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Habits and StrategiesHappiness

The Surprisingly Essential Ingredient for Effective Living

By March 6, 2024No Comments


To live effectively is to aim for behaviors and habits that work for us in the real world. There are lots of tricks and techniques for making changes in our lives: goal setting strategies, arranging priorities, structuring support for new and better habits, to name just a few.

These are important skills, and part of an effective menu of personal growth. But there’s an essential ground to all of these; a quality that can make the difference between fighting against sometimes overwhelming forces, versus leaning into life with the wind at our back. This quality has less to do with what we do, than with how we do it.

Here’s the big idea:

If you want to change things for the better within yourself, be compassionate with yourself; if you want to change things for the better in the world, be compassionate with others.

Think of the people who have had the greatest positive influence on you. Did they spend a lot of time nagging, berating, insulting, or shaming you? I suspect not.

Shame has its place. When we do something that violates our values, one of the natural emotions we feel is shame. Shame provides the painful feedback that motivates us to never do that shameful act again. If we continue to do the same behavior, we’ll continue to feel the same shame… until we eventually get the message.

But once that feedback is received, and we have taken the steps to correct what we feel ashamed of, that emotion has done its job. When we continue to berate ourselves for what we did after we’ve taken the steps to make it right, we actually weaken our willpower, and undermine our ability to establish better habits.

For example, researchers have found that among alcoholics who have become sober, those who continue to actively feel ashamed of themselves, to criticize and castigate themselves for their previous behavior, are the ones who go back to drinking. On the other hand, those who have compassion for their previous behavior after changing it for the better are the ones who stay sober.

This is very different from pretending that everything was fine, or some other pretense. It’s possible to know and acknowledge that we’ve done harmful things, to feel the pain of facing our shameful behavior; and then, having changed that behavior, and done what we can to make amends, to feel compassion and kindness toward ourselves.

It’s important, of course, that we change that behavior. Just having compassion for our human failings without feeling the shame and working to change what we’ve done will keep us on a steady course of destruction. We need to have compassion for ourselves while working to improve ourselves – and the attitude that will most help us to make and maintain those positive changes is compassion.

Compassion also helps us to weather failure, and even to counter low self-esteem. Among teenagers who were studied, those with low self-esteem who were compassionate with themselves were more resilient, and were better able to cope with life’s ups and downs. They had fewer mental health issues as time went on – whereas those with low self-esteem and low self-compassion had much more trouble with mental health.

So the leverage point is the compassion, not the self-esteem.

Increase self-compassion, and the dangers in adolescence of low self-esteem – mental health issues, difficulty developing supportive relationships, and future suicide attempts – are minimized.

Self-compassion has to do with accepting a degree of self-doubt, some negative self-evaluations, and adversity as part of life. In a sense this is about accepting what’s true – since these are all natural thoughts and feelings that most everybody experiences at times.

By not having compassion for ourselves, in a sense we are expecting a miracle to happen… that we can somehow go back in time and have done things differently. But there’s no time machine, and no ability to do this in reality. The best that we can do is to stop doing the harmful behavior, make amends, and do better things now.

And then accepting ourselves, accepting what we’ve done, and having compassion for where we went wrong, will allow us to get on with a better life.

And it gets better…

We tend to treat other people the way we treat ourselves. If we are harsh and critical with ourselves, we’ll tend to be harsh and critical with others; if we tend to be kind and compassionate with ourselves, we’ll tend to be kind and compassionate with others.

In other words, we’ll tend to treat other people better if we treat ourselves better. If you think that shaming somebody will inspire them to improve themselves, ask yourself this… and answer honestly: have you ever changed yourself because somebody lectured, insulted, or shamed you?

As the Dalai Lama has said, If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

I would add that, if you want others to be effective, practice compassion. If you want to be effective, practice compassion.

Because shame drains our willpower; and willpower is necessary to making enduring positive changes… the very changes we need to make to be more effective. Be compassionate with yourself, and compassionate with others, and you’ll be bringing this essential ingredient to living a happier, more effective… and more heartful life.

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