Turn A Problem On Its Head: Use Self-Compassion

People who come to therapy are not ready to take it easy. They are interested in problem-solving and are usually frustrated by what they perceive to be their own failures in remedying a situation on their own.

In addition to teaching clients new skills, sharing important research on their goals and behaviors, and of course providing a listening ear, one of the most healing aspects to counseling is that I am not part of the client’s failed attempts and negative self-perception. I am, instead, an advocate for the strengths related to who they already are.

The trouble with most problems is that we’ve tried to fix them on our own using a critical mindset, which results in a pattern of defeat. Here are some examples:

  • After a binge, compulsive eaters resolve  to do better tomorrow, but not until they have beat themselves up over what they ate today and how they look and feel. They tell themselves, “No more disgusting behavior. You’re fat and need to get it together.”
  • A depressed student feels isolated and pessimistic about who he or she is and the future. He or she sees other students who appear social, happy, and successful. He or she believes that turning the situation around in order to feel competent around others is impossible. Each urge to join the rest of the world is met by an internal critic who says he or she is inadequate.
  • A mom worries that her son can’t keep up with his peers in school or will not make his desired soccer team. Her son seems otherwise well-adjusted, but she tries to “support” him, and prevent him from any disappointment, with pep talks and by scheduling sports lessons and extra play dates. The more the mom does, the less she feels he cares and the fewer results she sees.

The problem with our internal critic is that it is usually misguided. It’s true—we all need a conscience, and an internal system of regulation to make sure we get to work on time, finish projects, and take care of each other and ourselves. However, people who are stuck in a problem mindset have been ruminating. This is the tendency to over think problems and is at the core of depression and anxiety. This is when Solution Focused Therapy can be effective.

I am sure that at some point you have you found yourself ruminating on something that bothers you. But when this turns into an excessive pursuit of the perfect solution, it leads to dejection. When we see only an “ideal vision” of ourselves, we become depressed and harsh on ourselves. And when we are too hard on others or ourselves it distracts from possible solutions to our problems. We miss what is directly in front of our own eyes.

Try this instead:

  • Cultivate self-compassion. If you can’t do it, ask a therapist, friend, or family member for help. This does not mean letting yourself off the hook for your goals. But in order to achieve any goal, you have to get out of the destructive cycle of self-criticism and dedication to a rigid regimen.
  • Remind yourself that humans are malleable. We become the skills we choose to cultivate. If you seek a positive goal by cultivating self-critical skills, you will miss the point.
  • Practice gratitude. There are huge amounts of data that show counting your blessings even once a week results in better physical health and more positive relationships. Teach your kids to write in a gratitude journal once a week. Define gratitude simply as “wonder at things that are given to you.”

© Copyright 2010 by Lindsey Antin. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Rudy L.

    March 26th, 2010 at 3:08 PM

    Forcing yourself to achieve something higher and striving towards it is a good thing but everything goes awry when you tend to criticize yourself…this is because if a person criticizes himself,he will have no value in others’ perspective and will be treated in a very bad manner.

    This cycle will repeat with the self-esteem going down with each rotation of the cycle and will eventually come to a point wherein the person will be convinced that he is unfit to accomplish just anything at all.

  • Jaden

    March 28th, 2010 at 6:34 AM

    The best thing that my therapist ever did for me was to give me the skills to learn how to actually face a problem head on and deal with it instead of only being to recognize the problem but do nothing about it. She gave me the strength to know that I could resolve these issues with work and time and that is something that I had never realized before. Before I just thought that recognizing the problem was the solution but that was not it at all. She gave me the tools to fix it and my life with these skills is now better thaan ever.

  • Lindsey Antin (author)

    April 21st, 2010 at 10:09 AM

    The key to lasting change is not expecting that problems will not occur, but being able to feel confident that you have the skills to deal with them when they do occur. Tools are one of the best resources a therapist can provide clients! Thanks for reading.

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