Compassion is a crucial element of addiction recovery for many reasons. Having compassion for others is perhaps the surest way of forming connections with other people. This sense of connection is one of the most important factors for a strong recovery. Concern for others gets you outside of your own head. You feel a greater sense of responsibility, accountability, and purpose when you care more about other people’s well-being. Perhaps even more important is to have compassion for yourself. If you struggle with substance use, chances are that you’re pretty hard on yourself, especially if you have co-occurring conditions like major depression or an anxiety disorder. Building a greater sense of compassion for yourself and for others changes your view of the world. You no longer feel alone. However, compassion doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you want to enjoy the benefits of compassion, here are some tips for developing it.
If you are a naturally compassionate person who can’t see someone else suffer without feeling compelled to take immediate action to relieve it, then compassion needs no explanation. However, if you feel a bit resistant to the idea of being more compassionate, it might be that you’re thinking about compassion in the wrong way. For many of us, compassion brings to mind images of saintly people who ignore their own needs in service to others. That is both an unrealistically high bar and not an especially appealing lifestyle.
It may be more productive to think of compassion as a way of opening yourself up to new possibilities. For example, when we dislike or distrust someone, it is often because their experience of life is closed to us. If we can imagine the possibility that they have their own hopes and fears not so different from our own, not only are we more likely to want to help that person, but we are also open to a more objective view of the world.
Having compassion for yourself is the most important thing and it is often much harder than having compassion for others. Many of us have internalized the criticisms we have often heard from important people in our lives, typically parents or guardians, but also teachers, coaches, friends, and peers. We often take over for our harshest critics by doing their job for them. This is a difficult trap to escape because we are often made to believe that other people’s harsh criticism is for our own good and that by criticizing ourselves, we are holding ourselves to a higher standard.
While reflection and self-analysis are often helpful, harsh self-criticism isn’t. It’s mainly a way of tearing yourself down and it rarely results in progress. A more helpful approach is to be more compassionate towards yourself. Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend. Acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can at the moment and encourage rather than berate yourself. Not only will this make you happier but you will find that when you are less critical of yourself, you will also be less critical of other people.
Part of having more compassion is just keeping it top of mind. When we fail to have compassion for others, it’s often just a matter of neglect. We forget it was something we were supposed to be doing. There are various ways to remind yourself to think about compassion. You might start the day with an intention to be more compassionate or put a note somewhere to remind you. It’s often a good idea to recognize a potentially challenging situation, like going into a crowded store or having holiday dinner with the family, and remind yourself that it’s a good opportunity to practice compassion.
It’s by far the most challenging to have compassion for people we don’t like, especially if that person is yourself. Disliking someone is typically reflexive. Once we’ve decided we don’t like someone, we typically come up with a few reasons to support that unconscious judgment, “She’s snobbish,” or “He’s an idiot.” However, of the many possible negative traits, only a few really get under our skin. It’s worth asking yourself why certain traits make you dislike someone. The answer typically has more to do with ourselves than with other people. Maybe you don’t like a particular trait in someone else because you dislike that same trait in yourself.
Or maybe someone’s pretentious behavior makes you feel insecure about your own intelligence or learning. In this case, the next step might be to consider why the other person acts that way. For example, consider the possibility that a pretentious person feels insecure about her own intelligence or accomplishments and so feels the need to show off at every opportunity. Understanding this vulnerability behind many obnoxious behaviors is a great way to feel compassionate towards people we may at first instinctively dislike.
You can also cultivate compassion by taking a few minutes every day to do a sort of compassion workout. There are a number of meditation practices designed to help you feel more compassionate. For example, metta, or loving-kindness meditation is a practice of deliberately cultivating feelings of compassion for various people. You typically start by directing feelings of compassion toward yourself, perhaps using a script like, “May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be healthy, may I live peacefully,” or something similar. If you can’t manage to conjure any compassionate feelings for yourself, move that to later. Instead, start with someone close to you, but not a romantic partner–perhaps a best friend or even a pet. Imagine that person and direct positive feelings to them.
Next, think of someone you like but aren’t especially close to and repeat the process. Next, do the same thing while thinking of someone you’ve seen but don’t really know, perhaps a neighbor or a clerk at the grocery store. Finally, direct positive feelings toward someone challenging. It doesn’t have to be the person you hate most in the world, just someone you find it hard to get along with. Think of this like you would any other exercise. Don’t try to do too much at once and don’t feel bad if you aren’t instantly overflowing with love for your critical mother-in-law or work nemesis. You’ll get better with practice. In the meantime, use it as an opportunity to be more compassionate with yourself.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about compassion is that it will make you happier. It also makes your brain work better. Studies have found that the brains of Buddhist monks generate unprecedented levels of gamma waves when they practice compassion meditations. While most of us won’t put in the time to reach that level, cultivating compassion can make us all happier. At Enlightened Solutions, we believe that compassion, joy, and well-being are fundamental to a strong recovery from substance use disorders. We use a variety of methods, including meditation and yoga, to treat the whole person. To learn more about our programs, explore our website or call us at 833-801-LIVE.
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