Skill #29 How to Practice Self-Compassion to Help Yourself Change

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We often try to change ourselves by beating ourselves up. But you can’t hate yourself into a version of yourself that you can love. In this post, I teach how self-compassion can be the greatest source of change and growth. You’ll learn how to stop beating yourself up and what to do instead.

When you see something in yourself that you don’t like, how do you treat yourself? Do you try to get rid of your faults by punishing yourself or criticising yourself? So for example, do you call yourself fat or lazy because you think that criticizing yourself will help you change? 

Or when you mess up do you say, “You’re such an idiot! You’re so stupid! What’s the matter with you?”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

If you do this, you’re trying to get rid of negativity with negativity. 

Jessica Ortner said, “You can’t hate yourself happy, you can’t criticize yourself thin, you can’t shame yourself wealthy. Real change begins with self-love and self-care.” Fear and self-punishment may inspire a short burst of energy, but it’s never a lasting form of motivation. 

Break the Cycle of Beating Yourself Up

Take a moment and reflect on the pain that you cause yourself by treating yourself this way. Can you have compassion on yourself for how it hurts to be judged so harshly?

To break this cycle, we need to really look at our values and decide how to be like that toward others and ourselves. If we believe in compassion, we need to be kind toward our own weaknesses. We can’t try to get rid of unkindness by being harsh with ourselves.  Be honest about our faults but kind toward ourselves as we struggle to improve.

Be Your Own Best Friend

See if you can find a kinder, gentler way to motivate yourself to change. Imagine what a loving friend or mentor would say to you to help you improve yourself, but in a loving and supportive way. It might sound like this:

“I know you don’t want to be acting this way. How can I help you improve?” 

“No matter what choices you make, I love you.” 

“This is really hard for you. It’s hard to make mistakes. But we all make them. Let’s just look for one small way to change or improve. One small step.”

Run Toward Your Values

The Avett Brothers say in one of their songs, “When you run, make sure you run to something, not away from.”  When you run, make sure you run toward your values, not just away from something hard or difficult.

Focus on what you do want to be instead of what you hate about yourself.

I recently read a story on Humans of New York about a man who had a heroin addiction. He completely screwed his life up and in the process was unable to take care of his son, Red. You should go read the story. 

He tells of the deepest lows of addiction and self-destructive behaviors and how he got sober. But his addiction really stemmed from self-hatred, which stemmed from some sexual abuse he experienced as a child. But he blamed himself for that abuse. 

He said, I wasn’t held down. It wasn’t violent. That’s why it messed me up so bad. It left me feeling so ashamed. And it just kept happening . . . I didn’t know how to stop it . . . I couldn’t escape. He was giving me liquor. And by the time I was fourteen he was giving me cocaine. And I just dove right into the drugs because they were my only escape. 

“Sometimes I hate myself so much. I’ll look at Red, and I’ll think about all the trauma I caused him.” 

And right there you can see how that spiral of shame and self-hatred could easily escalate into more and more drug use. The more he hated himself, the more drugs he needed to use, and then the more he hated himself. But this man pulled himself out of this hole with love. Listen to what he says next — he shows himself some compassion. 

“But I was a good kid too once. Not an academic or anything, but a good kid. I liked school. I enjoyed making people proud of me. I think I was happy. I remember having feelings like that before the abuse. 

“But afterwards nobody was proud of me anymore. There wasn’t anything left to be proud of. So I just burned down the rest of it. Burned it down with heroin and crack until I was finally forced to face it because if I didn’t, I’d lose my son. 

“And that’s what I want you to know, little man. All this stuff that happened to your dad. It almost killed me, but you came along and saved me. Because I always loved you more than I hated myself.”

Remember These Self-Compassion Tips

As you work to develop self-compassion, remember the following:

  • When you mess up, treat yourself like you would a friend who made a similar mistake. Lovingly hold yourself accountable, but work hard to improve. 
  • Don’t allow yourself to abuse yourself. You’re not allowed to call yourself names or label yourself as defective (that’s an excuse). Instead, look for ways of speaking to yourself that help you become the person you want to be.
  • Set reasonable expectations.

Going forward, when you catch yourself being harsh or judgmental towards your unwanted trait, do the following. First, notice how that hurts you, notice the pain of your self-judgment, and respond to that pain with compassion toward yourself. Then try to find another way to speak to yourself that is encouraging and helpful. If you really want a lasting form of motivation for change, love is more powerful than fear.

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