8 Tips for Cultivating Compassion in Addiction Recovery
Compassion is simply feeling someone else’s pain and sincerely wishing to relieve it. In a previous post, we looked at how compassion benefits addiction recovery. Compassion allows you to forgive yourself for your past mistakes and form stronger bonds with other people. Perhaps most importantly, greater compassion leads to greater happiness.
Concern for helping others rescues you from your own fear and rumination and gives you a sense of purpose. However, you may not know how to be more compassionate, or even if that’s possible. We all know people who seem like they were born to watch out for other people, whether they’re first responders or preschool teachers.
You may think, “That’s just not me.” However, we’re all more adaptable than we believe. With persistent effort, you can become more compassionate and enjoy the benefits that come with it. Here’s how.
Keep an Open Mind
For some people, the benefits of compassion are obvious but others may be more skeptical. They may see kindness and compassion as forms of weakness, believing self-reliance is the only true form of strength. The good news is that you don’t have to flip the compassion switch forever.
You can try it out and see how you like it. Like most things, it takes a bit of work to make compassion a habit but you can try out compassionate thoughts and behaviors without too much effort.
Most of the time, when we resist the idea of compassion, it’s because we feel like no one has done much for us, so why is it our responsibility to help others? However, no one makes it very far in life without help. We’re born helpless, so if you’re alive, someone had to keep you alive for at least a little while.
Other people have helped you along the way, whether you realize it or not. The first big step toward being more compassionate is understanding and feeling grateful for the help we’ve received, even if it was small.
You can easily cultivate gratitude in two ways. First, keep a gratitude journal. Every day, just write down three things that you were grateful for that day. Eventually, you will start noticing things as they happen and feeling more grateful.
Second, write a gratitude letter to someone describing what they did for you and what it meant to you. Then you can deliver the letter if you want. These practices are not only the foundation for compassion, but they have also been shown to make you feel happier and more optimistic.
Start With Compassion for Yourself
When developing compassion, it’s typically easiest to start with yourself. Even if you don’t like yourself very much, at least you genuinely desire your own happiness. Many people struggle with guilt and shame as they try to recover from addiction and developing self-compassion will definitely help with that.
When you think about the mistakes you’ve made, try to have compassion for your past self. Imagine you’re talking to a close friend and trying to support them. It’s also important to have compassion for your future self. Compassion for your future self can give you the motivation to do the hard things now that will benefit you in the future.
Empathy is about half of compassion. If you are going to feel compassion for someone, you have to understand what they’re going through. The best way to do that is to listen. Give others your full attention and listen without judgment. Reflect back what they’ve said and try to put yourself in their place. Ask, “What was that like?”
Try to Stay Present
Staying present is an often overlooked aspect of compassion. If you’re ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, you are necessarily stuck in your own head, and most likely worrying about your own problems. You’re not paying attention to the people around you. Compassion really only happens in the moment, when you become aware that someone else is having trouble.
You have to be present to listen too. One trick you can use to stay mentally present is to think about your feet. Your feet have a high density of nerve endings, yet we rarely pay attention to those sensations. Doing that will instantly bring your attention into the present.
Set Aside Judgments
We make quick judgments all the time and most of the time, we’re trying to answer the question, “Is this useful to me?” as quickly as possible. The problem is that applying these judgments to other people is basically the opposite of compassion.
Once you can stick a label on a person and put them in a box, you don’t have to think about them anymore. Try to be aware of when you're making judgments about people--including yourself--and pause before you do it. Instead of thinking, “they’re this or that kind of person,” just try to see them as they are.
Look for Commonalities
Whereas judgments oversimplify people for easy categorization, looking for common ground builds a bridge. You start to think about what it might be like to be that person. If you don’t know someone well or at all, you can start with some fairly universal assumptions, like that they want to be happy, they want to feel appreciated, they want to be free of pain, and so on, the same as you. Even if they seek these things in a very different way, you will have some points from which to build empathy.
Try Metta Meditation
Metta means something like loving-kindness and it comes from a Buddhist meditation practice. The idea is simple. It’s almost like lifting weights for compassion. You start with something relatively easy: feeling compassion for yourself. You direct a few positive thoughts towards yourself, something like, “May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be healthy,” and so on. When you feel a genuine sense of compassion for yourself, just allow yourself to rest with that feeling for a few minutes.
Then, move on to someone close to you, perhaps a relative or your best friend, and do the same thing. Then, move on to a stranger, and finally a challenging person. You don’t have to do all this at once. You can work up to it over the course of weeks or months if you have to. The key is to challenge yourself to feel genuine concern for people you aren’t really close to or that you may even dislike. This is incredibly hard for most people, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it right away.
Developing a greater sense of compassion is one of the best ways to strengthen your recovery because it makes you feel happier and more connected to others. Cultivating compassion is mainly a matter of intention and persistence. Remind yourself daily that you’re going to listen to others, try to understand what they’re experiencing, and try to be kind.
At The Foundry, we know that connection is one of the most important things in recovery. It makes you feel happier and gives you a sense of purpose and belonging. That’s why we promote a sense of community in our treatment program through group and family therapy, group activities, mindfulness meditation, and other methods. To learn more, call us at (844) 955-1066.