Go Easy on Yourself

Cutting yourself a break once in a while can help you cut your weight.

You and a buddy go out for happy hour. He orders a bacon cheeseburger with fries. After licking his plate clean, your buddy, who’s trying to lose a few pounds, notes that he probably shouldn’t have done that.

How you probably respond: "Whatever, man. Everyone slips up now and then. Shake it off and start again tomorrow."

How you’d never respond: "You’re disgusting, you pig. This is why you can never lose weight."

The chasm between the two responses is at the heart of a field of psychological research called "self-compassion" — the art of being as nice to yourself as you would be to a friend.

Though few guys would actually utter the latter response to a friend, many would play exactly that mental script in their own minds if they’d eaten the burger and fries themselves.

That’s a shame, because self-compassion — not rigidity and self-criticism — may be the best tool a guy has for sticking with a weight-loss plan, says Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas at Austin. What’s more, all that trash talk isn’t just going to bum you out; it could actually damage your weight-loss efforts.

“Self-criticism — saying things like, ‘I’m a worthless fat slob’— tends to lead to depression,” says Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself up and Leave Insecurity Behind (William Morrow, 2011). “Depression is antithetical to motivation. How are you going to get motivated to go to the gym if you feel worthless?”

Self-compassion is not to be confused with self-esteem, self-pity or self-indulgence. “You’re not letting yourself off the hook, or letting yourself get away with anything,” Neff says. “Think about a compassionate mother — she wants her son to do his homework and go to bed on time because it’s good for him. She’s not going to call him a fat slob if he doesn’t eat his vegetables.”

The research
Sound a little touchy-feely? It’s backed up by science. In a 2011 article in Self and Identity, researchers Mark Leary and Meredith Terry note that a bevy of studies shows that a self-compassionate attitude can help patients self-regulate positive health behaviors, such as sticking to a weight-loss plan or workout regimen, because it reduces unhelpful emotional states, such as self-blame. In other words, it’s easier to skip the chicken wings or head to the gym after work when you’re not too busy beating yourself up in your head.

Making mental adjustments
Neff offers the following tips and insights for using self-compassion to aid your weight-loss efforts.

1. Watch your language. Listen to what the voice in your head is actually saying, especially when it’s talking trash. “Our own self-critical language can be kind of shocking,” Neff says. “Ask yourself if you’d say that to a good friend, or a stranger.”

2. Channel a compassionate friend. Replace the inner trash talk with what a kind, compassionate figure in your life — a good friend, a favorite grandfather — might say to motivate you.

3. See the big picture. Reminding yourself that you’re not the only guy struggling to balance a workout routine with family and work obligations, or the only one to down a whole bag of chips after a bad day at the office, can help put your struggles in perspective.

4. Look inward. Neff says self-compassionate people often have the same lofty goals as their peers do, but with different motivations. People trying to lose weight to impress others may have a harder time sticking with a diet and exercise program than those whose motivations stem from a desire to feel better and be healthier, Neff says. That intrinsic motivation is especially helpful after a setback. “When you fail — and we all do — you aren’t defining yourself as a failure, or as hopeless,” Neff says. “Instead, you’re thinking, I’m human, this happens, it’s OK. I want to be healthy, so I’m just going to keep on trying."

5. Develop a pep talk for rough moments. Neff suggests that rather than launching into a self-flagellating tirade after inhaling an entire meat-lover’s pizza, try to repeat some variation of the following phrases: "This is a tough moment. Tough moments are part of life, and slip-ups are part of any successful weight-loss plan. Beating myself up won’t help; things will go better for me in the future if I’m kind to myself in the moment instead."

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