Self-compassion & substance use
Updated: Jul 2
If I were to see you trip and spill coffee on yourself, my instinct would be to assist you. I would think, “that sucks they tripped” and I would help you up, maybe try to find you a paper towel or something.
However, when I trip and spill my coffee, what I tell myself is “I suck for tripping”. I will feel dumb since other people saw me (since I am not fortunate enough to trip in privacy), and I will probably blame myself. Why? Because like most of us, I do not practice enough self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a positive attitude we have towards ourselves. When we lack this, we are hard on ourselves and we keep ourselves locked in negativity.
Emotional regulation and self-compassion
Self-compassion is a positive, emotional stance towards oneself. It is also considered an emotional regulation strategy in which we accept our negative feelings with awareness, kindness, understanding and a sense of common humanity. Essentially, self-compassion can help to transform our negative emotions into positive ones, or at the very least, less painful emotions.
Emotional regulation is a psychological capacity. It consists of the ability to exhibit self-control, the ability to tolerate distress and the ability to monitor oneself and have an awareness of our emotions. How we manage our emotions, how we express our emotions and how we cope with negative emotional states are all part of emotional regulation.
When we have difficulties in emotional regulation, we are more likely to have mood disorders, anxiety disorders, impulsivity, mood swings and issues with substance use.
The role of self-compassion and substance use
A recent study showed evidence of an inverse relationship between substance use disorders and self-compassion. Many researchers have posited that the avoidance of painful, negative feelings is often the impetus for substance use. When we have difficulty regulating our emotions and coping with our negative states, we may reach for substances.
When viewed in this way, substance use is a logical choice—something needs to alleviate your pain. When the substance brings about positive feelings, the behavior is reinforced over time. This is often where recreational use runs risk of dependence, or addiction.
The connection between self-compassion and substance use is an under-researched area. However, some studies have found some commonalities with individuals with substance use disorders. Many were found to have difficulties with emotional regulation and maintained uncompassionate ways of responding to their needs and pain. Some of these ways included shame, self-criticism, negative emotions (depression, anxiety, anger), and loneliness or isolation.
Self-compassion as a tool in recovery
I am using the word recovery broadly. In this context, it could mean reducing harm with use, practicing moderation, or any identified goal you may have. Some studies are concluding (seemingly logically) that self-compassion techniques may promote recovery from substance use through strategies that enable individuals to better accept emotional pain and to view their own thoughts and feelings with compassion.
Although we are all motivated to use substances for different reasons at different times, most of us REALLY want to drink/smoke/snort, etc. when we feel bad about ourselves. During times of anger, shame, or embarrassment we reach for those substances as an alleviation. And it works…until we feel bad about it later and the cycle continues. But what if we had more tools available than substances? What if we felt like our use was more of a choice than a need?
Recovery capital is a concept for understanding the wide range of personal and social resources that are required in the effort to initiate and maintain recovery. You can start building recovery capital before you have even decided you want to quit or cut down. Self-compassion helps to build positive emotions which are essential for recovery capital. The benefits of experiencing more positive emotions go beyond the present. They are linked to broadened cognition, better creativity, an increase in productivity and improved mental and physical health.
How to begin incorporating self-compassion
Breaking patterns and seeing things from a new perspective takes time and practice. So, if you do not feel like you are succeeding, do not beat yourself up. Remind yourself that changing is hard and it kind of sucks, but that you can do hard things and you will get this. And if you do that, then you will already be practicing self-compassion.
Although self-compassion can be both broad and complex, here are some simple ways to start.
1. Treat yourself as kindly as you would treat a friend, or even a stranger (see my coffee example). Think how you would support someone or talk to someone who was upset or saying bad things about themselves. How would you respond to them? Then, use that same approach on yourself when you are feeling down.
2. Increase self-awareness through self-acceptance. You f**k up sometimes. You have flaws. Hey, me too. Rather than berate yourself, accept that you make mistakes. Accept that you have flaws. Honestly acknowledge them and then go ahead and acknowledge your strengths because you have those as well.
3. Replace self-criticism with an affirmation. No, I do not mean the Stuart Smalley, “you are good enough, smart enough…people like you” non-sense. An affirmation can be something simple that will not make you feel silly. Try this one if you cannot think of your own yet:“I accept the best and worst aspects of who I am.”
4. Try writing. Numerous studies have shown writing to be related to feelings of greater psychological well-being. When you write, try to have a little self-distance which can be helpful in improving emotional regulation. Think like a curious observer, but about yourself. An example journal topic might be, “why did you lose your temper?” versus “why did I lose my temper?” Other ways to self-distance might be, “looking back now, I see…”, or “Now I realize…”. Also, writing is a good coping strategy during times of stress, boredom, or loneliness.
If you think counseling may help, Substance Use Therapy is here for you. If you want to practice and read more about self-compassion, Positive Psychology.com has some great resources including books, worksheets, journal prompts and information.
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.