Practicing Self-Compassion in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Sara Nieder, LCSW, CEDS

What is Self-Compassion? 

Compassion is the ability and the desire to help or relieve the suffering of those who are having a difficult time. Self-compassion is the ability to direct those same emotions inward to help and accept oneself when faced with difficulty, inadequacy or failure. Despite being compassionate to others, many people still find it difficult to show compassion for themselves, and instead resort to self-pity or being self-critical.   

Self-compassion is distinct from self-pity, which is an emotional response consisting of excessive, self-absorbed wallowing. 

Dr. Kristin Neff, writer and expert on self-compassion, has defined self-compassion as being composed of three main elements – self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. 

  • Self-kindness: a positive, kind and productive attitude is necessary when encountering pain and personal shortcomings 

  • Common humanity: suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience; suffering is universal rather than isolated 

  • Mindfulness: one must be aware of one’s emotions free of suppression or exaggeration; one needs to be non-judgmental to observe their thoughts and feelings as they are  


The Benefits of Self-Compassion 

There is budding research that suggests self-compassion yields great benefits for those suffering from eating disorders and poor body image. Self-compassion can improve psychological distress, self-esteem, self-directed hostility, weight and shape concerns as well as cognitive and behavioral anorexia nervosa and bulimia symptoms. 

Self-compassion also has many applications outside of recovery, helping to deal with failure or difficulty in other areas of life such as work, academics and interpersonal relationships. Self-compassion helps build resilience, strength and happiness, even in times of failure. Self-compassion can help battle anxiety and depression, since those who are able to successfully practice self-compassion are able to recognize when they are suffering and be kind to themselves despite the circumstances. 


Practicing Self-Compassion 

  1. Acknowledge that it’s okay to be flawed. Everyone has shortcomings; to be flawed is to be human. Everyone makes mistakes, and most of the mistakes made in life are not unique or new to you. They’ve been made by many people before you and will continue to be made by people after you. It’s important to recognize that a single behavior or scenario doesn’t define you and should not be inflated as an innate part of yourself.  

  1. Treat yourself how you’d treat others. It’s said that “you are your biggest critic” – the saying doesn’t come out of nowhere. To combat your inner saboteur, it might be helpful to try to view yourself as a friend instead of as yourself. Treat yourself with grace like you would a friend who was going through the same thing. Before you turn to judge yourself, ask “Would I say the same thing to someone else?” instead. 

  1. Utilize releasing statements. Positive affirmations are controversial – most either love them or hate them. Releasing statements are the cousin of positive affirmations with a small dash of self-compassion. Instead of repeating something to challenge negative thoughts, releasing statements are reworking negative thoughts into positive, aware or compassionate thoughts. For example, rework “I’m a weak person because recovery feels so difficult” into “It’s okay that I’m finding recovery difficult right now.”  

  1. Be slow to judgment. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. We can be quick to judge ourselves or make assumptions. Going into a decision with preconceived notions of how you will act, handle yourself and cope can perpetuate the behavior you want to avoid, as it leaves no room for the alternative. Maybe this time you will do better than you did before, things will come easier than they did before or you will feel better than you did before. That can only be possible if you think it’s a possibility. 

  1. Maintain a growth mindset. It’s easy to assume that you will always be the person you are today; that you will face the same challenges or always fail. But that’s not true.  Accepting who you are in this moment doesn’t mean that you’re trapped. You have the potential to change, and you should embrace that by forming realistic expectations for yourself. 


Moving Forward 

You are worthy of compassion and grace. Remember this the next time you don’t rise to your own expectations or face a challenge. Just as your inner saboteur is about to speak, pause and reassess not only how you feel about the situation, but how you feel about yourself. 

Be mindful and aware of your own emotions. Don’t lessen them, but don’t exaggerate them either. Take them as they are, forgive yourself and acknowledge your flaws. Take a moment there or after the dust settles to pinpoint what you could do differently next time. This is also a great opportunity to recognize how far you’ve come or the successes you’ve had and be grateful that you can try again. 

Lastly, accept yourself. You are not perfect, and you never will be. While you may have been able to do something differently or do it better, you can always try again. There will be more opportunities. You have time.  



Written by

Sara Nieder, LCSW, CEDS

Sara Nieder, LCSW received her Masters in Social Work from the University of Denver in 2004. Since then, she has worked in various medical and psychiatric settings. In 2015, she began working as a…

ACUTE Earns Prestigious Center of Excellence Designation from Anthem
In 2018, the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health was honored by Anthem Health as a Center of Excellence for Medical Treatment of Severe and Extreme Eating Disorders. ACUTE is the first medical unit ever to achieve this designation in the field of eating disorders. It comes after a rigorous review process.

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