Be Your Own Best Friend:
Applying the principles of self-compassion to addiction recovery:
Your inner critic could be putting your recovery at risk.
If you beat yourself up over past drug use — and then relapse to numb feelings of unworthiness — you know how self-criticism can backfire. A wealth of scientific research says it pays to do the opposite: be kind to yourself.
“People who score high in self-compassion are happier, they cope well with stress and have better immune response to stress,” says Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion research and an associate professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas.
“Self trash-talk,” Neff says, “is a double-whammy: when we judge ourselves harshly, we are both the attacker and the attacked. And hundreds of research studies show that indulging an inner tyrant ‘has a strong negative link to anxiety, depression and stress.’ For many people, one of their biggest sources of pain is self-criticism, and they don’t even know they’re doing it to themselves.”
The Science of Self-Compassion:
Self-Kindness, Common Humanity, Mindfulness
In her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Neff details three core components necessary for self-compassion. By combining these principles, a person can replace demoralizing thoughts that may lead to addiction relapse. They can also begin to quash destructive patterns of fear, negative self-worth and isolation.
Treat Yourself Kindly
“First, treat yourself as you would a friend you really care about,” Neff says. “If you’re suffering in some way, and give yourself kindness and support and don’t mercilessly judge yourself, then you reduce the negative mind states. But you’re also generating a positive state of feeling cared for, supported and accepted.” Research shows that self-compassion helps decrease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and stimulates the release of Oxycontin, the bonding hormone that helps us feel safe and secure, a fact to which Neff makes reference.
The second component of self-compassion is acknowledging that human nature is imperfect and we all fail. Recognizing this shared humanity helps us feel more connected to others, rather than being isolated by our suffering. “When you fail and make a mistake, remember that this is the human experience,” states Neff, “Often people think something has gone wrong when they fail, as if normal is that everything’s perfect. So what happens is there’s a sense of isolation, thinking everyone else is leading these normal, perfect lives.”
Third, self-compassion requires us to relate to our situation with mindful awareness — rather than ignoring our pain, exaggerating our problems, or constantly battling negative emotions. “Mindfulness basically says, ‘I see this is really painful right now,’ says Neff, “You need to be aware that you’re suffering in order to be kind to yourself, to open your heart to yourself.”
Self-Compassion Is Not Self-Indulgence
Self-compassion is often misunderstood as self-indulgence, which Neff makes note of, but there is a fundamental difference.
“The dividing line is whether or not behavior is healthy in the long run or harmful in the long run,” she says. “A compassionate, caring parent, for example, won’t let a child get away with unacceptable behavior but will not shame the child. And that translates to how we treat ourselves.”
“A fair amount of research,” she continues, “shows that you’re more likely to take responsibility, if you have self-compassion. It’s safe to admit that you caused harm when you aren’t going to beat yourself up.”
Self-compassionate people may feel guilt, but not shame. Neff says that people think: “I’m not really thinking about you if I feel shame, I’m thinking about what a bad person I am. The self-criticism leads to shame, and shame is unhealthy.”
Instead, people who treat themselves kindly are more likely to forgive themselves and be resilient when they fail. Relating humanely to the self also can improve relationships. Neff comments that “Self-compassionate people apologize more, they’re more likely to take personal responsibility for the mistakes they’ve made. They’re more likely to want to repair those mistakes. Unlike self-esteem, the practice of self-compassion does not depend upon endless comparisons with others. And when things go wrong, self-compassion does not threaten the ego.”
We know that bullying is linked to the quest for high self-esteem,” she says, “Self-compassion is not dependent on judging yourself positively, it’s just dependent on treating yourself kindly and that’s available both when you succeed and especially when you fail.”
Catalyst For Positive Change
Is self-criticism the way to motivate positive change, as many people believe? “The research shows just the opposite,” says Neff, “What happens is, you’re afraid of failure and lose faith in yourself. The solution is to see yourself as someone intrinsically worthy of respect, even in tough times.”
“Self-compassion is a good source for positive change, but the reason you want to change is because you care about yourself and you don’t want to suffer,” she says, “You still want to recover from addiction, but the reason you change is not because you’re an inadequate human being unworthy of love, but because you are a valuable human being.”
Boost Your Self-Compassion
To find out how self-compassionate you are, Kristin Neff provides this free quiz:
Most people score around 3.0 on the 5-point self-compassion scale, Neff says, so you can interpret your results accordingly.
And if you’re too hard on yourself, how do you silence the inner critic and still an agitated mind?
“A really powerful way to change the relationship with yourself is to drop out of your head and get into your body,” Neff says. “All mammals, including humans, respond to gentle warm touch. Start by doing something that relaxes your body — put your hand on your heart or your belly, cradle your face gently in your hands, like you’re soothing a child.”
“Sometimes your body can go there before your mind can,” she states, “Your body feels less anxious, less stress.”
A variety of free guided meditations to boost self-compassion are available on Neff’s website:
You can also try these exercises in self-compassion:
Exercise 1: How Would You Treat a Friend?
Please take out a sheet of paper and answer the following questions:
- First, think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him or herself or is really struggling in some way. How would you respond to your friend in this situation (especially when you’re at your best)? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
- Now think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you talk to yourself.
- Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?
- Please write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering.
- Why not try treating yourself like a good friend and see what happens?
Exercise 2: Self-Compassion Break
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult and is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind and see if you can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body.
Now ask yourself:
- This is a moment of suffering?
That’s mindfulness. Other options include:
- This hurts.
- This is stress.
- Suffering is a part of life
That’s common humanity. Other options include:
- Other people feel this way.
- I’m not alone.
- We all struggle in our lives.
Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. Or adopt the soothing touch you discovered felt right for you.
Say to yourself:
- May I be kind to myself?
You can also ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your particular situation, such as:
- May I give myself the compassion that I need?
- May I accept myself as I am?
- May I learn to accept myself as I am?
- May I forgive myself?
- May I be strong?
- May I be patient?
This practice can be used any time of day or night and will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion when you need it most.