Self-Compassion in Recovery

Unquestionably the disease of addiction has many underlying causes. However, despite the circumstances and causes, self-compassion is what will aid someone struggling with addiction to seek treatment and continue through the recovery process even when faced with adversities.

Many cultures encourage having self-confidence over self-compassion, but new studies show that while self-confidence makes us feel good about ourselves, self-compassion allows for acknowledgment and understanding of our flaws and limitations. Drawn from Buddhist psychology, self-compassion involves treating ourselves with the same compassion we would treat someone we love when they make a mistake or are at fault. It means not beating ourselves up over our failed attempts or dwelling over our wrongdoings. Self-compassion sets us free as it allows us to accept our imperfections. Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on self-compassion, reports on her research that self-compassion is beneficial to our psychological well-being because it is associated with “ greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.”

By practicing self-compassion a person can recognize the difference between making a bad choice and being a bad person. That person will recognize the value and worth of feeling unconditional love. She also says that a positive connection between self-compassion and overall well-being cannot be understated. Self-compassion provides a sense of self-worth. Having less anxiety, depression, and fear of failing are also all good reasons to practice self-compassion. The rewards of self-compassion are extensive, and practicing it brings many benefits that are associated with happiness and optimism.

Below is an overview of Dr. Neff’s elements of self-compassion:

  • Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against, suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration, and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.
  • Common humanity vs. Isolation. Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” was the only person suffering or making that mistake. All humans suffer. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.
  • Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires us not to be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so we are not filled with or swept away by negative reactivity.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, “compassionate mind states may be learned and may alleviate shame, as well as other distressing outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, self-attacks, feelings of inferiority, and submissive behavior.”

At Florida Center for Recovery we introduce our clients to a variety of therapeutic recovery tools, which includes the development of self-compassion skills by following these five rules:

  • Acknowledging mistakes, then letting them go
  • Remembering you are exactly where you need to be right now, don’t rush through life
  • Choosing to focus on self-growth rather than self-improvement
  • Speaking to and treating yourself as you would a dear friend
  • Cutting yourself some slack, giving yourself permission to move on to better things

When used as an addiction recovery tool, self-compassion has shown to help individuals in recovery overcome cravings, deal with the stresses of early recovery, and better manage their emotions. By being mindful, recovering individuals feel more comfortable in their own skin – a quality that is essential for lasting sobriety.

“Our successes and failures come and go—they neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness.” ~ Kristin Neff