A while ago, I was interviewed by psychotherapist Jacqueline Stone from Sydney, Australia for her Wise Stress Mastery blog. The topic was self-compassion. We spoke about how a mindset shift to self-compassion can be a turning point in therapy. Why do we struggle so much to treat ourselves with the same kindness and forgiveness that we extend to everybody else?
A lack of self-compassion begins when you internalize the experience of feeling unworthy or unlovable Because of trauma or difficult relationships with childhood caretakers, you get stuck in the belief “I am not enough.” You believe that you are not good enough, thin enough, smart enough, attractive enough, emotionally stable enough, and so on. This type of negative belief paradoxically gives you some hope for an end to the pain. If “I” am the problem, then there is hope for a different outcome if “I” could only change.
The problem is that this belief sets you up for failure when you attempt to change entrenched negative behaviors (like casual sex, overeating, drinking too much etc.). The things you are trying to change are often behaviors, even if unhealthy, that you also rely on to protect yourself from feelings of helplessness and emotional distress. For example, if you overeat to comfort yourself when you feel depressed, it will be difficult to give up overeating without having another way of dealing with depression.
Lasting change takes more than willpower, but also being willing to experience uncomfortable feelings and finding healthier ways to tolerate and cope with them. You may need the unhealthy behaviors until you can learn healthier ways of comforting yourself or managing distress. When you don’t succeed in acting healthier and taking better care of yourself, you may begin to blame yourself for that as well, thereby compounding your own misery.
The way out of this Catch-22 is to learn and practice self-compassion, even if it feels awkward at first, you consider it wimpy, or you don’t think you deserve it.Dr Stone noted that
“…during my years in this field I witnessed a recurring phenomenon. I kept noticing that self-compassion heralded a turning point for people dealing with stress and related challenges. I kept witnessing that when people were truly able to ease up on themselves and treat themselves as kindly as they treated those dear to them, the positive gains they made were striking.”
In my Psychology Today article Self-Compassion Helps You Meet Life’s Challenges, I explain why self-compassion works better than negative ways of motivating yourself.
- It helps you realize how you overestimate your control over and sole responsibility for unhealthy patterns and negative outcomes.
- It helps you understand that ‘your feelings are not you’ and that just because you think something negative (like “I’m a loser”) doesn’t mean the thought is true
- It gives you a perspective based on “common humanity” or the sense that everyone is human and you don’t have to be perfect
- It helps you connect with unmet or unacknowledged needs that may conflict with your stated goals and block your progress
- It helps you realize that failure is not final and that you can get up and start again
In the interview with Dr Stone, I also discuss some practical strategies to develop greater self-compassion. Click here to listen to the conversation.