In her book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do To Get more of It, Kelly McGonigal describes several research studies on guilt and addictive habits. Guilt, it seems, triggers a stress response, which increases the desire to use the very things causing us problems. When we feel stress from guilt we want relief quickly–watching TV, internet or social media use, shopping, unhealthy eating, substance abuse, or anger. Such strategies appear to be solutions, but in the end they make us feel worse. Quick relief is connected to the brain’s “wanting system,” dopamine release, which offers the promise of a reward without delivering results. This is why one chocolate covered cookie is never enough. The result of such strategies is a negative feedback loop.
Strategies that make us feel good in the long-term include prayer, meditation, yoga, exercise, spending time with family or friends, getting enough sleep, and reading. These activate the brains’ feel-good systems: serotonin, GABA, and oxytocin. Feel-good strategies require some effort in order to get the reward and they do not give instant relief. Quick-relief strategies, however, lead to guilt, which keeps us using the very strategies that do not work.
Addiction research shows that it is not the initial relapse that causes one to keep using a substance; it is the feelings of guilt which lead to run-away use. The more you use, the harder it is to stop because guilt leaves you feeling there is no way out except to keep smoking (or shopping, or getting angry).
A common myth us that self-forgiveness is a free ticket to indulgence. In fact, it is the opposite–guilt leads to greater indulgence. Researchers call this the “What the hell effect” (McGonigal). If we give in once, we feel bad and tell ourselves, consciously or not, “I may as well just do it some more.” This is guilt-motivated indulgence, not self-compassion, but it is easy to see how the two are confused if we think that it is guilt that keeps us on the straight and narrow. We blame indulgence on being too gentle on ourselves, or lack of willpower; “Next time I’ll be stronger, no more Mr. Nice guy stupid,” we say. And so the inner critic is reinforced.
We may feel that self-criticism equals self-control, but in reality it is the opposite. Self-compassion is associated with better self-control, better self-esteem, and personal accountability; it helps us with the important work of healing and change. Change occurs in small steps, which requires long-term strategies like prayer or mediation to sustain. In order to have self-compassion, though, we must get past the belief that unless we berate ourselves for messing up we will turn into an addict, sociopath, or couch potato. Wow, we really can be hard on ourselves.
When I facilitated groups for men convicted of domestic violence, an inner mentor exercise was a key point in helping group members learn to see things differently. One middle-aged man had a difficult time thinking of anyone who had ever been a mentor. He had an abusive family, and community, and learned more rough behaviour while incarcerated. I asked him if anyone had ever shown him kindness; he was stumped. When I asked him what he liked to do (something that also made him feel good) he said “Hunting, providing for my family.” He told me of his elderly aboriginal grandfather who took him out, beginning at age 7, and, with much patience and gentle words, taught him to hunt. This fellow knew his anger and abuse were wrong but in a pinch he reverted back to negative behaviour. Connecting to the image of his grandfather, especially the kindness and patience, was an important touchstone in his being able to take self-responsibility and begin the hard work of change.
What would you say to a good friend who was dealing with an addiction or negative habit she wanted to change? Chances are you would be compassionate and would support your friend. Yet when it comes to ourselves, most of us have a harsh inner critic who is only too quick to jump in and put us down, treating us much like an abusive parent treats a child. An antidote to self-criticism is to connect with the image of an inner mentor. If you have had a parent, relative, teacher or other person in your life who has served as a mentor this image is a good place to begin. Spend some time connecting to the qualities of a caring mentor; visualize tone of voice, the caring look, and compassionate posture. Now, see yourself as this mentor talking to a friend facing the same issues you are dealing with. Your friend faces away from you as you speak. You have a deep sense of compassion, knowing this is what makes true change possible, and you have no desire to make your friend feel guilty. Your words are kind and gentle. See your friend turn towards you. As if looking in a mirror, it is your own face you see. Allow yourself to absorb the kind, caring attention of this inner mentor. Know that your inner mentor is always available. She provides positive encouragement and is attentive to and enthusiastic for the small steps which comprise real change; 1 less cigarette a day, for instance. Looking in the mirror each day and connecting to your inner mentor can help instil this feeling within.
You may believe that self-criticism motivates you to give up negative habits but the opposite is true–self-criticism and guilt keep you locked in a negative cycle. Be gentle with yourself; self-compassion opens the door to better solutions and allows the energy locked in guilt to go somewhere useful. Whenever you find the voice of the critic in your head, return to the image of the inner mentor. It could just be the start of a great relationship.
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take”. –Wayne Gretzky