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