Turns out, “tough love” isn’t so loving. For generations, as a culture, we prized a stiff-upper-lip ethos that celebrated toughing it out, never complaining and never explaining. This stern, rather ruthless approach to self-improvement seemed like the surest way to self-discipline ourselves through challenging times with nary a whimper. It might sound like this: “Suck it up. You don’t have it so bad. People all over the world have harder than you. Stop being so melodramatic.”
While that approach may seem more likely to lead us from dark waters to greener pastures—it turns out, it is woefully insufficient for today’s evolved humans.
Enter self-compassion. While it may sound like the latest snowflake/millennial (dare I say “woke”) indulgence, well-respected researchers are confirming its utility.
Put simply, self-compassion is offering yourself some kindness and empathy, especially in tough times.
To illustrate: let’s say you are the parent of a feisty 3-year-old, who doesn’t want to get dressed that day. You are running late, wrestling with that small but formidable opponent, and becoming increasingly furious. You lose your temper and shout at your kid, which incites more tears and drama from said child.
As you head off to work, you think to yourself “I’m a horrible parent. Mornings are impossible. This sucks.” …and feel a mixture of guilt, powerlessness, and frustration at the scenario.
Applying self-compassion in the same situation might sound like this: “That was hard. Toddlers can be really difficult sometimes. I’m trying my best though and love my child deeply.”
The second narrative, as you can hear, is much gentler and infused with tolerance and a lack of judgement. There is no negative self-appraisal involved.
Now, you may be thinking that all of this sounds a bit wishy-washy. Who will ever push themselves to do better if everyone just gets some kind words and a participation medal, after all?
But mercifully, science supports this approach.
Research has shown that self-compassion is positively related to resilience. People who are self-compassionate tend to have a greater ability to bounce back from difficult situations and setbacks. This is due to the fact that self-compassion promotes psychological resources such as emotional regulation, coping skills, and positive self-regard. Additionally, self-compassion also buffers against stress and anxiety, which can increase resilience in the face of stressors. Overall, the research suggests that cultivating self-compassion can lead to greater resilience and enhance well-being.
For those of us in recovery – this has particular value. Many of us have swerved from either embarrassing amounts of self-pity to extreme disregard for our feelings and challenges.
Let’s face it – many addicts and alcoholics regularly feel profound levels of shame, guilt, and self-criticism. These overpowering negative emotions can make it difficult to get through the day with even a sliver of grace. But through a more compassionate approach, people can access a free, easy way to lessen stress and anxiety while building feelings of hope and self-worth.
Self-compassion has also been shown to help folks build a stronger sense of self-identity, which is often in tatters for those who have long done battle with substance use. Add in disconnection from values, goals, and priorities, and it’s no wonder that those just entering treatment often seem disconnected from absolutely everything. What self-compassion offers is an opportunity to reconnect with your best self, to more realistically understand your strengths and weaknesses, and to develop a better view of yourself. This can be particularly essential for those who may have experienced trauma or other negative experiences that have contributed to their addiction.
In short, self-compassion is an evidence-backed coping strategy that feels pretty darn good. Training oneself to practice it doesn’t happen overnight though, and it can take time to undo a lifetime’s worth of grueling self-talk. But isn’t it time you put that ruthless taskmaster to bed and show yourself a little love? We think so.