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When I first made the choice to stop drinking and start talking about it, I often heard from friends and family, “Oh, I had no idea it had gotten so bad for you.”
Or, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through!” Those responses I could live with. They were coming from a great and genuine place of love. I felt no judgment or guilt from them.
In fact, hearing this from my loved ones really bolstered me and helped encourage me in my choice.
That’s why it was so devastating to me the first time a friend reacted with, “Well it sucks to be you! I could never imagine not drinking or hanging out with someone who doesn’t drink. How boring!”
I was crushed. The pity and disdain in her words were so unexpected and made me question if I was even making the right choice. Was I ostracizing myself? Was this what everyone was secretly thinking? Had I just set myself up for a life of being a social pariah? Why would anyone pity me for wanting to take control of a situation that was hurting me?
Sympathy and pity look and feel very different from each other. Sympathy is the idea of “I can see that you’re having a hard time and I’m here for you.” It is delivered without judgment or disdain. Pity, on the other hand, is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of someone else. It’s that feeling of wanting to walk across the street when you encounter that individual lest you catch what it is they have.
Luckily, I had incredible support at home. Although it wasn’t in a way you would traditionally call a support system. My husband basically said, “Look, this is your thing. I’m never going to stop drinking. I have no intention of stopping drinking. If you want to do this that’s great and I’m here for you, but I have no expectations or rules for you.”
Wait, what? I can do this however I want to and you’re going to love me anyway? I can fail miserably, fall flat on my face and that’s okay?
So I did the damn thing. And I did it big. Because I had all this big love and compassion along the way. Science says compassion led change is not only the most effective and shortest way to change, but it also creates the most lasting change.
The great thing about choosing compassion and sympathy over pity and judgment when it comes to creating a change is that it creates the space for transparency and for building trust rather than abdicating guilt.
A study in the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Journal found that an important part of the process is the mistakes that people make. They basically say that people would be more successful at creating and maintaining change if they were allowed to make mistakes during the process and learn from that as that creates personal maturation. Personal maturation is the individual learning and overcoming this on their level. In other words, sometimes you have to fall off the bike in order to learn how to ride.
I don’t know about you, but I already do a pretty bang-up job of beating myself up when I make a mistake. So to be forced to show up at a meeting or with a family member and say, “I screwed up big time!” only to be agreed with, stripped of my achievements, and told I needed to start all over—building trust, building skills. I probably wouldn’t even attempt it again.
Compassion says we’re not going to look at what went wrong. We’re going to celebrate what went right. Positive reinforcements are crucial to the recovery process. When others show us compassion and begin to shine light on all the things that are going right for us, it gives us the freedom to begin practicing self-compassion and the freedom to make mistakes without adding to the guilt and resentment pile we’ve been slowly chipping away at.
By tuning in to the compassion of others, I was able to practice it on myself. Tuning in to my self-talk and stopping myself when I would begin reciting the words that would inevitably lead me to drink. “I can’t believe I screwed up that presentation at work. That was so stupid! I should just drink to forget about it!” turned into “Whoops! That was a doozy! Let me send an email to clarify what I left out so that I’m not stressed out about it all night.”
Sounds simple, but for someone who is so used to failure and beating themselves up, it’s a significant shift that lays the groundwork for lasting change. It started as wanting to find freedom from alcohol but that compassion didn’t just bring me freedom from alcohol. It’s been so much more.
I’ve found freedom from limiting beliefs. Freedom from beating myself up. I’m free from worrying about the pity or disdain of that “friend.” Compassion has freed me to not only believe in my ability to change but also the ability of everyone else to change as well.
What if we all approached change through a lense of compassion? What if we stripped away our own preconceptions and instead gave everyone the freedom to fail, learn, and find success in their own beautiful, sometimes messy way? How could the narrative change if we changed our approach?
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