What Role Can Self-Compassion and Distanced Self-Talk Play in Weight Loss and Maintenance?
— By Dawn M. Sweet, Ph.D
Cultivating self-compassion and an awareness of distanced self-talk can help patients succeed in their weight loss journey.
The path to goal achievement is often fraught with setbacks and challenges. Embarking on a weight loss journey can be emotionally challenging and awaken feelings of blame, distress, guilt, or shame. Anyone who has ever undertaken a weight loss journey understands what it is like to make progress toward your goal only to have your goal thwarted by giving in to the temptation of choosing the less healthy food option. In these moments, it is easy to feel like we’ve failed or may not possesses the necessary fortitude to lose weight and keep it off. We beat ourselves up, lamenting our unhealthy food choice or decision to skip the gym, perhaps even telling ourselves that, “I’ll never succeed” or “I don’t deserve to live at a healthy weight.” This lack of self-compassion and negative self-talk can be not only obstacles but also common experiences for many who struggle with weight loss and weight maintenance.
While there is substantive evidence that supports exercise and diet as two critically important components to weight loss, these are not the only tools available to health care professionals who work with patients with obesity. A growing body of research suggests there are benefits associated with practicing self-compassion and cultivating awareness of intrapersonal communication — the self-talk that goes on inside our head.
Self-compassion has been found to positively correlate with an improved emotional response in the face of a diet relapse1 and it’s been found to be just as efficacious as other behavior change techniques.2 Self-talk, in particular distanced self-talk — using one’s name instead of “I” to refer to themselves — has potential as a strategy in helping people to make healthier food choices, thus mitigating the risk of obesity.3 Self-compassion and self-talk strategies can complement the more traditional approaches of diet and exercise. Considering this growing body of research, health care professionals should also alert their patients to the important role of self-compassion and self-talk.
The Role of Self-Compassion in Weight Management
Self-compassion is compassion directed at oneself.4 It is characterized by self-kindness, warmth, and understanding for the self during lapses or times of failure instead of berating oneself and responding with harsh self-condemnation. It is important to cultivate because it reflects a healthy relationship with and healthy attitude towards oneself and healing oneself through kindness at times of failure. The role of self-compassion in weight management is a growing area of research with promising results.
In a 20211 review of 20 studies, the authors found support for self-compassion as a weight management intervention that enhances outcomes. This review evaluated whether a self-compassion intervention in the context of weight management could increase self-compassion, improve weight management outcomes (such as eating healthier, increasing physical activity, and reducing weight), and whether these benefits could be sustained over time. Results show participants’ capacity for self-compassion increased when a self-compassion intervention was part of a broader set of behavioral interventions. The self-compassion intervention in the reviewed studies was delivered in various ways, e.g., online, immersive yoga retreats, journaling. The authors point out that the diversity of the intervention delivery is well-suited for clinical settings.
In the same review1, support was also found for improving eating behaviors, and in particular, a large effect size for mindful eating was seen. Decreases in emotional eating were also observed. Mindful eating and reduced emotional eating are known to be strongly associated with improved health outcomes. While there are strong results for interventions to increase self-compassion and improvements in eating behaviors, the connection between self-compassion and physical activity was weaker. This was due to few intervention studies. However, there is some evidence to suggest that yoga, as a form of physical activity used in many studies, was linked to improve to mental health outcomes, though the authors admit it is difficult to know whether a direct relationship between self-compassion exists. Although more research is needed, current literature suggests self-compassion as an efficacious intervention in weight loss.
Distanced Self-Talk as an Intervention to Support Weight Management
Over the course of any given day, we are engaged in an internal dialogue with ourselves. Typically, our internal dialogue unfolds in first person, such as “when I get home I am going to…” or “tomorrow I need to make sure I…” It is less uncommon to “talk to ourselves” in the third person, or refer to ourselves by name. When internal shifts from first person to third person, it is call “distanced self-talk.”3
Distanced self-talk provides psychological distance and affords us self-control. Psychological distance shifts our focus away from the features of a highly arousing stimulus and toward those characteristics that more salient to one’s goals. For example, in the case of someone trying to lose weight, asking oneself, “does John want that piece of chocolate cake?” allows one to focus more on the goals rather than the desire for the chocolate cake, e.g., “I want that piece of chocolate cake.” Psychological distance shifts our focus and creates an outside perspective — as though a friend were telling us we could do something or as though we were telling a friend they could do something. Distanced self-talk is a novel intervention to support weight management goals.
In a 2020 study3, participants (N=244; dieters and non-dieters) were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: a health video condition where they watched a two minute video that emphasized eating healthy, exercising, and maintaining an active lifestyle or a control condition where participants watched a home improvement commercial. The videos were followed by a food-choice task where participants were told to choose between healthy foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables and grilled chicken) and unhealthy foods (e.g., chips, candy, baked goods, and fried foods). Participants were instructed to either think about their decision using distanced self-talk, e.g., “John, what do you want?” or in the first person, e.g., “What do I want?”
Results show that dieters chose fewer unhealthy foods when in the distance self-talk condition, suggesting the psychological distancing enhances the pursuit of higher order goals by enabling individuals to focus more on the relevant abstract stimuli features than oneself.
Self-Compassion and Distanced Self-Talk in Clinical Practice
Despite all the evidence pointing to the benefits of maintaining a healthy weight and an active lifestyle, many of us still struggle with achieving these goals. Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight can take us months or years to achieve. Practicing self-compassion — being kind to ourselves and forgiving ourselves for lapses — can help us achieve our weight management goals. Using distanced self-talk can also help.
Sometimes after our first misstep — the first time we give in to temptation and eat the piece of chocolate cake or skip the gym — we throw in the towel, telling ourselves, “I am weak and lazy” or “I don’t deserve to be healthy.” If we falter, instead of thinking of this as a failure, we should think of it as an opportunity for self-compassion and distanced self-talk.
Health care professionals working with patients with obesity should be encouraged to tell their patients to practice self-compassion and distanced self-talk. While diet and exercise remain linchpins for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, there is now evidence that supports integrating complementary approaches that focus on the whole person.