Last updated: Oct 07, 2011
Ericka McConnell
You ate a cupcake at the office birthday party (even though you swore you wouldn't). You skipped the gym to go home and watch TV (can't resist those Real Housewives!). And now you're beating yourself up for it, right? We know, because we've all been there. It's become far too common for us to mentally punish ourselves this way, thinking we'll feel shamed into better behavior, observes Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

But being our own worst Mean Girl is counterproductive. According to research in the burgeoning new field of self-compassion, a little TLC may go a lot further in motivating you to work out, lose weight, and get healthier overall. "Self-compassion means being kind to yourself, especially when you make a mistake," explains Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. "As it turns out, caring about yourself is one of the best possible motivators for doing what's healthy for you rather than what's harmful to you."

As you'd expect, quitting the trash talk makes you feel good. In fact, brain-imaging scans done on Buddhist monks by University of Wisconsin neuroscientists suggest that self-compassion lessens anxiety and depression. But surprisingly, being kind to yourself also has a concrete effect on your behavior and physical well-being. "Studies show that self-compassionate people are more proactive about looking after themselves," says Duke University professor of psychology and neuroscience Mark Leary, PhD, who's been involved with much of the research in this field. "They're more likely to take vitamins, practice safe sex, and go to the doctor when they're sick." Read on to see how you can score big health gains by giving yourself a break.

Boost motivation
Most people play drill sergeant with themselves: "I have to go to Spinning every day this week!" But using phrases like have to and setting too-strict goals are a recipe for falling short—and feeling lousy about it. In a study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, participants who forgave themselves for failing at a task were more likely to pick themselves up and try again. "They didn't let that one failure define them," Neff says. "When you criticize yourself, you undermine your self-confidence, which is a huge part of motivation."

Try this: Encourage yourself the way you would a friend, with positive statements like: "If I go to Spinning, I'll feel great, and I'll probably fit into my jeans better, too." Neff says: "Motivate yourself to do the right thing not because you're inadequate, but because you want to be healthier, or land your dream job, or whatever your goal is. Keep your eyes on the prize, which is to be happy."

Lose weight
A 2007 study shows how going easier on yourself can actually help you drop pounds: In it, Leary and a co-author asked two groups of women to eat doughnuts. One group got a talk along the lines of "I hope you won't be hard on yourself. Everyone eats this stuff." A control group got no such pep talk. Next, both groups taste-tested candy. The result: Women who got the self-compassion speech ate fewer bonbons. "They didn't indulge in emotional eating like those left alone with their self-criticism," says Jean Fain, a psychotherapist, teaching associate at Harvard Medical School, and author of The Self-Compassion Diet. "Telling yourself mean things—'I shouldn't have eaten that,' 'I'm going to gain weight'—is a setup for overeating." That's because self-criticism stirs up negative emotions like anxiety and self-loathing, and we'll do whatever we can to get rid of them—like dipping into the Ben & Jerry's.

Try this: Next time you feel bad about scarfing down a brownie or snacking in front of the TV, let self-compassion give you some perspective. Instead of saying, "Screw it. What's the point'"—which could just lead you to eat three more brownies—try instead: "It's only one brownie. It's not the end of the world. I can go back to making healthier choices."