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Breaking Addiction with Self-Compassion

Jonathan Riley

“Recovery is not a race. You don’t have to feel guilty if it takes you longer than you thought it would.” – Anonymous

For people who struggle with addiction, negative emotions such as guilt, shame, and self-criticism come more naturally to them than compassion. As a result, people recovering from addiction issues are usually much harder on themselves than they would ever be on other people, often internalising the criticism they received as children from parents, teachers, and peers. Paradoxically, this criticism does not help people suffering from addictions change their behaviour, but rather adds to their misery.

Shame is a common denominator that runs deep through people struggling with addiction. Even though shame is a natural emotion that nearly everyone experiences at some point in their lives, it is such a painful emotion that most people will go to any length to avoid it. For people in active addiction, shame becomes almost unavoidable. Shame separates you from others, makes you lose touch with parts of yourself, and makes you feel disconnected from the world around you. These powerful feelings of shame become a barrier to self-help, as people may feel as though they are not worth the help or attention. And while shame can initially cause people to spiral into addiction, it can also keep them in the cycle of addiction.

Healing from shame, and practicing self-compassion, can be crucial for overcoming addiction and breaking the cycle. According to a study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, self-compassion is associated with less addictive behaviour and better recovery outcomes. This is because self-compassion replaces shameful behaviour with self-nurturing and healthy attachment. These outcomes include more prolonged periods of abstinence and fewer negative emotions such as stress, depression, and anxiety.

For many people in recovery, self-compassion is a real challenge. Most people in recovery want to be kinder to themselves, but their self-critical, perfectionist tendencies often stand in the way. Many people also believe that self-compassion is self-indulgence, as people may fear that self-compassion will justify their addiction. Self-compassion doesn’t let you off the hook for your mistakes, but it does give you the ability to accept your mistakes, learn from them and try again.

Unlike self-esteem, which can rise and fall with our successes and failures, self-compassion is a consistent attitude and kindness toward our whole self. Self-compassion can set the stage for better health, relationships and lower levels of anxiety and depression. In addition, self-compassion can allow you to recognise when you are suffering emotionally during recovery and will enable you to be gentle and patient with yourself as you work through the various stages of recovery. For people with addiction, self-compassion is the difference between saying “I’m a worthless addict” and “I’m a good person who has a terrible disease.”

When people relapse, they are more likely to judge and shame themselves. However, with self-compassion, you can learn to be gentle with yourself after a relapse, acknowledge that you are still a work in progress, and strive to do better next time. For many addicts, trauma and shame are the root causes of their addiction, and relapse is inevitable unless these issues are addressed. If you find yourself relapsing, remind yourself that you are not a bad person but rather a recovering person. You can tell yourself that you’ll keep working on your recovery and seeking help. Shame can isolate us after a relapse, making the addiction stronger and preventing us from seeking help. Self-compassion allows us to recognise that we all make mistakes and that we can change our addictive habits.

When it comes to addiction, self-compassion serves many purposes: It combats isolation by reminding people that they are human and worthy of love and support. People who learn to forgive themselves are more likely to take personal responsibility and learn from their mistakes. By minimising the shame, self-loathing and stigma associated with addiction, people are motivated to get help for addiction.

In conclusion, addiction can make it hard to feel good about yourself and your abilities, especially if you find yourself focusing on past mistakes. Self-compassion can be an important part of the recovery process, so finding ways to be compassionate with yourself when you have a relapse can make it easier to appreciate your strengths and take note of all of your progress. Making a point of cultivating compassion for yourself requires little effort, but the benefits can be significant in terms of better relationships, greater well-being, and a longer recovery.


Austin, P. (2020, March 23). Struggling to Stay Sober? Try Some Self-Compassion. Promises P.A.T.H. Programs.

BRC Recovery. (2019, March 15). Lessons in Self-Compassion: Be Kind to Yourself for a Better Recovery. BRC Recovery.

Hartney, E. (2020, November 25). How to Build Self-Esteem During Recovery From an Addiction. Verywell Mind.

Vertava Health. (2019, September 24). How Shame Feeds Addiction. Vertava Health.