionate people are more likely to adopt healthy behaviors and maintain them in the long run, even if they don’t see short-term results right away.


“Studies have found that self-compassionate people are more likely to adopt healthy behaviors and maintain them in the long run, even if they don’t see short-term results right away.


What is self-compassion?

Research shows that when we take the opposite approach to forming new health habits, such as being kind and compassionate towards ourselves with a more soothing, Hey you, you had a hard night and I’m so proud of you doing the laundry yesterday, so maybe just do 15 minutes of stretching today instead, we are much more likely to feel motivated in our long-term commitment and get the results we want. 

According to self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, author of “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” there are three elements to self-compassion:

  1. Mindfulness, which is being aware of negative thoughts, feelings and experiences without judging them or dwelling on them.
  2. Common humanity, or recognizing that we are all imperfect and that we all suffer.
  3. Self-kindness, which is showing yourself care and understanding when you experience those all-too-human imperfections.

The opposite of self-compassion is emotional reactivity, isolation, self-judgment and unhealthy perfectionism, all of which have been linked to depression, stress and reduced quality of life.

Research shows that self-compassion is especially important in our health, in recovering from an injury, illness or “falling off the wagon” so-to-speak on the path to our personal wellness goals. 

Self-compassion takes the edge off of negative emotions – namely, fear, frustration, and disappointment – that may arise. This helps keep you motivated to take good care of yourself instead of giving up or getting side-tracked. 


Myths about self-compassion

Although the research shows that self-compassion actually motivates us, self-compassion often gets a bad rap as the cause of laziness, selfishness, or being too indulgent. 

How many times have you had a feeling of guilt arise as you took a moment to rest or even thought about resting. Or even more specifically, judged yourself as a bad employee for staying home when you were sick. 

So how does kindness motivate? It’s easier to make more objective decisions about our food and body when we’re not consumed by running from feelings of self-shame and criticism. 

When we are feeling bad about ourselves, namely after a series of self-critical mental remarks, we are much more likely to act in a way that sabotages our health – which just perpetuates the cycle. In essence we return to the unhealthy coping mechanism that is causing the obstacle in the first place. Further, if we are constantly calling ourselves a “fat pig” we are going to unconsciously start to believe and identify as one and act accordingly. 

If we receive positive feedback from our doctor about our blood work this likely motivates us to keep doing what we are doing. But what if we receive harsh or critical feedback? Self-criticism can paralyze us, leaving us unable to change.

Self-compassionate self talk – talking to yourself in the way you would a close friend – can help you get through the negative feelings that arise, kind of like holding your own hand, and use that information to make changes moving forward. And, while you are being compassionate you are creating the new internal coping mechanism that is going to help you in those times of internal strife.



The truth about self-compassion

It’s much easier for most of us to care for and be kind to others than it is to be kind to ourselves. In fact, the more caring people in society are often the biggest self-critics, why is that?

If we are a caretaker for others such as the role of parent, health professional, teacher, or therapist our energy is often so focused on others it takes a lot of energy and intentional shifting of that attention inward to our own needs. 

Self-compassion can be a kind action towards ourselves but it can also be a way of asking for help, connecting with the rest of humanity. Connection with the rest of humanity is one of the three core components of self-compassion, so if we aren’t giving compassion to ourselves we are likely to lose that connection with others through resentment, self-loathing, isolation or all three. 

As caretakers, by nature we often find it very difficult to soothe ourselves with kind words, a gentle shoulder rub, or cup of tea while we wouldn’t think twice about offering it to someone else. Offering compassion to ourselves can give us the base of internal safety and confidence to reach out to others in a world that has not met our own needs or expectations. After offering compassion to ourselves, asking for support from others can be our key to alleviating our loneliness and be our link to the rest of humanity.

The truth is that if you incorporate self-compassion into your health goals this year those goals and changes are likely going to be more realistic and sustainable than the ones you make out of fear that you are a hopeless case. 

You are also much more likely to make daily choices that support long-term health and well-being, rather than looking for short-term relief from the negative internal remarks in the form of food or crashing on the couch.

Maybe this year, add “develop more self-compassion” to your New Year’s list and watch as all of your other resolutions start to look a little more manageable, less ominous and your life feel a bit lighter.

Sign up for the SkillfulMeans Mindful Eating Challenge to start incorporating self-compassion into your food prep, meals and relationship with food. 

Heather Wise, MPH

Health and Wellness Coach
Co-Founder of SKillfulMeans