Being compassionate and accepting of yourself is an important piece of recovery. From the time we’re young, we hear about the importance of having self-esteem.
When it comes to drugs and alcohol, we’re told that people who have self-esteem and are confident in themselves will be able to resist peer pressure and “just say no.”
However, Amy Crawford, the clinical program director at Deer Hollow Recovery and Wellness Centers, a treatment center in Draper, Utah, says that focusing too much on self-esteem can hinder recovery rather than helping it.
In fact, she says that focusing on self-compassion and radical self-acceptance is much more important to people in recovery from trauma or substance abuse. Here’s why:
Client: A lot of people tote the importance of self-esteem, but you say that this quality can actually be dangerous. How can that be?
Crawford: To have high self-esteem we have to be special and above average… and it is hard for all of us to be special and above average all the time! Self-esteem has us needing to feel better than others to feel good inside. In most cases, bullying occurs to feel stronger or more powerful inside. We enhance our self-esteem by focusing on our successes, but that makes it contingent. When we fail, which everyone does at some point; we feel lousy and terrible about ourselves. When people focus on self-esteem, they set a perception of themselves that is hard to maintain on a continual basis.
Client: That makes sense. So rather than focusing on self-esteem, what makes them unusual or great? You tell clients to focus on self-compassion; what’s the difference?
Crawford: Self-compassion is how we relate to ourselves kindly. It doesn’t encourage harsh self-judgment but instead fills you with empathy for yourself. We are often our own worst enemy. Self-compassion flips that narrative and teaches us to treat ourselves like we are our own best friends.
If we’re focused on self-esteem many people become critical of themselves, thinking that will motivate them to change, which simply is not true. Self-criticism undermines people and causes further depression. Self-compassion, on the other hand, releases oxytocin and dopamine, which is very beneficial to us. Self-compassion is evidence-based and has a high correlation to positive outcomes in life. Self-compassion provides the benefits of self-esteem without any of the accompanying pitfalls.
Client: That sounds important, especially for people in recovery, who often need to be gentle with themselves through the ups and downs of early sobriety.
Crawford: This is where radical self-acceptance comes in. This is when you genuinely accept yourself just the way you are. You have freed yourself from feelings of shame and unworthiness, which are the source of many problems we experience with our relationships, careers, creative endeavors, and most fundamentally, our spiritual unfolding.
Radical self-acceptance shows you how to free yourself from the grip of your insecurities about being good enough, and become more compassionate toward the unforgivable parts of your “self"; The most difficult and pervasive challenge many of us face is the suffering caused by our feelings of unworthiness and self-aversion. Radical self-acceptance offers a way to break out of this emotional prison, so you can discover the freedom that comes with kindness and true appreciation of yourself and others.
Once a client applies radical self-acceptance as well as self-compassion, they are able to love and forgive themselves as well as the ones who have hurt them in the past and present. They are now empowered to have their future without any unnecessary suffering.
Client: So, how do we learn self-compassion and self-acceptance?
Crawford: You can become more self-compassionate and accepting of yourself by being open hearted to yourself. In turn, this makes you more able to be more open hearted to others as well. We need to challenge ourselves to be open hearted and to love ourselves in all places and at all times. Granted, easier said than done, but awareness and mindfulness go a long way.
Deer Hollow Recovery and Wellness Centers is a treatment center in Draper, Utah, that guides clients in moving towards physical, spiritual, psychological and social recovery.