Helping you free your child of an eating disorder


Self-compassion: how to recover your inner strength

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is… treating yourself with kindness.

I know, it sounds a bit lame. But there’s lots of research on self-compassion to indicate it’s surprisingly effective.

I’ll take you through steps that have been shown to be especially powerful. Basically: be kind to your mind, be kind to your body.

Self-compassion has helped me tremendously and has become such a habit it’s just how I operate nowadays. In my workshops, when I guide parents to do a couple of minutes of self-compassion, they really ‘get’ it. Even those who might not normally go for ‘touchy-feely’ stuff. Most attendees say it’s a tool they want to use some more.

I like to introduce self-compassion to parents of a child with an eating disorder, because it is a deeply effective tool to top up wellbeing. It can also quickly restore you to your internal power, to a place where you’re not a victim of your emotions.

And…. when you get the hang of it, you’re likely to model it, and then you’re giving them an amazing tool for life.

Who needs self-compassion?

Bring peace to the inner critic and catastrophizer

People with an eating disorder tend to have a harsh internal critic which can only be appeased with eating disorder behaviours and rituals. The cruel or catastrophising internal voice maintains a state of anxiety, isolation and hopelessness. Self-compassion provides a bridge out of this state.

For parents and other carers, self-compassion tops up our ability to nurture our loved ones: you can’t pour from an empty glass. And what empties that glass? The very real difficulties we face, but also how they get amplified by our own inner critic and catastrophiser:

  • ‘I’m not good enough’
  • ‘I shouldn’t have said that, will I never learn?!!!’
  • ‘It’s not fair’
  • ‘I’m all alone, nobody really cares’
  • ‘How dare they?!!!’
  • ‘They’re all idiots!’
  • ‘This can only get worse’

What is self-compassion for: the fight-flight-freeze states

When things are hard, or when our body is under stress or malnourished, our nervous system registers a threat, and throws us into a state of fight, flight or freeze.

We might not like how that feels, but when the threat is real, it’s a good survival mechanism. It allows our body to mobilise all its resources to protect and defend itself against attack.

Annoyingly, this mechanism also gets activated when the threat is ‘just’ mental: the nervous system interprets catastrophic thinking and self-loathing as a threat and puts us in fight, flight or freeze just the same.

And in an even more annoying feedback loop, while we are in fight or flight we have more catastrophic and self-loathing thoughts, which further increase the sense of threat.

Self-compassion gets us out of this state back to our wise self.

How fight-flight-freeze takes us out of our power

While fight, flight or freeze is useful when there’s a real-life attack, it’s not great when the issue is with our thoughts and relationships. We are in knee-jerk, reactive mode. We are not acting or thinking from our wise, intelligent self. We’re not steering the ship, the rudder is disconnected. When we’re caring for a child with an eating disorder, we start saying things we know are not helpful, which we’ll later regret.

Even if we manage to keep our mouths shut, our body is affected by the prolonged sense of threat. We suffer from the effects of stress and anxiety. Cortisol and adrenaline are high. It’s exhausting.

The brain in fight-flight-freeze: shuts down access to the wise self

The brain in fight, flight, freeze
There’s not much access to the wise brain when the nervous system detects a threat

Being wise, thinking this through, having perspective… these are operations of the prefrontal cortex. Our nervous system has evolved to consider this is just too sloooooow if there’s a threat. So brings the drawbridge down, to keep us in limbic-brain functioning: quick, alert, reactive, lots of adrenaline and cortisol.

What opens access back to our whole brain is a sense that the threat is over… which is why connection and kindness are so powerful.

The threat is over

What can be done? A meal has gone badly and you’re feeling terrible. Over one day, there are so many such arrows, making your day so very difficult. Your emotions are hard to bear. So what to do?

The evidence points to self-compassion as the best tool for regulating our emotions. When our nervous system detects kindness, it gets the message that the threat is over.

It then allows us to return to a fully functioning state where we operate on all cylinders again. We reconnect with our true self and regain our power, wisdom, our ability to act from choice.

Self-kindness moves us out of the misery that our thoughts create many times a day as we react to life’s hardships.

Get to know the emotional wave

The emotional wave - self-compassion
Emotions rise and fade like a wave

Some of us have learned to avoid engaging with any kind of emotion. We’ve found that if we open the floodgates, our emotional turmoil grows without end. If we allow tears, we will cry all day! If we feel rage, it will engulf us! Self-compassion may, therefore, seem like a reckless strategy.

So here’s the interesting thing. Emotions rise and fall like a wave, if you let them do their thing. I read this takes 90 seconds. My experience is it can take longer, but hey, not hours and hours.

The trick is not to feed the wave. Not to add stuff that the nervous system interprets as a threat. Fuelling the thoughts it what makes unpleasant emotions go on for hours.

What feeds the wave? Engaging with catastrophic thoughts. Giving any kind of oxygen to the internal critic. Adding fuel to resentful, ‘it’s not fair’, ‘how dare they?’ thoughts.

This is why in the ‘recipe’ for self-compassion, we observe, we allow. We don’t argue with ourselves. We acknowledge the inevitable stream of thoughts with kindness, and let it pass.

Avoid the self-sufficiency trap

All alone with my problems -- the self-sufficiency trap
Don’t make a virtue of self-sufficiency

While self-compassion is necessary to our wellbeing, don’t turn it into an exercise in self-sufficiency: human beings thrive on connection and you must get kindness from others too. Your motto should be ‘interpendence’, not independence, autonomy or self-sufficiency. Indeed ‘I’m all alone and nobody cares’ is self-talk that gets amplified while we are in a state of threat.

Self-esteem or self-compassion?

We humans come with a negativity bias. We catastrophise, we judge others harshly and when it comes to ourselves, we can be shockingly cruel. So many of us have a core belief that we are unloveable. Or that our existence is only justified if we accomplish all kinds of feats.

This creates so much suffering, and you can’t combat it with logical self-talk. Nor can you prop yourself up for very long by boosting your self-esteem.

Don’t attach your worth to performance

Self-esteem is a shaky foundation for our wellbeing. I’m talking of the self-esteem that needs performance, achievements and comparison with others.

My favourite relationships speaker, Terry Real, has a rather different definition of self-esteem: ‘the capacity to recognize your worth and value, despite your human flaws and weaknesses." In other words… self-compassion.

Self-compassion brings us to a state of kindness, independently of our achievements. You can see how it’s a precious thing to model for your child.

Is self-compassion self-indulgent?

Because self-compassion moves you to your full, powerful self, you find yourself in a state where you are energised to engage with your passions and to contribute to your world. You’re working with yourself, not against yourself.

How to do self-compassion

Self-compassion is simple. Be kind and accepting to yourself!

Is that too simple? For more handholding, the following elements have been found to make it most effective:

1. Pause and notice

Pause to notice emotion - self-compassion

Get into the habit of catching cruel, judgemental thought before they take over. Notice the jolt of fear or shame or grief as it runs through your body.

Most of us have learned to avoid or overlook these calls for our attention. You worry that if you dwell on something unpleasant, it will only get worse? Quite the contrary: the feeling rises, then falls, like a wave… as long as you are kind to yourself.

2. Be kind to yourself

Be your own friend.

Think, “I’m sorry you’re suffering, and I love you”.

Use physical touch – a hand on your cheek, on your heart – as this sends a biological signal to your nervous system that you are safe.

If you persist in being harsh on yourself, bring to mind the kind presence of somebody (real or imaginary) who cherishes you and loves you unconditionally.

3. Allow: make space for this moment of suffering

This is a moment of suffering - self-compassion

Instead of arguing with your nasty or scary thoughts, instead of blocking your emotions, make space for them, allow them.

When you catch yourself telling yourself you “shouldn’t” be the way you are, remind yourself that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable.

Recognise that this is a moment of suffering, that it’s hard. Create an intention to be kind to yourself.

So many aspects of ourselves and of our lives are not of our choosing, but instead stem from countless factors from our genetic makeup, life events and our environment. Accept “what is” instead of judging yourself for it.

4. Our common humanity

City lights - our common humanity -self-compassion

One way your internal critic will beat you up is to tell you you’re weird or bad. With self-compassion you kindly remind yourself that your reaction is normal. It is normal that, as a human being, you should regularly fail and suffer and have the reactions you dislike so much. It’s not just you. You are in good company.

Expand your awareness to the wider world, to our shared human experience. So many fellow humans would wish you well if they were with you right now and knew your story. Bringing to mind our common humanity counteracts our natural reaction to close ourselves off from others (and possibly see everyone as an enemy) when our nervous system is under threat.

5. Nurture

Nurture - what do you need? Self-compassion

Self-compassion will make distress pass, but don’t rush it. Don’t force yourself to feel good. Instead, notice if something bubbles up as a wish, something you miss, that you long for. Makes space for it. “I so long for … (what?)”.

When you acknowledge what really matters to you, suffering tends to transform into empowerment.  You can give yourself – and the wider world – a wish, a prayer, a blessing: “May I have….; may we all have…”

Self-compassion in the space of one breath

Self-compassion need not take a long sit-down session. In the time it takes for one long exhale, you can feel one hand in the other, soften with kindness, and tell yourself, “It’s OK darling, this is hard, please may it pass.” The more often you do it, the more it becomes your new normal.

A very VERY fast self-compassion trick: ‘OK’

Observe with Kindness: OK - two step to mindfulness and compassion

Head over to my page: ‘OK’: two letters for two steps to mindfulness and compassion

More help

For more on self-compassion, why it works and how to do it, see the many free resources produced by the expert on the matter, Dr Kristin Neff ( ). Much of what I write here is informed by her work.

In Chapter 13 of my book, I guide you through self-compassion and related tools in more depth.

You can also download some free guided compassion meditations from me here. The longest one takes you step by step through self-compassion, followed by compassion for your child. There are short ones too — I used one of those for myself before meals.

If you have my Bitesize audio collection, I’ve included a couple of those meditations in there.

If self-compassion is not your thing, no worries. There are many more ways of taking care of your exhaustion, your difficult emotions, your suffering. I devote Chapter 15 to those and you’ll also find them in my Bitesize audio collection.

I list resources from others on ‘Help with compassion, self-compassion and sleep

I demonstrate self-compassion when you’re full of self-blame or shame in ‘Internal conflict: self-compassion and how to mediate arguments in your brain

I list resources also in Three routes out of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

This might resonate with you: How we lose the very friends who should be supporting us (it’s not about you!)

Because you don’t want to be an island, see if peer support groups are for you. I guide you on those here.

And again, a super-fast self-compassion, using the acronym ‘OK’ is here.