Self-esteem has been a buzzword in American culture since the 1980s, with many parents and educators carefully weighing their every word and action lest it hurt the self-esteem of the children in their care. In recent years, however, psychology has moved towards celebrating the benefits of self-compassion instead. Self-compassion may at first seem similar to self-esteem, but it is actually quite different, and it can be profound and life changing for those struggling with or in recovery for a substance use disorder.
Self-esteem can be emotionally and psychologically precarious because it usually involves a person feeling good about themselves because of an external situation that will likely not last forever e.g., a positive evaluation at work, or reciprocation from a romantic interest, etc. The danger here is that once the positive external validation disappears, it is all too easy for somebody to feel badly about themselves again. In a recovery context, if somebody relapses, it is common for them to beat themselves up for having “failed” at sobriety and to then use even more of their drug of choice to cope with their feelings of inferiority. Self-esteem also does nothing to erase the common cognitive distortion we have after a “failure” that tells us, erroneously, that we are the only person to suffer or make a mistake.
In contrast, self-compassion encourages us to treat ourselves with self-kindness instead of self-judgement; to recognize our common humanity instead of choosing to isolate; and to remain mindful when faced with emotional pain or adverse circumstances instead of over-identifying with our suffering. It is worth noting that it was very likely a dearth of self-compassion that led many people to develop a substance use disorder in the first place.
So what does the practice of self-compassion look like if you are in recovery? In the earliest days of recovery, many people are overcome with a deep sense of shame and regret for the things they said and did while active in their addiction. Instead of flagellating yourself for your past mistakes, treat yourself with kindness and patience as you would treat a friend or a child. Notice your internal self-critic and ask yourself if you would ever say the same negative things to others that you say to yourself. Remember also that self-compassion does not mean that you are letting yourself “off the hook” for past behaviors, but simply that you accept you were doing the best you could at the time.
Carl Jung once said that “we cannot change anything until we accept it”, and research shows that self-compassion helps facilitate acceptance in people struggling with addiction because it reduces depression, anxiety, and stress, which are the very states of mind that feed addiction. To learn how to be more self-compassionate, consider joining a meditation group, practicing mindfulness, and being active in a recovery community. But most of all, work on becoming a loving, kind, and accepting friend to yourself.