How To Show Self-Compassion For The Past, Present & Future You

By Nancy Anderson, LPD, CADC, and therapist on the Monument Platform

Experiencing strong emotional reactions when faced with the reality of our past is only human. When we begin to change our relationship with alcohol, reflecting on the past can be an especially complicated process. What do we do when intense emotions like shame, guilt and low self-esteem arise? How do we develop self compassion for the person we were in the past when, despite our best intentions, we may have been less than our best selves? While the effects of past experiences are real and valid, our present selves are also full of opportunity, and capable of great change. I often work with my patients on processing the past to arrive at a place of forgiveness. I hope with these insights, you’ll begin to cultivate a deep compassion for every part of yourself: your past, who you are now, and the strong, authentic person you are becoming.

The True Nature Of Compassion 

When we begin changing our relationship with alcohol, we might be told to have compassion for ourselves. But what does that really mean?

Although the term compassion is often used broadly, it’s actually a very complex concept. Put in the simplest terms, compassion means having a strong sense of someone’s suffering and tangibly expressing love for that person. How might we come to practice this process with the people in our lives, including ourselves, as we work to change our relationship with alcohol?

Understanding the effects of alcohol provides an important perspective. 

person and sky

Alcohol Inhibits Our Most Compassionate Selves

It’s important to remember that alcohol use disorder is a medical condition. AUD is characterized by drinking more than you want, for longer than you want. When we fall on the spectrum of AUD, or otherwise develop unhealthy drinking behavior, we may not be able to recognize it’s harmful effects. 

Alcohol is a sedative, and our brains can develop a chemical dependence on it. We are unable to access our true emotions, especially feelings of guilt and shame. This often makes us unable to authentically reflect on how we feel about our drinking behavior, and its impact on our loved ones. Alcohol can become our go-to form of self care, instead of other means of self soothing, growth, and healing. 

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Two Keys To Unlocking Self-Compassion

Processing Emotions With Kindness and Support

Once we embark on a journey toward  sobriety or moderation, the veil of alcohol is lifted and we can begin to look back on our past behavior with fresh eyes. As I’ve come to know through my patients, this can be an incredibly overwhelming experience, and we have to be kind to ourselves in the process. With grace, we can say, “if I had not been inebriated, I would not have done these things”. We can understand our behavior didn’t come from our truest self, or the authentic person we are now becoming. In self-reflection the content of our internal dialogue becomes critically important, and must include statements of self-compassion. Remind yourself that change really is possible. Recognize and understand that if you’re willing to reach out, you have all the support necessary to make a change. 

Person and lake

One of the most effective ways to process feelings and cultivate compassion is to engage in the work of recovery with others, such as in specialized alcohol therapy and therapist-moderated alcohol support groups. Evidence-based treatment, like medication to stop drinking, is proven to help people reach their goals for a life without or with less alcohol. 

Repairing Relationships With Ourselves and Others

With the help of a support system and Care Team, we can unravel the harm imposed by our drinking and take action with a new perspective. A great place to begin is repairing relationships harmed by our past drinking behavior.

This is a useful exercise because it helps us face all of the uncomfortable emotions (that may have kept us drinking) from a rational perspective. Take account of what harm might have been done, and what steps can be taken to restore trust. Self-compassion in this case requires action and a willingness to face what we may have previously been unable to see. Being vulnerable with our feelings can provide great relief. We start to heal from shame and guilt and hold more space for love and forgiveness within ourselves. Anytime we are willing to say “I am sorry” we can find relief, and heal from the impact alcohol use disorder had on our relationships with others and ourselves. 

couple holding hands

Compassion can be a hard concept to fully grasp, and especially difficult to cultivate when we are first experiencing sobriety or moderation. Through peer support, specialized care, and a clearer understanding of how alcohol was affecting us, we can begin to develop healthier relationships. Addressing any harm done is an effective way to heal our past selves, harness the power of our present selves, and honor the values of the person we are becoming. Most importantly, we must remember that we are human and deserving of compassion: then, now, and always.

Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Nancy AndersonNancy E. Anderson received her Master's degree in Counseling Psychology in 2005 and worked for many years in the field of Community Mental Health, as a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor 3. Her therapeutic approach is both straight forward and eclectic, using a combination of Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help lead patients and clients to their best version of themselves. She is married and lives with her husband and dog in Northeastern Oregon. She is an author, an avid fisher-woman and loves the outdoors.