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Did you know that people with low levels of self-compassion are at greater risk for addiction? I didn’t understand this correlation, but I felt it.
One day in 2012, I was reading emerging research in self-compassion. As I turned the pages of the article and learned the outcomes associated with these skills and practices, it hit me hard. This was going to change my life.
At the time, I was stuck. I was stuck deep in shame, mired in addiction, unable to change my life’s trajectory. I had developed unhealthy drinking habits after a devastating divorce that in one fell swoop cost me a husband, stepson, friend, business, hobby, and about $60K.
If anyone could think themselves out of alcoholism, it should have been me. I had a PhD in pharmacology with a focus in neuroscience and experience in behavior change, and yet, I was stuck. I checked myself into an outpatient rehab program because I knew I needed help.
Rehab taught me how alcoholism worked from the inside and how to arrange my life and relationships to support not drinking. I reluctantly listened. I did not want to be there. I did not want to be an alcoholic, and most importantly, I did not want anyone to know.
As you can imagine, rehab brought limited results. You see, I secretly didn’t want to quit drinking, what I really wanted was to be a normal person without a mental illness. What rehab did not teach me was how to deal with my overwhelming shame.
In that moment, I asked myself, “What would be the most self-compassionate thing I could do for myself?” The answer came before I could even finish the thought. I needed to quit drinking, for real, forever. With full faith in the power of self-compassion, I immediately set my sober date and began my adventure in learning how to be self-compassionate.
My felt sense that self-compassion was my missing link to sobriety turned out to be spot on. I just celebrated 6 years of not drinking. But I’m a trained researcher, and an N of one (single case study) does not a hypothesis prove. So I got to work.
Last year, colleagues at UT Health San Antonio and I published a small study that showed the first evidence that self-compassion is correlated with addiction risk.
I’m often asked what I think is going on behind the data. Even though low self-compassion is correlated with increased risk for addiction (and vise versa), this does not indicate causality, meaning we don’t know which came first to cause the other, or if it’s even casual at all.
My suspicion is that it goes both ways. People who have low self-compassion tend to isolate themselves and stay in shame, which puts you at risk. However, you can also look at it the other direction. People who have been stuck in chronic addiction are continuing a set of behaviors that are self-harming, and I believe this in and of itself could be enough to lower your levels of self-compassion.
If you are interested in working with people who are learning how to recover from addiction, let me know. I’m actively using self-compassion in recovery coaching and testing a relapse prevention program that is based on this wonderful science.
The work we do as teachers of MSC is important. When you are out there in the community, you never know who your students are going to be. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism indicates that 15.1 million adults in the US suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder.
The odds that you have these folks in your classes is high, which means you have the opportunity to be the missing link for people just like me.