The Value of Compassion in Addiction Recovery

March 17, 2020

Compassion is a fundamental trait for addiction recovery and for life. Compassion literally means “to suffer together” and it has two basic parts: empathy for other people’s suffering and the deep desire to relieve that suffering. Compassion plays an important role in addiction recovery in the following ways.

Self-Compassion Comes First

Self-compassion is one of the most important things in recovery from addiction. Too often, people with substance use disorders are kind to others and merciless with themselves. Substance use is often driven by a deep sense of shame or other emotional pain. Recovery is often complicated by shame or regret over things done during active addiction. Beating yourself up only makes recovery harder and it doesn’t help anyone. 

The connection between self-compassion and substance use has been pretty well studied. Various studies have found that self-compassion protects mental health and wellbeing, that is it’s associated with better emotional regulation, and it mitigates the damage caused by adverse childhood experiences. Self-compassion is related to less drug and alcohol use and, people who do develop severe alcohol problems, have better recovery outcomes when they have more self-compassion. These outcomes include longer periods of abstinence and fewer negative emotions such as stress, depression, and anxiety.

Unfortunately, negative emotions such as guilt, shame, and self-criticism come more naturally to us than positive emotions. This is especially true for people recovering from addiction and mental health issues. We are usually much harder on ourselves than we would ever be on other people, often internalizing the criticism we received as children from parents, teachers, and peers. Paradoxically, this criticism doesn’t help us change our behavior and only causes suffering. 

True change is only possible when you relate to yourself with compassion. It doesn’t mean you approve of every bad thing you’ve ever done, just that you accept that you were doing the best you could at the time. We all do better with love and support and that means loving and supporting ourselves. This is one reason newer forms of therapy, such as acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, and compassion-focused therapies are becoming increasingly popular. 

 Compassion for Your Future Self Increases Willpower

Compassion isn’t just a better way of relating to your present self; it’s also a better way of relating to your future self. As strange as it sounds, we think of our future selves as different people. Logically, we know that our future selves are us but, at an emotional level, we act as if they weren’t. Just as our brains have a natural bias for negative emotions over positive emotions, they also have a natural bias for present desires over future desires. As a result, your present self may really want a drink even though you know the consequences will be bad for your future self. Research shows that having compassion for your future self can actually increase your self-control. That’s because even though your future self feels like a different person, you have compassion for what that person will have to endure if you make a bad decision now. Although you shouldn’t primarily rely on willpower to keep you sober, it can certainly come in handy. Practicing compassion for your future self is one way to boost your self-control in tough situations. 

Compassion for Others Strengthens Relationships

We all instinctively like compassionate people. These are the people who are genuinely interested in us and our wellbeing. They are people who will do what they can to make our lives a little easier. The best relationships are between people who have genuine compassion for one another. Expanding your sense of compassion is the single best way if strengthening your relationships. Good relationships are really the bedrock of a strong recovery. Good relationships give you a sense of purpose and belonging. They reduce stress and help you solve problems. A strong sober network helps keep you accountable during those moments when your motivation to stay sober wavers. 

You Can Cultivate Compassion

Like many attributes, some of us have more compassion than others. However, if you’re not naturally inclined to feel compassionate toward yourself and others, there are ways to expand your sense of compassion. First, in dealing with yourself, always ask if you would treat others the same way you’re treating yourself. For example, when you’re berating yourself for something you’re ashamed of, stop and think whether you would speak in the same way to a close friend or a child you care about. The answer is probably no. Try taking the third-person perspective and talk to yourself the way an ideal parent or mentor would.

As for others, start by simply intending to be more compassionate. Remind yourself when you first wake up in the morning that you’re going to try to be more compassionate today. Then, look for moments when you naturally feel compassion, for example, a child who falls down and gets hurt or someone caught biking in a downpour. We often insulate ourselves from our innate feelings of compassion to avoid discomfort but if you embrace your compassionate instincts instead, they can be a source of connection and meaning, especially if you act on them to relieve someone else’s suffering.  

Compassion is a fundamental value for addiction recovery. It helps you deal with yourself in a more supportive way, it helps you connect to others, and it just makes you happier. Making a point of cultivating compassion for yourself and others takes only a little effort, but it can bring big rewards in terms of better relationships, greater wellbeing, and a longer recovery. At Steps Recovery Centers, we know that recovering from addiction is really a process of finding more fulfillment in life and we want to give our clients everything they need to achieve their recovery goals. To learn more about our alumni services, call us at 385-236-0931.

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