As an addiction clinician, you've chosen a career to help people—and caregiving is most likely essential to your personality. If working in this field for even a year or two, you're undoubtedly skillful in treating clients kindly and empathically. Not everyone has a compassionate disposition, and indeed it often seems in short supply around us. But do you also treat yourself with kindness? Do you readily forgive yourself for mistakes? Or are you often self-critical and self-berating? Your career success and personal well-being are affected by how you answer these questions, which relate to the trait known as self-compassion.
The ability to treat oneself with caring, concern and kindness is the subject of mounting research in positive psychology. Self-compassion is linked to greater life satisfaction, optimism, agreeableness and wisdom. It is also associated with lower anxiety and depression, as well as serving as a powerful buffer when stressful situations arise—and these of course are plentiful in addiction counseling.
The world's leading investigator of self-compassion is Kristin Neff, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin. She first became interested in the topic in the late 1990s while participating in “Insight Meditation” sessions during a contentious divorce. “I had a lot of stress in my life,” Neff recalled in an interview. “I was in a Buddhist group and they talked about mindfulness and compassion. … I just thought, 'Wow, I have the right to compassion like everyone else.'”
Later, Neff received another life-jolt when she and her husband learned that their son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. “And again,” she recollected, “it just saved me, giving myself the time to deal with my grief. … I would just send myself compassion quite intensely. It just saved me, so I know that it works.”
Since 2003, Neff and her colleagues have conducted dozens of studies establishing the significance of self-compassion as a major personality trait. In her view, self-compassion comprises three distinct but interrelated aspects: self-kindness, a sense of shared humanity, and mindfulness, or the ability to face painful thoughts and feelings without exaggeration, drama or self-pity.
Self-kindness involves caring and understanding toward oneself, as well as self-soothing—as opposed to self-blaming and being overly tough on oneself. The result is greater equanimity. Having a sense of shared humanity (“Everyone makes mistakes in life”) helps us to understand that flaws and imperfection are basic to the human condition. This mindset means recognizing that our thoughts, feelings and actions are affected by external forces that include our family history and cultural background, and strengthen our feelings of connectedness to others. Finally, mindfulness involves observing our negative thoughts and feelings with receptivity and clarity. In this way, we learn to detach ourselves from fleeting moments of anger, impatience or insecurity.
Self-compassion isn't the same as self-pity, which is basically an egocentric attitude entwined with feelings of isolation and sadness. Self-pity essentially denies that others on this planet are experiencing the same, or possibly even worse, difficulties. It ignores out interconnection with others.
Nor is self-compassion the same as self-indulgence: Advising your best friend to eat a pint of ice cream when feeling upset wouldn't be considered a compassionate response. So, if self-compassion is akin to treating yourself as your best friend, you'd urge yourself to take a walk, exercise in a gym or do something creatively interesting to climb out of a bad mood.
Among the greatest obstacles to self-compassion is perfectionism. No human being can ever be perfect, and this is certainly true in the complex field of addiction counseling. Even the self-actualizers whom Abraham Maslow admiringly described were far from perfect; indeed, Maslow wisely warned against the drive for perfection, and recent positive psychology research shows that perfectionists are less happy than others. This finding is hardly surprising.
To help boost your self-compassion, write about a recent event in which you allowed perfectionism to affect your mood or social interaction at work. What was the activity and setting? Who, if anyone, was with you? Looking back, what could you have done instead to keep perfectionism at bay, and to treat yourself more kindly?
Edward Hoffman, PhD, is an adjunct psychology professor at Yeshiva University and a licensed psychologist based in New York City. His books include biographies of Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow, and he most recently co-authored, with William C. Compton, PhD, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing (Sage Publications).