The silly season is soon upon us. Food and alcohol-filled work Christmas parties, family gatherings, and friend’s barbecues, fill our calendars and our stomachs. It is a busy time of buying gifts, managing family expectations, and prepping for events. It can be a wonderful time of friends, fun, and family. It can also be a difficult time of stress, overeating, and weight gain.
Suffering through the silly season does not mean you need to gain weight! Festive kilos are not a given!
The social pressure to overeat, the smorgasbords of food, the ever-present temptations, and the marketing mischief of the food industry, can make this time more challenging to stick to your health and weight loss goals.
However, it is completely possible to have a fun, delicious, relatively stress-free festive time and still lose weight.
One extremely important part of staying on track through Christmas, is forgiving yourself if you stumble and eat or drink something off your plan.
Changing unhelpful habits takes effort. At Christmas time, there are unhelpful foods and drinks everywhere! The work tea rooms overflow with chocolate, and parties and gatherings are chock-a-block with cakes and confection. Beer flows freely at our work parties. Failures and setbacks are common, even more so during this festive time. Far from an illicit F-word, failure can in fact be our best teacher.
When examined through the lens of self-compassion and self-kindness, failure can become a powerful motivator.
So, what is self-compassion and how do we get it?
Self-compassion is treating ourselves with kindness and respect. It's the opposite of being judgmental and critical. Self-compassion is when our view of ourselves is infused with patience, kindness and concern for our wellbeing, and it is a powerful motivator for self-change.
Imagine you are eating low carb real food, your healthy journey is going really well, and you are healing your damaged metabolism, one real meal at a time. Then, imagine a mince tart. Imagine despite your best plans, efforts and desires, something happens. Something triggers you. A stressful day at work, a call from your ex, some intense cravings… and you head straight to the work tea room and plow into the Bakers Delight 6-pack of sugary tarts. Imagine despite telling yourself “no”, despite wanting to keep on track, that you open the packet and eat three.
Do you spiral into self-loathing, throw the towel in, proclaim yourself to be the useless clot you always knew, eat the rest of the tarts, as well as all the gingerbread in anger, and then get ice-cream on the way home?
Perhaps you don’t self-flagellate, but you pretend this slip-up doesn’t matter, excusing the binge as justifiable indulgence and eating the rest of the packet in numb denial.
Both these scenarios deny the chance to build new insights and skills to move forward towards your goal of health, weight loss and improved wellness.
There is another, better, and more motivating way.
Self-compassion provides the space and emotional safety to firstly identify the unhelpful habit, understand it and change it, whilst all the time feeling good about yourself and treating yourself with kindness.
Imagine instead, after eating the tarts, or the Christmas cake, or the Santa-wrapped chocolates, you treat yourself kindly. Accept this failure as understandable. Self-compassion will help you find a balanced position between self-indulgence and self-criticism.
Without hating yourself and without excusing yourself, you can learn from the relapse. Analyse the situation. “Why did I drive to the servo? What were the triggers? How do I feel now? What will I do differently next time?”
With this approach, not only would our harmful behaviours diminish more readily, we would be happier in the process. You will probably also find the strength to throw out the remaining Tim Tams.
Remember, failure is OK. Every time we relapse, we learn something.
We need progress, not perfection.
Self-compassion is attainable for all of us. Some will of course find it easier than others
Here are the three main components of self-compassion to help you in your behaviour change journey:
1. Be kind to yourself
Although such a simple concept, for many this can be hard to do. You could imagine talking to yourself with the same kindness and respect you would a close friend.
Here are four ways to give your self-compassion skills a quick boost:
2. Understand you are human
We humans are all flawed and fallible. Each of us is unique and wonderful, but fallible. We are filled with human desires. In self compassion, we focus on our common humanity.
In the example of the Tim Tam, understand the desire for sweets is hard wired into our brains. Sugar tastes good because during our wild human past, finding and eating sugar allowed us to pack on weight, thus imbuing a distinct evolutionary advantage. Indeed, the Twa hunter-gatherer people of Uganda have been known to risk their lives, climbing 30 metres up trees and drinking up to 3 litres of honey when it is seasonally available. This puts the late-night service station trip into perspective. We also know from the experience of others, that avoiding refined carbohydrates altogether will reduce cravings in time, but it takes time and gentle perseverance to succeed.
3. Be Mindful
Mindfulness is a word bandied about a lot lately.
Mindfulness is a simple, important (and very attainable) skill that has many benefits for our health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness is the ability to bring your attention to experiences in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way.
Mindfulness allows you to disengage from the emotion driven patterns that trigger relapse and allows you to avoid overreacting or feeling overwhelmed when relapses do occur.
This is important.
Mindfulness allows us to find a gap, a space between a stimulus (say, being triggered to grab sugar due to a stressful event at work) and our response. We can find that gap between stimulus and response, and in that gap we can choose how we respond. For example, we can use that gap to avoid choosing the Tim Tams, and instead choose to go for a walk/call a friend/cuddle your dog, or any other self-soothing strategy that does not involve sugary foods.
We do not have to get caught up in high emotion or guilt. Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us.
We can all do it, and we get better at it with practice. A 5-minute mindful practice each day can help us keep cool in the face of failure, help us find our self-kindness, tap into our common humanity and let us move on. Check out the Smiling Mind app for free guided mindfulness sessions. My favourite is the 5 minute body scan. I do it every day in my lunch break.
So being kind to ourselves, accepting our imperfect yet wonderful humanity, and responding mindfully, can forge new, healthy habits, freeing you to move forward as the best version of yourself.
Remember - progress not perfection.
Give yourself the gift of self-compassion this Christmas.