Making Change

A psychologist provides guidelines to help individuals define their best pathways to change

Compassionate Self-Awareness, A New Concept

Identify those inner flaws, but don't become overcritical.

Personal change begins by knowing what change you want to make. You think about what you are doing now and what you would like to be doing differently in the future. And, if you are like many people, you try to understand why you do what you do. How you go about all of this introspection is important because it's the vehicle you use for relating to yourself.

Some people use introspection to do a kind of self-autopsy. They cut open their psyches and look for abnormalities. When they identify problems or flaws (what person doesn't have them?), they study them under a microscope - and work hard to eradicate them. Then they restart the process, trying tirelessly to move forward toward self-improvement.

Other people approach themselves in a more gentle way. They are curious and accepting as they question their experiences, behaviors and motivations. They want to learn more about themselves as a way to solve personal problems or, at the very least, find peace with them. As they attempt to know their inner selves better, they are compassionate toward their own distress.

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Those who are self-compassionate gain more benefits from introspection than their self-critical counterparts. Although the search-and-destroy missions of self-critical people are certainly a direct way to move through personal difficulties and advance toward goals, they can be extremely stressful and tiring. To make things worse, self-critical individuals are essentially attacking themselves; they are their own victims. And when they feel the pain of their self-criticism, they respond with more self-criticism for being weak, rather than with compassion. Not surprisingly, they don't tend to have a sense of well-being and sometimes even feel unworthy.

In contrast, highly self-compassionate people comfort themselves as they simultaneously acknowledge their imperfections and failures. Although most people are inclined to slant feedback in ways that fit with their previous self-perceptions, self-compassionate individuals are better at accepting evidence that doesn't fit so well with their established self-image. This puts them in a better position to see themselves more clearly. And so, by accepting their flawed selves in the present, self-compassionate individuals feel a greater sense of well-being while also working effectively toward personal changes for the future.

Of course, most people fall somewhere in the middle; between harmonious self-compassion and torturous self-attack. They are sometimes angry and unforgiving with themselves. At other times, they are gentle with their own pain. But the more they can look perceptively into themselves with a compassionate eye (what I call compassionate self-awareness), the stronger they feel in facing their difficulties - and the more resilient they are on the difficult path toward self-improvement.


Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the ‘Relationship' expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey.

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