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If you’re committed to change this new year, replace the hard-headed discipline with self-compassion. Studies show it’s a more effective strategy for making all kinds of behavioral changes.
Every resolution to change begins with a burst of hope. You feel great when you do yoga, so you vow to practice every day. Or maybe you realize that your afternoon coffee breaks drain your energy, so you pledge to cut back. When you make these promises, you feel light hearted, elated, perhaps even connected to your higher Self. You’re ready to honor your longing for health and happiness. And deep down, you know you’re up to the challenge.
But after the initial enthusiasm wears off and you hit your first setback (the tempting latte, the skipped yoga practice), your inner critic pipes up. “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you make this simple change?” The voice gets louder and meaner, and soon self-doubt creeps in. Perhaps you try to rally by setting stricter goals, or maybe you decide the resolution isn’t so important after all. Either way, your inspiration fades—and poof!—your old habits return.
Fortunately, yoga offers an alternative approach for making positive changes in your life: self-compassion. One of the messages in yoga’s seminal scripture, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, is that self-transformation doesn’t happen overnight, but you can overcome negative patterns one step at a time. If you are gentle with yourself and accept your setbacks with compassion, you can change your life for the better. New scientific research is giving this ancient wisdom credence and showing that, when it comes to making a change, self-compassion is your greatest source of strength. So, whether you want to change a negative behavior (like overeating or snapping at your kids) or commit to a positive one (like meditating every day), the best approach is to cultivate self-compassion and tap into its power, so that you can stick to your resolutions—and build a better life.
Your Inner Light
If being hard on yourself is counterproductive, why do you do it? Kate Holcombe, the founder of the Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco, explains that a self-critical approach to change—including the self-judgment, fear, shame, and guilt that often accompany it—reflects what Patanjali calls avidya (which she translates as “incorrect understanding”) and asmita (“false identification”). Basically, you’re mistaking the behavior you want to change for who you are, rather than seeing it for what it is—a pattern or a habit that’s not serving you. “A fundamental principle of yoga is that, deep inside, you are truly perfect just as you are,” she says. When you recognize yourself as fundamentally perfect instead of focusing on your flaws, you can see your negative patterns without judgment.
Patanjali says that the mind is like a brilliant gem, a diamond,” Holcombe explains. “Over a lifetime, that shiny diamond gets dirty, dusty, coated over by conditioned thoughts and the experiences we have. We lose touch with our inner brilliance—the light of the inner Self—and can’t even remember that it’s there.” Yoga is the process of cleaning the mind and whatever is blocking the inner light—the part of you that doesn’t need to be fixed, controlled, or perfected. When you think of changing a pattern that’s not serving you in this way—that is, as cleaning away accumulated dust of the mind, which blocks your just-right Self—it causes you to view the negative behavior from a more compassionate point of view.
Change For Good
Yoga practitioners have been practicing self-compassion for millennia, but psychologists have only begun to test the wisdom of this approach. The evidence, so far, is clear: Self-compassion dramatically improves your chances of making a change for good.
One of the world’s leading researchers on the topic is Kristin Neff, associate professor of human development at the University of Texas, Austin. She says, “The number one thing I’ve found in my research is that people think it’s good to be a little self-compassionate, but not too much. There is a strong belief that we need self-criticism to motivate us. Meaning, ‘If I’m not hard on myself, I’ll let myself get away with everything.'” This, says Neff, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about what self-compassion is: being kind and supportive with yourself when you’re confronting personal weaknesses, challenges, and setbacks. “Self-compassion goes beyond self-acceptance,” she says. “It has an active element of caring, of wanting the best for yourself. It means saying to yourself, ‘I want to heal, to be happy, to be healthy,’ and knowing that sometimes requires you to make a change.” She says that if you view the change you’re trying to make as an act of self-care instead of trying to motivate yourself with anger or rejection, you’ll be more likely to succeed.
Neff also says that people think self-compassion means feeling sorry for themselves or letting themselves off the hook, but research suggests that the opposite is true. In a set of five studies she and her colleagues published in 2007 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants were asked to respond to real, remembered, and imagined failures. In every scenario, participants who scored higher on Neff’s self-compassion scale were less upset by failures and less likely to obsess about them. They were also less defensive and more willing to take responsibility for the outcomes.
Neff’s research has found that people who are hard on themselves are less resilient after a setback and more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. When you’re self-critical, you treat yourself in ways you would never want to treat someone you love: beating yourself up for every imperfection, punishing yourself for any weakness, and discouraging yourself from going after what you really want. Self-compassion provides the supportive emotional environment necessary for change. She says that without the usual guilt, shame, and self-doubt, you can look at yourself clearly, make conscious choices, and take the right steps.
While the ultimate goal of yoga is to reside in your true nature, which is free of suffering, getting to that point is—as Patanjali points out—a long journey. Along the way, there are small steps you can take to cultivate self-compassion in your yoga practice and in your life.
See also Learn How to Forgive Yourself
Cultivate Your Inner Witness
Maggie Juliano, owner of Sprout Yoga in Media, Pennsylvania, leads yoga teacher trainings on topics of recovery and mental health and specializes in helping people change self-destructive behaviors ranging from binging on junk food to abusing drugs. She says that if you want to cultivate self-compassion, start by reframing the behavior you’re trying to change. See it as a symptom of suffering, not as a bad part of yourself that you need to fix.
“If we overeat or overspend and then feel bad about ourselves,” she explains, “we don’t realize we’re suffering because we tried to fix our sadness with shopping or food. We think, ‘I must feel bad because I am bad. I have no self-control.'” All too often, this creates a vicious cycle in which we turn to our old habit (the ice cream, the couch, the credit cards) for comfort yet again, because that’s where we go to feel better about ourselves.
Instead of criticizing yourself, Juliano says, simply acknowledge that you went looking for happiness in the wrong place. When you can separate your sense of self from the behavior, she explains, it’s easier to ask yourself, “What need was I trying to meet?” In other words, why do you want that extra glass of wine, that doughnut, that new pair of shoes? Are you trying to cope with stress, suppress anger, or avoid feeling lonely? What’s driving your urge to stay on the couch or to put off a task you know you should do?
It’s important to be present with your feelings and see them clearly instead of pushing them away, she says. Then, when you’re tempted to slip into a bad habit, you can extend patient, loving attention to yourself. You’ll be less inclined to beat yourself up—and more prepared to make a wise, self-supportive choice.
See also A Road Map to Acceptance
Next, Juliano says, instead of criticizing yourself, find a positive motivation for change. “Remember that you are a person who deserves unconditional love and deserves not to suffer,” she says. “You can make any change from this point of view. Just say to yourself, ‘I’m changing this behavior because I deserve to live a healthier, happier life.'”
See also Day 4: Meditate on Self-Compassion
A great place to start this practice is on your mat, Juliano says, where self-critical thoughts often bubble up. She suggests that when your inner critic starts up while you’re holding a pose, notice how you feel in your body and mind. Then choose a more compassionate response. For example, if you’re berating yourself for not being flexible enough in a pose, remember that the pose is meant to gradually improve your flexibility, not to force you into a perfect asana overnight. Just being present in the pose is enough. If you notice yourself thinking, “I’ve got to go further in this pose or make this pose look better,” ask yourself instead, “Does this pose feel good? Does it feel safe? What can I do to enjoy it more?”
This process will serve you well when you’re off the mat, too. When you’re faced with a choice to succumb to an old habit or stick to your resolve, notice how you’re talking to yourself about the choice. Saying no to the extra slice of chocolate cake or getting up early to meditate isn’t an act of self-denial—it’s an act of self-care. Give yourself credit for your positive choice and recognize that over time, small steps lead to big results.
Slip-Ups and Setbacks
When you’re struggling to make a change in your life, it’s tempting to see your mistakes as evidence that there’s something wrong with you. But as the yogic sage Patanjali points out, everyone suffers, and everyone struggles on the path to self-transformation. This doesn’t mean you should berate yourself every time you miss your morning practice, lose your patience with your spouse, or eat a giant bowl of ice cream. “Rather than add suffering on top of the suffering by saying ‘Why me?’ or ‘I’m so stupid,’ we can use a mistake as an opportunity,” Holcombe advises. “It becomes an experience to learn from.’
Research confirms that mindful self-reflection helps you make a positive change, while beating yourself up often turns a minor setback into a major relapse. “Oh no, I used my credit card!” can quickly spiral into “I already broke my resolve, so I might as well buy that $300 dress.” And “I didn’t practice yoga today” turns into “I’m never going to be a dedicated yogi, so I might as well stop going to class.”
This pattern is so common that researchers have given it a name: the “what-the-hell effect.” The problem is not the initial mistake, but the misery you create over it—which tempts you to turn for comfort to the very thing you’re trying to quit, or to give up a goal so you don’t have to feel bad about failing. Studies have shown that whether you’re trying to lose weight, quit smoking, or start exercising regularly, accepting yourself where you are—and forgiving yourself for setbacks—makes you more likely to succeed. Self-compassion increases a sense of personal responsibility without triggering the guilt and self-blame that are common when you take a self-critical approach to change. In contrast, self-compassion gives you the strength to take care of yourself, even when it’s tempting to succumb to an old habit. Research supports this observation and shows that you don’t have to feel bad about yourself to make a change.
The Bhagavad Gita, one of yoga’s sacred scriptures, offers advice about how to stick to your resolve even when your efforts are less than perfect. When the main character, a warrior and spiritual seeker named Arjuna, becomes overwhelmed by pity and confusion on the brink of battle, he loses the will to fight and calls on Lord Krishna for guidance. In the epic dialogue that follows, Krishna teaches Arjuna that he can regain his confidence and determination by embracing the actions that are his to perform. Krishna says, “Actions truly born of one’s nature, even if they contain fault, should not be relinquished. For all undertakings are covered by some fault, just as fire is covered by smoke.”
Yoga teacher and psychologist Rolf Sovik, the spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute, explains: “At a deep level, even actions that are motivated by your best resolves are marred by imperfections, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. The Bhagavad Gita’s message is that when you invest yourself in the actions you’re meant to perform, you are naturally more tolerant of your imperfections. Step by step, you recognize that you are making your way toward a clearer mind and more tranquil heart. Compassion, in this context, is not so much a psychological strategy as a natural outcome of striving to know your higher Self.”
What’s the ultimate lesson here? When you think of changes you’d like to make in your life in the coming year, think of them with self-compassion. Each step of the way—even when you’re tempted to give up—remember that being kind to yourself will give you the strength to change for good. As Holcombe observes: “We each possess an inner resource of wisdom, resilience, and strength, a place of deep peace and ease, and great joy and light. When we’re connected with that place, there isn’t self-doubt. We know from our core who we are and what to do.” Yoga will help you get there. And being kind to yourself will, too.
Maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam
An essential teaching on compassion appears in Yoga Sutra 1.33. This sutra advises us to cultivate love for those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, joy for those who are virtuous, and equanimity for those who make mistakes. Patanjali’s advice also applies to how we relate to ourselves. Cultivate self-compassion by including this reflection in your meditation or yoga practice.
Love. Acknowledge that you deserve health and happiness, and that you’re worth the effort it takes to make a positive change. Remind yourself how the specific change you are making supports your well-being.
Compassion. Without self-judgment, recognize how the habit you are trying to change creates suffering and stress (including your habit of being hard on yourself). Then acknowledge your desire to be free from this suffering.
Joy. Give yourself credit for, and celebrate, any positive actions you have taken to support yourself in this change. Also, have gratitude for any support you have received from your family and friends.
Equanimity. If you are feeling bad about a recent setback, remind yourself that mistakes are only human, and they’re an important part of the path of change. Instead of berating yourself, focus on your larger goal to be happy, healthy, and free from suffering.
Recipe for Self-Compassion
Research suggests that yoga encourages a self-compassionate attitude toward change. One study found that after going through an eight-week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction including yoga, meditation, and relaxation, 90 percent of participants increased their self-compassion (as measured by researcher Kristin Neff’s self-compassion scale). Neff recommends the following relaxation technique to cultivate self-compassion:
Lie on the floor or sit in a comfortable chair. Take three deep breaths and let your entire body relax. Acknowledge yourself for taking the time to be with yourself in a loving way.
Then begin a body scan, systematically bringing compassionate awareness to each part of the body—starting with the top of your head and working your way down to your toes. As you bring attention to each part of your body, what sensations arise? Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel, without judgment. If any tension, pain, or discomfort is present, imagine soothing it with your awareness and acceptance.
Next, acknowledge what each part of the body does for you. (For example, when you focus on the throat, feel gratitude for how the throat allows you to express yourself through words or song.) When you get to the heart center, acknowledge it as the seat of your emotions, including both the tenderness of self-doubt or fear, and the desire to care for yourself and others. Allow yourself to feel appreciation for both the vulnerability and compassion that arise from the heart. Then continue the body scan down to your toes.
Finish the practice by resting in a sense of self-appreciation, and wish yourself happiness, health, and freedom from suffering.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist, professor, and yoga teacher. She is a consultant for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and the author of Yoga for Pain Relief.
See also Kathryn Budig on Self-Discovery