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“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” ~Kristin Neff
I consider myself to be a very compassionate person, but I’ve struggled a great deal with self-compassion. Though I’ve now been sober for over six years, back when I was drinking I made a lot of mistakes, and it’s taken me a long time to have empathy and understanding for myself.
While drinking, I did and said a lot of things that made me feel ashamed and unhappy. When I drank, one of my go-to moves was giving into a sudden, intense desire to leave (or attempt to leave) a bar or party.
This feeling, as I vaguely remember it, hit me unexpectedly and aggressively. It was as if, at random, a little voice in the back of my head would start whispering, You have to leave. Right now. It doesn’t matter how you get home or how far from how you are, but you have to get back to there. NOW.
I realize now that this voice piped up because, deep down, I am intensely introverted. Alcohol was the fuel I used to tolerate social situations that I just didn’t really enjoy. At some point in the evening, the “real me” would speak up and insist she’d had enough socializing and must leave. And I almost always listened.
Sometimes this was a mere inconvenience—I left friends behind as I hopped into a cab solo or dragged them with me, convincing them the night was no longer fun and we should leave—but oftentimes it was downright dangerous.
I hazily remember a night I simply left the bar and, realizing I couldn’t make it home in my inebriated state, decided to lie down in the middle of a city sidewalk. (This sounds comical, but it was not at all funny to those who found me or to the loved ones who had to negotiate with me to get me off the ground.)
In another faded memory, I insisted I had to return home when I was staying the night at my aunt’s house—over an hour away from where I lived. Keys in hand, I stumbled to my car before being stopped by not one but three family members who were forced to stand in the freezing cold, bargaining and pleading with me until I eventually relinquished my keys.
Similar situations played out many times over the course of all the years I was drinking, and friends and family were not always successful in their negotiations.
After these must-leave-immediately outbursts, I would excuse my crazy behavior with a wave of the hand and a laugh, insisting I’d just had too much to drink and it wouldn’t happen again. Deep down, I was deeply ashamed of my behavior, and even more ashamed when it inevitably did happen again.
And, to compound the shame, these strange, disruptive, and often dangerous outbursts were only one negative side effect of my drinking problem. For over a decade, I was trapped in a vicious cycle of drink -> do/say something stupid (like trying to leave when it was inappropriate or dangerous) -> feel bad about it -> drink to relieve the shame and pain, and then back to the start again.
It was frustrating, disheartening, and agonizing. It wasn’t until I began having compassion for myself—truly experiencing concern over my suffering, rather than merely pointing a finger at myself in the mirror—that I was able to deal with my underlying pain and finally get (and stay) sober.
While sobriety isn’t for everyone, the notion of using compassion to make more positive life choices applies to all of us. We all do and say things we feel ashamed of. And, because of that, we all need to compassionately care for ourselves in order to fully heal from our mistakes. Here are some of the best ways I’ve found to cultivate self-compassion:
1. Transform your mindset.
Sadly, it's often challenging to lift yourself up (particularly if you’re feeling really low or ashamed), but if you want to create compassion for yourself, you have to change your mindset.
For me, self-compassion started with changing my thoughts. I started focusing on the fact that my behavior was bad, not me. Once I started labeling behavior (instead of myself as whole), I was able to be kinder to myself and open up my mind to the possibility that I could make changes.
2. Speak (and think!) kindly about yourself.
Hand in hand with the first step is speaking and thinking kindly about yourself. Your words are incredibly powerful, and if you continuously tell yourself you’re unworthy, a mess, or unforgiveable, you’ll soon start to believe it.
I did this for a long time, calling myself things like “crazy” or “out of control,” but once I started changing my words, stopping myself every time I wanted to laugh off my behavior with a negative label, I began having more compassion for myself.
I was a person making bad choices, not a bad person. If you struggle with this step, imagine talking about yourself as you would talk about your best friend.
3. Forgive yourself for your mistakes.
Forgiveness is vital for self-compassion. We all make mistakes, but not all of us forgive ourselves for them. Depending on the mistake, this can be a very daunting task, but keep in mind that you cannot go back (no matter how badly you might want to), so the best thing to do is to choose forgiveness and forward motion.
Whenever I did something inappropriate, instead of shrugging it off or excusing my behavior, I started apologizing for it, both to others and to myself. Again, I focused on the fact that I wasn’t bad; it was my behavior that was.
4. Spend time doing things you truly enjoy.
If you’re struggling with shame, enjoying pleasurable activities can be seen as something you don’t deserve. But each and every one of us deserves to engage in joyful, uplifting, and exciting experiences.
Allowing yourself to experience true happiness—to take time from your life to do something you love—is an act of compassion.
When I found myself feeling ashamed for a mistake I’d made, I began making a conscious effort to understand what situation provoked that act and I strove to make choices that put me in more positive situations.
5. Strive to avoid judgments and assumptions.
Though assumptions and judgments are often based on experience or knowledge of some sort, it's very hard to predict what will happen in life. When you judge yourself or make an assumption about what you will do in the future, you don’t give yourself an opportunity to choose a different path. Instead of limiting yourself, be open to all possibilities.
In my situation, I started assuming that I shouldn’t go to an event because I would inevitably cause a scene and have to leave. Little did I know that I’d eventually learn, with the help of therapy and self-compassion, to socialize sober. I had assumed that I would always be “wild,” but I’ve learned that you cannot know the future. Assumptions will only inhibit you.
6. Find common ground with others.
While self-compassion is about the way you care for yourself, one of the best ways to cultivate it is to create connections with others. When you open yourself up to sharing who you are with others, you’ll soon see that you’re not alone.
We all struggle to treat ourselves with kindness, and recognizing this can make the struggle more manageable.
At some point, I began admitting to friends and family that I had a problem. It was difficult to open up emotionally, but the more I did, the more I discovered that I wasn’t alone. Creating these stronger emotional ties made it so much easier to deal with my personal shame and to work toward more self-compassion.
7. Take care of your mind and your body.
One of the most compassionate things you can do for yourself is take care of your mind and body. Spend as much time as possible absorbing new information, and be sure to fill your mind and body with positive things (healthy food, good conversations, wisdom, etc.). Being mindful of what you consume and what you do with your energy is an important part of self-compassion.
Once I began doing this, I was able to recognize what did and didn’t make me feel good about myself. Admittedly, I didn’t always continue to seek out positive things (and still struggle to do so at times), but the awareness of what would and wouldn’t impact my mind and body positively gave me the opportunity to make more conscious, compassionate choices for myself.
8. Pay attention to where your passion lies.
Most of us are passionate about something. We have things that really matter to us ¾ a career, a hobby, our loved ones. Whatever it is that gets you excited, allow yourself to focus on that, and do what you can to spend more time enjoying it. Self-compassion means allowing yourself to be passionate, without shame or fear.
Around the time I started trying to get sober, I realized that my issues with alcohol were a reflection of deeper issues within my heart and mind. I started thinking more about my mindset and, as I explored this, I decided to start a blog to share what I found. It was at that time that my passion for self-discovery and my passion for writing merged, and Positively Present was born!
9. Realize it’s not all about you.
Rather than focusing on how we see ourselves, we often direct our attention to how we think others see us. It’s important not to do this for two reasons: (1) we don’t ever really know what others think and (2) more often than not, others aren’t thinking about you.
Letting go of external validation is a very compassionate choice.
It took me a long time to overcome this, particularly when it came to giving up drinking. For a long while, it felt like everyone was judging me, either because they thought I had a problem or, worse still, they themselves had a drinking problem and couldn’t understand why I was quitting.
As time passed, I discovered that most people didn't care whether or not I drank—they just wanted me to be happy—and realizing this made it so much easier to do what was best for me.
10. Cultivate acceptance (even for your flaws).
Just because you accept something doesn’t mean that you like it. We all have attributes we don’t love, but the more you focus on accepting the things you cannot change, the more content you become with who you are.
One of the great challenges that came with my sobriety was realizing that I didn’t, in fact, like partying and barhopping as much as I’d claimed to. I’d made these things such a big part of my identity, and recognizing and accepting that they weren’t “me” was difficult (particularly because I had to overcome the notion that “introverted” was a negative characteristic).
I still struggle at times with being introverted—I often wish I could be social butterfly—but accepting my limitations and my true nature has been the greatest act of self-compassion. Doing so has allowed me to direct my energy and attention to the things I love about my life: my creativity, my writing, and the people who love me just as I am.
Embracing these ten tips has helped me to cultivate more compassion for myself, and I’ve found that the more compassionate I am with myself—particularly when I’ve made a mistake or feel ashamed—the more compassionate I am with others as well.
The way you treat, think about, and talk to yourself isn’t just about you. It has a ripple effect that impacts all of your relationships and all of your choices, which is why it’s so important to choose self-compassion whenever possible. It changes your life and, in a greater sense, the world as well.
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