Improving Our Health, Compassionately

 

Close up of potted plant

 

One of the exciting things about life is that we don’t have to stay the same as we are right now; we can re-invent ourselves at any time. 

 

For most of us, there are accessible changes we can make to become healthier, whether that’s by eating our greens, getting fitter, breaking unhealthy habits or addictions, or by cultivating greater peace of mind and emotional resiliency. However, we all too often make these types of self-improvement plans when we’re in a low mood and from a place of self-criticism.

Maybe we’re not been getting out of the house much recently, and so we think to ourselves ‘I’m lazy, I need to start running every day’, rather than having a kinder perspective such as ‘I might benefit from going for a short walk at lunchtime a few times a week’.

When we make health plans from a place of self-loathing, we often set unrealistic and unkind goals for ourselves. This means we are unlikely to achieve them, and even less likely to have a nice time along the way!

 

A Checklist for Mindful Goal-Setting

Whatever our health goals may be, it’s important to ask ourselves these questions before we set out to achieve them.

 

Is my goal realistic?

Say we want to stop eating so much chocolate, because we recognise it's not making us feel so good. We might come up with the goal of giving up chocolate completely. It might work; we might indeed have the will power to never touch anything sweet again.

Alternatively, it might be really difficult! So difficult in fact, that we fail terribly and then feel even worse about ourselves than before. We might make ourselves miserable in the process, defeating the object and feeling better in ourselves and well-balanced.

Instead of banishing chocolate from our lives altogether, why not just get more mindful about eating it? There's nothing wrong with enjoying some chocolate, so instead of completely removing it from our lives, we can treat ourselves now and again and practice savouring each bite to make it a greater pleasure rather than a habit. We’re still moving towards our health goals, but in a more self-compassionate and realistic way, without sacrificing our mental health by being harsh on ourselves.

 

Is my goal kind?

We want to get fit, so we sign up for the toughest, most physically gruelling boot camp we can find. We want to drink less caffeine, so we banish every drink except water. We want to get more sleep, so we say we'll be in bed by 9pm every night without fail, no matter what we're missing out on. These kinds of goals seem more like punishments than ways to help us enjoy life, which is likely to be one of the reasons we want to be healthier in the first place.

When we don’t like how we look or behave, it can feel impossible to treat ourselves kindly. We may feel that we don’t deserve kindness; that because we’re depressed, lacking motivation or addicted to something, that we’re bad. Instead, we can adjust our goals to make them both achievable and fun.

Imagine that your friend wanted to get fitter, or that your child was suffering with depression, or that your beloved was struggling with an addiction. It’s unlikely that we would speak to them the way we speak to ourselves. Would we really say to a friend, ‘You're so lazy. You need to sign up to marathon and start training at 6am every morning immediately'?

Instead of a boot camp we might try a new fitness class with a friend and -- if we like it -- making it a regular activity before introducing a new goal.

Instead of banishing caffeine we might to reduce our caffeine intake to a coffee a day, replacing other drinks with an enjoyable alternative such as an intriguing herbal tea or fruit infusion, sparking our curiosity.

Instead of being in bed by 9pm we might set a reminder to start winding down at 9pm, choosing to turn off the TV and put down our phone by 9pm to read a book or have a bath if we're not tired enough to sleep.

In taking micro steps, we can gradually reach our goals one step at a time and enjoy the process. We can also listen to our bodies more easily, ensuring we're taking care of our needs and not pushing ourselves too hard to the detriment of our health.

 

TOP TIP:

When setting goals, it’s useful to imagine that we are helping a friend set their goals instead of our own. Imagine the kindness and gentle encouragement you would feel for your loved ones, and incorporate that level of care and compassion into your own goal-making.

Make your goals self-nurturing. For example, instead of ‘I don't want greasy skin’ , try changing it to ‘I want my skin to glow by choosing healthy food, sleep and exercise.’

 

How will I treat myself when I stumble?

We might be doing really well with our plans, but then one major upset has us hiding under the duvet or reaching for the caffeine. In these moments, it feels like all of our hard work has been for nothing!

This is where self-compassion can really shine and make all the difference, because it’s at these times of perceived failure that we’re most likely to give up on our goals completely.

Mindfulness helps us see that life is a series of moments. Rather than mentally remaining stuck in a previous moment where we mindlessly watched TV instead of going to our fitness class, we can ‘refresh’ ourselves and become new again in the here and now.

This can help us forgive ourselves for slipping up, because what’s done is done, and now this is a new moment. It helps us see that we can begin again, and again if needed, because each new moment is a fresh opportunity. If we we stumble and manage to get back on track, we should be giving ourselves a self-compassionate pat on the back!

 

Do I really need to achieve this goal?

Do we need to get stronger, fitter or look more radiant, or are our negative thoughts at this moment driving our desire to set goals? Are we comparing ourselves to others or a past version of ourselves? Is the true goal that we want to feel happier, for example?

When our minds are clouded, it can be hard to judge what is true. Yet through practicing mindfulness, we are more able to take a step back from our thoughts and see them more clearly.

If we’re already fairly healthy, perhaps it’s not our behaviour that we need to change, but the thoughts we have about ourselves?

An effective way of exploring the truth behind our desired goals is to place your hand on your heart, to close your eyes, and really tap into how your goals make you feel.

 

Are our goals coming from self-compassion? Are they moving you forward or creating a cycle of guilt and shame?

By exploring our self-beliefs and inner dialogue, we can find out where our health goals are really coming from, and whether we should put them into practice; remembering that our health is not just physical, but mental too.

When we learn to cultivate positive mind states and meet our imperfections with kindness, we can also find it easier to maintain our physical health, saving ourselves from unnecessary suffering.

 

Find out more on an 8-Week Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) Course or Self-Compassion Workshop with The Mindfulness Project.

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