Struggling to Stay Sober? Try Some Self-Compassion

Being kind to ourselves doesn’t come naturally to some of us. It can be an unfamiliar practice for those who have grown accustomed to mistreatment as a result of trauma early in life. And while self-compassion is essential for a life of sobriety, people with addiction more often feel deserving of punishment. What is self-compassion? Kristin Neff, PhD, a researcher and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, describes self-compassion as “giving ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.” It consists of three parts, she says: self-kindness vs. self-judgment; common humanity vs. isolation; and mindfulness vs. over-identification. For people with addiction, it’s the difference between saying “I’m a worthless addict” and “I’m a good person who has a terrible disease.”

Benefits of Self-Compassion for People with Addiction

“Self-compassion is at the core of restoring one’s integrity with self-care,” says Dr. Ken Druck, author of “Handbook of Self-Care” and “Courageous Aging: Your Best Years Ever Reimagined.” When it comes to addiction, self-compassion serves several purposes:

  • It combats isolation by reminding people that they are human and worthy of love and support. Spending quality time with family, friends and others striving for a life of sobriety combats loneliness and boredom, and encourages us to become the best version of ourselves.
  • People who learn to forgive themselves are more likely to take personal responsibility and learn from the mistakes they have made.
  • By minimizing the shame, self-loathing and stigma associated with addiction, people are motivated to get help for addiction.
  • It’s a useful relapse prevention tool. “Self-compassion reduces cravings and overconsumption,” says Jean Fain, MSW, LICSW, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Compassion Diet.” “It increases motivation and helps promote positive health behaviors.”
  • Research shows self-compassion reduces depression, anxiety and stress – issues that fuel drug abuse. It also has been linked with greater happiness and life satisfaction.
  • Practicing self-compassion can improve your relationships. How you treat yourself is an indication of how you treat others and how you expect to be treated.

“Recovery itself is an act of self-compassion,” says Dr. Druck. “The kindness, understanding, empathy, respect, patience, care and faith we show in ourselves by working a recovery program is the secret sauce. We learn to summon the courage and strength we need to become more whole, transform the adversities in our lives into opportunities and maintain sobriety.”

3 Things Self-Compassion Is Not

Some people fear that self-compassion will make them “soft” or too self-involved. However, research shows the opposite is true. Here are a few things researchers have determined about the effects of self-compassion:

1. Compassion Is Not Self-Indulgence.

People in recovery from addiction may be fearful that self-compassion would justify drug use. After all, recovery is hard and if cravings are overwhelming, perhaps the compassionate thing to do would be to give in and use. But this is self-indulgence, not self-compassion. “When you’re self-indulgent, when you gratify your appetites, desires or whims without restraint, you want what you want, when you want it and usually way more than you can enjoy. Damn the consequences! You want pleasure now, even if it’s fleeting,” says Fain. By contrast, when you’re self-compassionate, “gratification is more moderate and mindful. Pleasure is worth savoring; displeasure is worth facing because what’s most important is lasting health and happiness.” If you’re not sure how to tell if it’s self-indulgence or self-compassion, Fain recommends asking yourself: Does gratifying this desire promote lasting health and happiness? “If yes,” she says, “that’s self-compassion.”

2. Compassion, Unlike Self-Esteem, Is a Constant.

Self-esteem often comes and goes, depending on life circumstances, whereas self-compassion shows people they’re worthwhile regardless of circumstances or how they measure up to others. “Self-esteem sounds like money in bank, but it’s a lousy investment. More like the stock market, it goes up and down with successes and failures. And because it’s almost impossible to boost with training, you can’t count on it when you really need it,” Fain explains. “Self-compassion, on the other hand, is never in short supply. Whether you’re down on your luck or on top of the world, it’s always available. If you need more, you can cultivate more!”

3. Self-Compassion Is Not Self-Centeredness.

Being self-focused or feeling sorry for yourself makes suffering worse and threatens sobriety. Self-compassion is neither of these things. Rather, it involves openness to the experiences of others to show you that you aren’t alone and that you can approach problems in a more rational, balanced way.

How to Develop Self-Compassion

Exercising self-compassion may feel awkward at first, but like any other habit, it just takes practice. Here are a few first steps for replacing harsh self-criticism with restorative self-compassion:

Be a friend to yourself.

“When you’re suffering or feeling bad about yourself, the simplest thing you can do is to ask yourself how you’d treat a friend or a loved one who suffers similarly,” says Fain. “In other words, rather than beating yourself up or ignoring your pain, treat yourself like a friend or a loved one – with care and concern.”

Build a recovery community.

Whether it’s the 12 Steps, SMART Recovery or some other form of fellowship, building a sober community is an act of self-compassion because it combats isolation. “Peer support and education are essential! We learn about ourselves by listening to and watching others overcome their demons,” says Dr. Druck. Hearing the stories of others in similar situations provides perspective and will help you realize you’re not alone.

Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves observing thoughts and feelings without judging them, trying to change them or letting them overpower us. Stop and reflect at various points throughout the day so you can begin to observe and quiet your inner critic. “It’s easier to catch yourself being impatient, rude or thoughtless to someone else,” says Dr. Druck. “Cultivate that same sensitivity toward yourself so you can identify harsh self-criticism and replace it with one that is self-affirming.” Remind yourself that imperfection and suffering affect everyone. They’re part of being human.

Try meditation.

There are many meditation techniques, but Fain recommends loving-kindness meditation as a self-compassion practice. “Formally, sitting in silence, or informally walking around the neighborhood, silently repeat the following phrases: May I be safe, May I be healthy, May I be happy, May I live in ease,” says Fain. “You start by wishing yourself well, then extending well wishes to the next-door neighbor, the postal worker, the new mother with the baby carriage. When you do, you’ll feel calmer, less reactive and less likely to give into your cravings.”

Avoid “white knuckling” your way through recovery.

“Most people with addictions try to force themselves to stop abusing their chosen substance, which usually means focusing on what they don’t like about themselves and hoping their deep dislikes will motivate them to clean up their act,” says Fain. “But this focus usually backfires, inspiring a whole lot of uncomfortable feelings, including fear and self-loathing, and a whole lot of substance abuse. Happily, even if you try and fail to quit for good, you can always fall back on self-compassion, which makes a far softer landing than self-criticism.”

Use positive affirmations.

Sometimes the best way to combat negative self-talk is by replacing it with something that is positive and life-affirming. “We have to replace self-deprecating messages that drag us down with ones that lift us up like, ‘I’m a work in progress’ and ‘This is a really difficult thing I’m going through, but I can do this one step at a time,’” says Dr. Druck.

Get help.

If you’re abusing alcohol or other drugs, the ultimate act of self-compassion is recognizing you have a problem and asking for help for addiction. “Some of us act like we’re in a courtroom where there’s no judge, jury or defense attorney, only a relentless prosecutor producing evidence that we’re worthless,” says Dr. Druck. “We have to reconstitute the courtrooms in our hearts and minds, and plug people into a judicial system where they can succeed – which is recovery.”

Put your recovery first.

Part of self-compassion is giving yourself permission to put your sobriety ahead of everything else. “You have to make sobriety a condition of your survival and a sacred code for living,” says Dr. Druck. “If you don’t put your sobriety before everything you care about it, you will lose it all.” Dr. Druck suggests making a list of 25 compassion-based things you can do to maintain your sobriety, as well as 25 “sobriety saboteurs” such as flirting with temptation, isolating and allowing yourself to fall further and further behind the pain curve. “You’re a work in progress,” he says. “Stay humble and respectful and be a fierce advocate of your own sobriety.”

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