Should you change your behavior or change your beliefs? A closer look at self-compassion.

Social psychology research indicates that it is easier to change behavior than it is to change attitudes or beliefs. Part of what characterizes third wave behavior therapies (such as DBT) is behavioral activation. In other words, there is a focus on changing behavior over changing attitudes.

Here is one of the most predominant ways this shows up in DBT: A client with extreme self-hatred or self-blame won’t do things that are nurturing, caring, or compassionate towards oneself. The argument goes something like this: “I don’t deserve, I would feel guilty, I have to take care of everyone else, it’s always my fault anyway, I deserve to be punished…” It is easy for others to follow up with this argument by challenging, cajoling, or even opposing the argument. “Why do you think this way, of course you deserve, you can’t cater to the whole world, stop talking that way…” The dialogue of I don’t deserve/ yes you do deserve can become rather exhausting. If you’ve ever participated in one of these conversations, you could probably relate.

Part of the skill set for tolerating distress has to do with treating oneself with compassion. More specifically, engaging in behaviors that are self-soothing, calming, respectful of sadness, and a soft acknowledgement of the rough and painful aspects of life generally help people through the rough times. People who don’t do enough of this and treat themselves harshly are going to have an even harder time getting through the roadblocks of life. Self-attacking just isn’t a very effective way of solving problems.

If you are extremely miserable and you would like to feel better you may have to change your behavior despite whatever argument is going on in your head. If you could do something to make your current distress more tolerable, why wouldn’t you do it? If you could treat yourself with kindness and compassion, be understanding, and acknowledge your deepest fears and hurts- at least to yourself- why wouldn’t you? If this made your life easier, more livable, and more hopeful- why wouldn’t you do it? Arguing about deserve-ability certainly isn’t doing anything for you.

In order to feel differently you have to act and behave as if self-compassion and kindness matters. You may have to tolerate some guilt, set some limits on your time, or even say no to the demands of others. The point is that you should get started on acting and behaving in ways that are worthy or deserving of you. Over time, your attitudes may change right along with your behavior. And in addition to feeling better because you are behaving as if you have more self-respect, you will have more resources for coping when other people put you in demeaning situations, take advantage or you, or assume that you are willing to be treated poorly.