Self-Compassion Is Key to Behavior Change

Many of us become frustrated or angry at ourselves when we try unsuccessfully to change our behaviors or to act differently. Some of my clients have even expressed, early on in therapy, self-loathing for their perceived failures. But feeling negatively toward yourself will not get you any closer to your goals. It’ll do the exact opposite, in fact: it’ll keep you stuck.

First, recognize that you, as a human being, are already OK just as you are. Your behaviors may not be completely aligned with your best self. But you are not your behaviors. Do not identify with them.

Second, behavior change is difficult for a reason. If it weren’t, more of us would be perfectly healthy, for example, treat everyone with respect and tell the truth at all times, have admirable careers or substantial savings accounts, and the list goes on depending on what’s relevant to you and what you’re able to do differently. Look around you. You’ll see you’re not alone in your imperfection.

Now let me ask you a question: What would your life be like without the behavior? Can you imagine this scenario? What would happen if you let go of this unwanted behavior?

If your answer sounds something like, “I’d be happier,” or “I’d feel better about myself,” or “I’d be relieved,” then I’ll ask you another question (let the answer come from your body rather than your intellect): How does the behavior help you? What prevents you from giving it up?

Does the response surprise or enlighten you? Have you gained any insight? Or do you still perceive the behavior as a simple obstacle in your journey and you’d like some help in transforming it?

Regardless of the answer, I invite you now to have compassion for the part of yourself that has stumbled, even repeatedly. That’s where change begins: radical acceptance of your imperfection. If you can’t get past your guilt, then I urge you to reach out to a trusted friend, family member, mental health professional, or spiritual coach for help.

The truth is, the behavior, even if it is dysfunctional, unhealthy, or not in your or others’ best interests, is helping you in some way. It may have been soothing you, helping you feel safe, keeping you steady. Now that you recognize there’s a better way, it’s time to forgive yourself and  then embark on that next step: change.

Ask yourself: is this a change you can make on your own? If not, where do you get stuck, and who can help you? Do you need a doctor, a coach, a therapist, or a support group? Consider giving yourself the gift of asking for assistance. You don’t have to do this alone. Above all, hold onto self-compassion.

—Allison Brunner, LCSW, RM, Body Talks Therapy

To My Body: I’m Sorry. Please Forgive Me. Thank You. I Love You.

Shopping for clothing to accommodate the weight I’d gained from a health struggle over the past year, I entered a dressing room with several pairs of pants. I tried pulling up pastel khakis past my hips, and they wouldn’t budge. I sank into shame. They were one size larger than I’d worn last year. I pulled on a larger pair, and they too were snug.

I frowned at myself in the mirror. 

In a neighboring stall, two women brooded over their own bodies.

“My arms look like sausages. I should buy something with sleeves, shouldn’t I?”

“You’re smaller than I am. I look like a tent in this dress.”

At the sound of the ladies’ self-deprecation, my heart felt like it gained a few pounds. 

Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are more aesthetically discerning than 80 to 85 percent of the population, according to psychologist and researcher Dr. Elaine Aron. I suspect that this aspect of our personality traits can translate to perfectionism with regard to our physical appearances. 

For a decade, I’ve worked with highly sensitive women (and a couple of men) who hated their bodies and themselves, and I’ve cheered inwardly at the slow but steady progress theyve made in feeling more tenderly toward themselves.

Well, healer, heal thyself, I thought while slipping forlornly back into my too-tight jeans.

After years of personal growth and healing work, I thought that at last I’d fallen in love with myself and vowed to help others regard themselves as tenderly.

Today was a setback. I winced at the emotional bruise inflicted by my own self-loathing and at the collective “I’m unlovable” or “I’m not enough” wound that weighs on the psyches of humans around the world.

Exiting the dressing room, I spotted the women I’d overheard. My favorite barista, among the two, lights up entire rooms with her bright-green eyes, warm smile and belly laughter. People pack the coffee shop where she serves genuine compliments and encouragement along with our espressos and herbal tea, remembers our names and details of our personal lives, and creates an environment to which patrons like I return for a little energetic sunshine when life feels heavy.

If only she knew how easy she is to love, I thought, I doubt she’d fret at her figure.

Her friend attends the more advanced ballet class still in session each week as I arrive to warm up for mine. I gaze at her in delight through glass doors as she steps and pirouettes masterfully across the hardwood floors. Her frame, soft and curvier than her peers’, expresses most precisely that which stirs within me as I hear the music.

On summer nights when I was a little girl, my Catholic grandmother would summon my sister and me to shower as we returned sweaty from playing badminton with our aunt. “Your body is a temple,” she’d instruct cheerfully, the vessel through which our Souls came to Earth so we could spread God’s love. Then she’d hand us towels and washcloths for our evening scrub.

My grandmother planted in me a seed that today has sprouted into gratitude for my physicality; over the years my body has provided a safe container to process years of emotional pain and grief and assists me to this day in tolerating strong emotions. It is among a list of reasons I cherish my profession as a somatic psychotherapist. Moreover, by grounding into and being aware of our physical experience, we can more fully access our creativity, divinity, intuition, and information that is beyond the intellect’s reach.

Every May, my legs carry me sturdily as I run like a lover to her beloved at the first sight of the Jersey Shore and plunge ecstatically into the waves. Through September, my arms pull me beneath and my knees help me jump high above crests as I splash and flirt with the restless summer sea. From fall until spring, my ankles and core prevent me from falling from boulders and steep hills on hikes while my lungs welcome fresh mountain air and exhale city pollutants and accumulated weeklong stress.

When I consider all that our bodies do for us and the miracles they perform every minute of every day, I regret the mental and verbal abuse we inflict on ourselves and cringe at its potential impact on our health and well-being.

Consider these experiments conducted by Dr. Masaru Emoto beginning in 1994: When Emoto exposed water to words in the form of printed letters, prayer, speeches, and music, the results were astonishing. Samples from rivers and lakes labeled “love and appreciation” and “gratitude,” for example, transformed when frozen into silvery mandala-like crystals. Those subjected to “I hate you, I want to kill you” and similar language turned murky and asymmetrical.

Humans contain about 60 percent water. How are the the thoughts and words we use to label ourselves and others affecting our bodies? If we could crystalize the water inside of us, what would it look like?

From infancy into adulthood, we’ve adopted beliefs about ourselves based on the way people have spoken to and treated us. Parents, teachers, peers, strangers, institutions, and even our culture and society have dubbed us dumb, lazy, losers, sinners, uncool, lacking in this or that, etc.

How long will we choose to perpetuate such cruelty with our own self-judgment?

When will we turn the tide and begin to heal our relationships with not only our bodies but ourselves?

I can tell you from experience, in what I’ve observed in myself and in clients, that the more you love yourself unconditionally, the more love you can hold for others. Assess the consciousness of our planet these days, and I’m sure you’ll agree that the world could use a whopping dose of unconditional love.

By now you’ve likely heard the increasingly popular mantra, “Heal yourself to heal the world.”

So I invite you to join me, for we have plenty of work to do.

Jot down all the ways you’re able to live your life as you intend, thanks to your body. Or, consider what you’d not be able to do if you didn’t have a body. Remember the fresh berries you’ve tasted, the hugs you’ve received, the sunsets you’ve watched, the dinners you’ve cooked, the car you’ve driven, the dances you’ve danced, or the fires you’ve started at camp sites. Include the impact you have on people day to day by just being you, holding doors, smiling at strangers, comforting a child, tipping generously, giving people the benefit of the doubt, offering expert advice, or cheering a friend.

Regard the story of your life as an omniscient observer and notice whether you can feel compassion for all that you’ve been through and for all that you dream of.

Now, if you feel so inspired, repeat several times the words of this ancient Hawaiian healing practice, called Ho’oponopono. Address your body:

I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.

Or sing it along with one of my most inspiring friends and favorite kirtan musician, Jennifer Angelino Petro, whose YouTube videos she created when known as Joseph Anthony recently facilitated deeper healing in my relationship with my body—to the extent that inflammation that caused me chronic pain has healed and, yes, I’ve even lost a little weight.

For all of that within you that longs to heal, sing these words. Sing them to political candidates (perhaps without them knowing), people with whom you experience conflict, people who are suffering, and even your cat (mine purrs when I do).

I invite you to contact me via my web site, or leave a message below, and let me know whether you experience any shifts in emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual health.

And if you love Jennifer’s video as much as I do, there are so many more in which she includes tapping on specific spots of the body, or the Emotional Freedom Technique, to help boost your body image and self-worth. You can find them on her YouTube channel.

Here is one more of Jennifer’s videos I recommend (and my grandmother would appreciate):

And to Jennifer (and all others on this planet): for the persecution you’ve endured for expressing yourself authentically, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. So much.

—Allison Brunner, LCSW, RM, Body Talks Therapy