Do you get a second try at life?

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.

So, as I was reading about self-compassion, it was a total-body, ah-ha moment. The kind of moment you remember just where you were and how you were feeling for the rest of your life.

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.

Either way, I know that my ticket to freedom from addiction had to include self-compassion to address my overwhelming sense of shame, and I know this is likely true for many others.

You don’t have to fit the criteria of an “addict” to be troubled by habits that don’t serve you. But the good news is that, as a practitioner of MSC, we have the benefits of understanding how to treat ourselves with kindness and support when we are in particularly difficult situations, including those that may be triggers for unhealthy habits. We know that people with higher levels of self-compassion have a better chance of making and sustaining healthy behavior changes. And by all means, if you are struggling, don’t let shame and isolation keep you from getting help, because reaching out to a trusted friend for help may be the most self-compassionate thing you do for yourself, ever.

Dr. Phelps is a mindfulness teacher, researcher, instructional designer, coach, and international speaker. Her expertise is in using research-based mindfulness methods to help people improve their lives by creating a more compassionate relationship with themselves. She has a PhD in pharmacology with a focus in neuroscience and behavior change, and uses her background and practical design experience to incorporate the science of compassion into her work. She is the founder of InnerAlly, a B-Corporation that leverages research in positive psychology to create research-based curricula and digital tools to improve mental wellness.
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