The Power of Self-Compassion in Recovery

Compassion is a bit of a buzz word, which is a good thing! The Dalai Lama famously said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” It’s a powerful practice and quality to cultivate that can deeply change our lives and our experience. Especially in recovery, compassion is an important quality to investigate.

When we’re using, we’re generally not very compassionate with ourselves. When we get sober or are trying to quit drugs, we have the opportunity to grow in a new way to respond to ourselves, and compassion is one quality which we can cultivate. However, building self-compassion can be easy in theory but difficult in practice. We try and try to respond more gently to ourselves, but seem to be beating ourselves up constantly. For me, part of staying sober has been building a compassionate response toward myself and learning to be with my pain without reacting.

What is Compassion?

First, we have to understand what is meant by the term “self-compassion.” The word comes from the latin roots com and passio. Com means “with,” and passio means “suffering.” Although we may have many images in our minds of what compassion is, it most simply means “to suffer with.” Compassion is the act of being with the difficulties, pains, and suffering with a loving and caring presence.

This doesn’t mean we need to wallow in our own pain or become codependent with another. In true compassion, we tune into the pain and are fully present for it. At the same time, we need to remain stable in our own minds and hearts. In order to truly be with the pain, we need to be clear-minded and not too consumed by it. A compassionate response is one of care and presence, not one of freaking out and overwhelm!

With self-compassion, we are simply attending to the pain we experience. This isn’t our default. Our instincts tell us when we’re struggling to avoid the difficulties and avert. Compassion is really the opposite of our survival instincts, turning toward the pain with tender care. As such, it is a simple task, but certainly not an easy one!

Compassion in Using

When we’re using drugs and alcohol, engaging in a process addiction, or struggling with a mental health disorder, we don’t tend to respond with compassion, especially toward ourselves. Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the leading experts on compassion research says:

Painful feelings are, by their very nature, temporary. They will weaken over time as long as we don’t prolong or amplify them through resistance or avoidance. The only way to eventually free ourselves from debilitating pain, therefore, is to be with it as it is. The only way out is through.

The nature of addiction and mental health disorders is that we often get caught in our thoughts and experiences. We generally aren’t able to see that cravings, difficulties, and painful experiences are temporary and will pass. We certainly do not respond by just “being with it as it is.” Rather, we seek to change it through drug use, unhealthy behaviors, or averting by hiding away.

These are all reasonable responses. They may not serve use well, but they make sense! We don’t like the way we feel, so we try to fix it. The way we try to fix it isn’t always well thought-out, and often ends up causing us harm. However, when we see this tendency clearly, we can have some compassion for ourselves and not continue to judge ourselves and build shame around our behavior.

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Compassion’s Power in Recovery

On the flip side, we need to learn in recovery how to respond to the pain and suffering with more wisdom and care. In my personal experience, this has been the crux of my recovery. I used quite frequently when I felt discomfort. Sometimes it was the discomfort of anxiety or trauma, while other times it was the discomfort of guilt and shame for my behavior. Sometimes, I just didn’t know how to cope with what I was experiencing and averted by using.

In recovery, we must learn new ways to deal with discomfort. Just because we remove drugs and alcohol and begin walking along this path of recovery doesn’t mean we’re bound to be happy and comfortable all the time. Part of life is experiencing difficulties. If we are to build a healthy sober life, we need to find a way to meet the difficulties with peace and grace.

Self-compassion fills this need for me. Although I am nowhere near perfect, I have learned to respond with more care to the adversity I face, pain I experience, and suffering in my life. Whether it is the grief of losing a loved one or the anxiety of everyday life, self-compassion has helped me show up for myself and be present. I used to just abuse drugs and alcohol in these moments, and I’ve learned to be with the experience without reacting so strongly.

Being in recovery means we have to face what comes up. What are you going to do when what comes up is pain or difficulties? If you avert or push the experience away completely, are you really serving yourself well? Can you respond with some care and compassion? When we practice caring for ourselves, we can respond with a kind awareness and no longer be bound by our reactions.

Practices to Help

You may hesitate to believe compassion practices actually can help, but recent research has found that self-compassion practices and interventions truly impact the way we respond to ourselves! Here are a few practices I use regularly and have seen help others in my life.

Pausing and Caring

This is one of my favorite practices, first introduced to me by the teacher James Baraz. It’s perfect for those moments when you find yourself suffering over something. Once you recognize you’re experiencing any kind of difficulty, pause and put your hand on your heart. It’s cheesy, but it actually stimulates the vagus nerve (reduces fight or flight response and stress hormones) and releases oxytocin (the “love hormone”). This is an act of recognizing our pain and just being with it.

Then, offer yourself a few phrases of compassion and understanding. The phrases traditionally offered are: “This is a moment of pain (or anxiety, difficulty, irritation, fear, etc.),” “Pain is part of life,” and “I care about this pain.” You can use this with whatever difficulty you’re experiencing, and it’s a deep way to train both the mind and body to respond with more compassion and less reactivity.

Morning or Evening Compassion

As with anything we’re hoping to cultivate, building a routine or ritual around it can help us do it more regularly. You can try setting up a self-compassion practice at night before you go to bed or in the morning before you get out of bed. You can find what works for you and be open to investigating new ways to practice.

You may try asking yourself if you’ve experienced any pain or are currently experiencing any difficulties. If something arises, try being with it and caring for it. You can use a phrase like, “May I care for this pain.” You may also try just setting that intention in general, regardless of if you’re experiencing any pain in the moment. Use phrases like:
-May I be present for my pain
-May I care for the pain
-May I have compassion for myself today

Watch Self-Talk

In our daily lives, we talk to ourselves quite a bit. We aren’t often super conscious of how we’re speaking to ourselves, but when we tune in we may find that we’re pretty harsh with ourselves. We blame a lot, judge, and re-run old scenarios repeatedly. As an act of self-compassion, try to be aware of how you’re speaking to yourself. Set the intention today to be more aware of the ways in which you speak to yourself.

When you notice that you’re beating yourself up, pause and try to bring in some compassion! You can say, “Thank you,” to the negative committee in the head and let the thoughts go. We don’t have to believe every thought that comes up!

Compassion Meditation

Meditating on self-compassion has been perhaps the most useful practice in my life. Here is a way for you to give compassion meditation a try. You may also try finding a local meditation class to dive into meditation practice!

One Mind Dharma has a compassion meditation script if you wish to read about how to do a compassion meditation or lead a group in compassion meditation. You can also check out a guided meditation on working with ourselves below!

Who Wrote This?
This post was written by one of our staff writers at Addiction Rehab Blog!

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Categories: Self-Care
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