Building Compassion from the Outside In | An Excerpt from Befriending Your Body

A Way to Self-Compassion

Befriending Your Body

One in All
All in One—
If only this is realized,
No more worry about your not being perfect!
—Sosan Ganchi Zenji, Shin Jin Mei


I needed someone to help me grab hold of compassion and bring it a little closer every day.

This chapter offers ways to build and seek out compassion when you do not yet feel that you can give it to yourself. Self-compassion may be a foreign concept right now, and that is okay. I actually do not expect you to have too much self-compassion at this point; that is why we are going to spend time in this chapter and the rest of this book learning ways to develop it. We start by looking outside first to find compassion and take it in.

I label the building of self-compassion from the outside in as the “connection to compassion link.” Recognizing compassion from the outside might mean acknowledging someone in your life who is caring about you right now, listening to an inspirational song, or reading this book. Whether you realize it or not, compassionate actions, words, and images are really all around you. Turn your focus to what is outside you trying to awaken what is inside you.

The Importance of a Compassionate Other

Underneath your struggle, you may feel like there is something waiting to blossom, waiting to awaken. Maybe it is just a slight feeling or recollection about yourself from a time you felt free or more alive, less obsessed. In focusing on the word self-compassion, you may also realize that there is little kindness and compassion toward yourself to be found.

Self-compassion right now may feel awkward or foreign, partly because you have spent a long time in self-critical thoughts about you and your body. They overtake your mind space, and you may find yourself increasingly in a state of hopelessness, wondering if there will ever be light again. This is not an uncommon place to be in. As a matter of fact, it is how this chapter was born. All of my participants stated in the beginning of their recovery that they had little to no self-compassion. They felt too critical of themselves, too harsh, too judgmental, too angry, too self-loathing. However, despite all of that, everyone mentioned that at a certain point in time something or someone came along and lit their path for them. Something or someone reminded them of whom they used to be, what they used to do, who they could become, and what they could do in the future. Basically, something or someone came from the outside to light the fire of self-compassion on the inside. We could call the lighting of this fire hope, belief, and connection. Self-compassion is something we learn along the way. When we have had little of it to begin with, or have forgotten it, we need some reminders from the outside.

Self-compassion right now may feel awkward or foreign, partly because you have spent a long time in self-critical thoughts about you and your body. They overtake your mind space, and you may find yourself increasingly in a state of hopelessness, wondering if there will ever be light again. This is not an uncommon place to be in.

Connecting with an External Source of Compassion

Connecting with something or someone that offers compassion acts as an invitation back into life. What is an external sense of compassion? In my research, it was reported as moments of feeling cared for or even feeling truly seen and heard for the first time. Participants felt seen not only in the moment but also for their potential. When you are confused and suffering, it is often hard to see yourself for whom you really are, and even harder to locate your own potential when it is buried under a lot of self-critical thought. Therefore, it is essential to seek this from the outside right now. Feeling seen and heard by another is crucial to your progress toward embracing your own self-compassionate capacity to care. This is a time to trust that self-compassion is there, even if buried and needing to be awakened.

Many women first felt seen and heard through a relationship with another, such as a compassionate friend, partner, therapist, nutritionist, sibling, parent, or yoga teacher. Some felt it through caring and being responsible for another, as a mother or a caregiver, for example. Helping someone in pain or volunteering was an important shift in this felt sense of compassion.

Having a connection to someone or something that you identify with, apart from the disorder, where you feel yourself again, even for a moment, is of utmost importance in reestablishing hope, a desire to heal, and a wish to become engaged in life and self once again.

Jane talked about a new relationship she was in:

I really liked him and respected him and I felt he really cared for me. It was like this moment where I saw myself outside of myself, and I thought he would be so sad if he knew what I was doing to myself. I was motivated to care about myself because of the fact that he cared about me.

Faith discussed her relationship with her therapist at the time. “Her listening to me and being there for me was compassion. She was my touch point. My solace. She really guided me through that whole period.”

Clara felt compassion every time she went to yoga. “The way the yoga teacher spoke in a soft and loving voice and all the talking about compassion. I was drawn to that. I felt a bit of solidarity with each teacher.”

For many others, feeling seen and heard came in the least expected moments, such as while reading a book or searching for better self-care. Grace told me about a moment that happened on a spiritual retreat. Her recovery unfolded when she attended a shamanic journey. She recalled a profound moment of recognizing the lack of love and compassion she felt for herself.

They wanted us to meet with our spirit animal, and I met a horse. I am not a horse person. I have never liked horses. It was so profound. The animal said, “Love yourself.” I was like, Oh, my God. I don’t love myself. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever done for myself. It was with that conscious awareness that I knew I needed to start loving myself and treating myself better.

We are all born as relational, connected beings. Humans need to be nurtured and cared for longer than any other species. We never stop needing connection and nurture, both from others and also from ourselves. Sometimes we need just a little (or big) push to awaken to what we ought to be paying attention to. You may feel that you currently do not have someone or something else inspiring that connection. If so, I encourage you to reach out for support. Allow a trained professional, therapist, medical doctor, or dietician to help. You may feel as if you want to do this alone, that this is your problem so you should figure it out; however, this is not the time to do so.

Eventually you will step into your own care and help. Until then, when your behaviors feel more like self-harm than any good, you are still in need of outside support and guidance to help you awaken what is already inside. Turn to positive people in your life rather than isolating yourself. Read uplifting things. Let others cook, shop, or plan meals for you for a while, if you can. Ask someone to make a meal for you. Eat with others when possible. Start to identify the small ways you may have isolated yourself and withdrawn from others.

Turn to positive people in your life rather than isolating yourself. Read uplifting things. Let others cook, shop, or plan meals for you for a while, if you can. Ask someone to make a meal for you. Eat with others when possible.

Awakening Self-Compassion

As you seek support, keep in mind that you are allowing the awakening of your own self-compassion every time you reach out or someone reaches out to you. You are not expected to feel compassionate toward yourself at this time, but you should begin to understand the ways to awaken self-compassion.

When you are not feeling well physically, mentally, and emotionally, you inevitably end up focusing on what does not feel or look well. It actually makes perfect sense since we are hardwired to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. Disordered eating has become a way to do that. The problem is, after self-harming behaviors have become a habit, there is very little pleasure reward left, only great pain. We need to reshift the focus back to what we want and hope to see and feel.

Right now, repeating what we want and hope for is a powerful tool in awakening self-compassion. Some people call this repetition a “mantra” or a prayer. Basically it is any repetitive phrase by which you feel embraced, soothed, and held. This may seem very simplistic; however, the choice is to remain focused on the pain or to seek what you want beyond the pain. You can turn a connection from the outside into compassion that is needed on the inside through the simple repetition of words that are different from what you have been using. Words are very powerful and land in our body in a significant way. Examples of phrases are:

  • I recognize that something is wrong. This is all I have to know right now.
  • I notice that other people are worried about me. I will compassionately allow this in and not fight it. I may not fully believe it, but I can still hear it.
  • I will begin to listen to my inner knowing, including the messages from my body that are concerning to me.
  • I intend to continue to move toward the truth, even though it is painful.
  • It is okay to admit to these very real, scary, and dark thoughts and feelings I have right now.
  • I will not criticize my current pain and in turn create even more pain. What I am dealing with now is enough.
  • I understand that it is necessary to face the current pain and discomfort so that I can move toward the light.
  • I understand that there is light beyond this pain, even if I do not feel it right now.
Right now, repeating what we want and hope for is a powerful tool in awakening self-compassion.

Later in this chapter I invite you to try a practice that will help you create some phrases of your own, unique to you. For now, just know that whether you believe your self-compassionate words or not, it does not matter. The self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff states that when we respond to ourselves with kindness, we actually begin to create changes in our brains. We tap in to the mammalian care-giving system in our brain that stimulates the release of oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone that promotes a sense of trust and safety as opposed to self-critical thoughts that make us feel unsafe.

Self-compassion is the self-reflective ability to shine light on what is possible rather than what is broken. Many of the women in my study found that self-compassion began once they stopped identifying themselves as sick. Maybe this is a time you start to understand that you are not your eating disorder; rather, you are someone who suffers from an eating disorder. There is a difference between those two statements. One participant said, “When I stopped using the word broken, self-compassion started.” Another term for this is the reframing of your symptoms and a reframing of yourself, such as, “I know I am suffering with an eating disorder” rather than “I’m sick.”

The bottom line is compassion can grow within you even when you do not quite feel it in the moment. Self-compassion involves the experience of external compassion turned inward, building it from the outside in. As you begin to reframe your symptoms and beliefs about yourself, you may recognize how much self-compassion, self-worth, and self-love is missing. It can be difficult to admit this, but it is very important to watch what arises with this recognition. It is not uncommon to feel self-critical about not having received compassion. Maybe you are beginning to acknowledge that criticism and judgment have been a part of your life for a very long time. You may see that there were very few people in your childhood who were kind, or that you were never very kind or loving toward yourself. Or perhaps you feel that you used to be kinder, but all kindness has now been replaced with self-criticism. Either way, it is important to trust that such kindness can and will build with gentle effort.

The bottom line is compassion can grow within you even when you do not quite feel it in the moment.

There is no denying that there is work needed here. Recovery is not easy. Suffering is not easy. Retraining your mind through these efforts is not easy. It takes work, but it is work that I can promise you has a great payoff in the end.

When we begin to reframe, we start to heighten our awareness of what is happening right now in this very moment. You may find that you start hearing what others have to say more than you did before. Maybe a parent, teacher, friend, therapist, or partner has said things to you multiple times before, but something is hitting you differently this time. You do not need to know why, just that it is. Perhaps you are now re-reading things you have already read many times or heard about in the past. The words might be registering on a different level. The influence of compassion, no matter where it comes from, manifests in this way. It accumulates so that one day you feel something shifting. Perhaps you realize that something is just not feeling right about the way you have been living. You may feel like you want to be in contact with others more, and connect to them in some way. Maybe you are becoming tired of the isolation you have been living in for so long. Trust that there is a reason for this longing to shift.

Allowing compassion into your life softens isolation. It loosens up your fears around letting others in and breeds more compassion. Often people are afraid that if they allow someone to care for them they are being selfish in some way. Letting care and compassion in actually does quite the opposite. It helps you to grow your own self-compassion, which in turn breeds the desire to connect to and help others. Remember Neff’s definition of self-compassion in the introduction? One component is common humanity, which is what I call the relational field of self-compassion. It is that part of self-compassion that helps you to understand that you are not alone in your suffering. The relational field offers a way to connect with and be curious about others. Often when you allow people in who care about you, you find there are so many others who have struggled as you are right now. This is a time to reach out and help one another, even if some are still engaging in their own disordered behaviors. It is very important to experience the felt sense of common humanity, to reach out and give so that you can receive. Many of my clients in recovery decided during this phase to take a yoga teacher training to help others. Some decided to volunteer for a cause that was meaningful to them. Others became resident advisers at their colleges. Some decided to support others going through struggles with food and body by starting peer support groups on their college campuses, starting body-positive blogs, or educating others on the struggle. Anything that begins to connect you with others is of utmost importance. You can also embrace this connection to others with the following simple yet powerful practice.


Connecting with Another

  1. Close your eyes and call to mind someone you know, regardless of whether you know her or him well. Place one hand on your heart and leave your other hand open as an offering to this person.
  2. Take a breath for yourself. Then take a breath for this person.
  3. Repeat this over and over: a breath for you, a breath for her. Notice what it feels like to just mentally connect with another. See if you notice any feelings arising as you mentally connect.

This practice is a reminder that connections can happen on all levels, large and small. Start to draw your attention toward such simple connections with others.

Forming a Connection with Your Body and Food

Your body continues to be an important informant about compassion during this phase. Keep engaging with the experiential practices offered in chapter 1 as a way to heighten your awareness of what is happening in your body—how, when, and where you feel the physical manifestation of your symptoms. Even if you engage in just one practice a day, it is a start. If you have time for more, then do more. The more time you devote, the more your connection to your body will grow.

This is a time to consider how you have been treating your body and the effects you notice and feel. Your body has been patient and forgiving of any self-harming behavior up until this point. However, it too is in need of a break and time to balance and heal. Maybe you go for a medical checkup or reach out to a dietician.

Start to question your relationship with food. Whether it has been one of restriction or one of bingeing, let’s reconsider that current and perhaps long-standing relationship.


Reflection: What Is Your Relationship with Food?

Ask yourself the following questions and record your answers in your journal.

  1. What is my current relationship with food?
  2. How would I describe my relationship with food prior to the development of the eating disorder?
  3. Was there ever a time that food was neutral in my life, or was it always associated with and charged by either a positive or negative emotion?

Question 3 is a big one, as I am asking you to consider what food has meant to you. Maybe it has always been a source of displeasure. Maybe it has always meant pleasure or comfort and connection. Either way it is important to reflect on.

Keep in mind that food is not the cause of your suffering but rather just part of the symptoms of your current underlying suffering. The developing new relationship between you and food will be ongoing. This is the start of it, and it is one that will continue to unfold along the way as you heal.

In this phase, whether restricting or bingeing on food, begin to set a structure throughout the day—a new schedule that will compassionately support you and your body. If you have allowed someone to make meals or shop for you, then let her or him set the structure of your meals so that you can release the decision-making about food during this time. If you are responsible for feeding yourself, structuring regular meals at intervals such as breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with snacks in between, will help you to let go of the constant thought process around it. Your body can assist in setting this routine, as it is your natural guide if you pay attention to it. Eating at regular intervals, every three to four hours, is key in beginning to reestablish a balance within. You may be saying, “But I do not feel hungry that often.” That is fine and really not unexpected, especially if you have been restricting for a long time. It is still necessary to eat. If you have been bingeing, you may think such a schedule is too often, and you might fear overeating. The truth is that overeating occurs by not eating enough at regular intervals. It is restriction that precipitates a binge episode. Part of building compassion from the outside in is to trust the natural order in the way your body works. Set a timer as a reminder to eat something every three to four hours. If bingeing on certain foods is an issue, be kind to yourself and do not bring those foods into the home right now. If you are afraid to eat and are restricting, go slow. Begin to add just one more item to each meal. The help of a dietician who specializes in eating disorders is a valuable asset to your recovery. Remember, letting the help in is your start to a self-compassionate recovery.

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Ann Saffi BiasettiAnn Saffi Biasetti, PhD, LCSW, ERYT has been a practicing psychotherapist for over twenty-five years. See more about her here.