• Daniel Alexander

How does one change? This is a key question psychologists, therapists, philosophers, and many others have pondered and sought different answers to over the years. For the pioneer of the field of therapy, Sigmund Freud, the idea was that insight alone can lead to healing. Freud believed through exploration of the past, dream analysis and unearthing the unconscious, that naturally, change in emotions, behaviours and thoughts, would follow.

Behaviourists believed (if you haven’t guessed already) that focussing on behaviour change was more important than continuously learning about one's self and their past. This led to therapies that focussed on identifying target behaviours of change, and using different methods such as exposure therapy, behavioural activation and reinforcement/reward scheduling.

Cognitive theorists believed that one's problems in psychotherapy could not be alleviated through insight or behaviour change alone, but through changes in thinking. Aaron Beck was a pioneer of this model (later the Cognitivists and Behaviourists joined forces to bring CBT to the forefront). This therapy focusses on identifying, analyzing and re-shaping the negative thoughts, assumptions and conclusions that we have drawn about ourselves and our life.

All of these mechanisms certainly play some role in the therapeutic process, however, the most consistent finding of research has been the role of the therapeutic relationship. Do you feel heard? Do you feel like your therapist cares? Do you feel you are working towards some concrete goals? Do you feel safe? (If you're answering no to these questions, time to find another therapist). The answers to all of these questions, it turns out, seems to be one of, if not the, best predictors of positive outcomes in therapy.

That being said, therapy shouldn’t last forever, and so how can this safety, this feeling of empathy, being heard and seen without judgement, be carried forward once therapy is complete? This is where the mechanism of self-compassion is a game changer. Self-compassion is a way of accessing our inner resources to provide that same level of compassion that we can sometimes more easily feel towards others, and applying it to ourselves. It is taking the ingredients of the therapeutic relationship, bottling them up and having them as a resource for ourself, always.

What if instead of criticizing yourself for being too quick to anger, or procrastinating, or overly placating others, you sought to understand these behaviours as parts of yourself all doing their best to prevent you from experiencing further hurt? Maybe the placating part learned to do this when it was younger because it was the only way to stay safe from their quick to anger father? Perhaps this angry part came later as a way to assert your needs, because the placating part was neglecting them (for understandable reasons). What if we treated these parts of ourself with compassion and understanding for how they needed to adapt back then, to keep you safe? To protect from further harm? Maybe this understanding and compassion could lead to a deeper kind of healing, both in ourselves, our relationships, and even the world.

You may be thinking: “But Dan, won’t showing care and understanding towards these behaviours just make them more likely to continue?” Well, as with my previous blog, the adage “What we resist persists” applies here too, and the research seems to bear this out. Individuals who are compassionate towards themselves, often experience greater symptom alleviation, greater focus and greater ability to move towards their goals.

“There is no force in the world but love, and when you carry it within you, if you simply have it, even if you remain baffled as to how to use it, it will work its radiant effects and help you out of and beyond yourself: one must never lose this belief, one must simply (and if it were nothing else) endure in it!”

-Rainer Maria Rilke

For an exploration in to self-compassion through meditation, check out the links below!

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  • Daniel Alexander

As I began to sit down and write this blog, I started with about five different hooks. Do I start with a quote about something you might relate to? Do I reference one of my favourite TV shows? Do I start with some controversial statement that makes you want to read deeper to get at what I’m really saying? Will this, sixth go around, ultimately be the one I choose to go with? I guess only time will tell.

As I reflected on this process, I thought about the irony of writing a blog post about the the way we are conditioned to compare ourselves to others, and how, at a subconscious level, I was doing that very thing. How can I make this blog better than others out there? How can I make this original and stand out? The reality is, I will never be the best blogger in the world, there will always be someone better. And that’s kind of the point of this blog.

When we compare ourselves to other people, it is almost inevitable that we will always fall short. There will always be someone who is “better” than you in some way. I don’t have what they have. I’m not as liked as they are. They are so much further ahead than I am. Although it can be helpful to have a measuring stick, something to work towards, this comparison of others can leave us feeling self-critical, angry, and at its worst, actually prevents us from moving forward towards our goals in life.

Fortunately there are alternatives to this game. Rather than comparing yourself to others, try comparing yourself to the you of yesterday. What is one simple thing you can do today, that will be an improvement on the day before? Maybe it’s as simple as deciding to floss your teeth today, or opening up that software program to start your taxes. First, you will need to define your aim. What domains in your life do you want to improve? Do you want to be more productive at work? Do you want to be a better friend? Do you want to exercise more? All of these aims may seem daunting at first, but if you compare yourself and start very small, the momentum can build, and increase your motivation.

This strategy draws on a number of psychological theories on human behaviour and emotion that are quite well documented to help people build motivation and achieve their goals.

1.When we set clear goals, that are connected to our values in life, we are more likely to make steps towards achieving those goals.

2. When we break things into small tasks, this can lessen anxiety, and make things feel more manageable, reducing avoidance behaviours.

3. When we are able to start engaging in a task, we feel a sense of accomplishment, which can propel us to move forward to keep that feeling going, creating a domino effect.

4. Finally, providing yourself with a reward after completing these small tasks will send a message to your brain that what you just did is important, and make it more likely that this behaviour may be repeated in the future.

Comparing yourself to the you that you were yesterday is a great way of starting to engage these principals, and make the progress you want in life, without as much of that self-criticism!

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  • Daniel Alexander

Have you ever had the experience of trying desperately to change something, or someone, and the harder you try, the worse it seems to get? Life is full of paradoxes, and this paradox can be one of the most frustrating of all. Maybe you're trying to change your partner's mind about something. Just when you think you have come up with the most rational argument possible, that you're really going to change their mind this time, the more they push back. Maybe you find this happens with yourself as well when you're trying to change something in you. You try and try to build new habits and change routines, and yet see yourself falling back further and further in to old patterns. It's like being trapped in quicksand. The more you fight, the deeper you sink.

So wait a minute Dan. Are you about to tell me that I should just stop trying? That I should just accept my fate? Well...yes...and no. Paradox. You see, what I've noticed in my work, in my personal life, and what much psychological research bares out, is that with some things, the harder we try to change them, the worse it gets. Try not thinking about a white bear for a minute. Really try. Keep going. How are you doing? Is that white bear gone yet? Didn't think so (Interestingly enough, it's not just in the moment, but later on, you're going to be more likely to randomly think of a white bear than someone who has not tried hard to push it away). So, where does that leave us then? Don't try to change? Accept, give up? Fortunately there's another alternative.

One reason this pushing forward and pushing harder doesn't always work, is because although one part of you may want these things, you are often neglecting another part that doesn't want to change. There are often really good reasons these other parts don't want to change. For example, you might think, I'm going to try to be more optimistic this year, really going to try to see the good in things. But then another part of you says, "well wait a minute, hold on, if I start to be optimistic, and then something bad happens, I'm just going to fall further, and get more hurt. Screw it, pessimism is the way to go!" Or maybe you want to be a better partner, be more loving, pay more attention, but another part of you is incredibly afraid of hurt, abandonment, rejection, and the thought of getting close terrifies this part.

There are countless situations like this, and so if we try to simply have one part of us push, without understanding the reasons the other part doesn't want to move forward, this part is inevitably going to shout at us to stop and keep us in old patterns. So instead of pushing forward, instead of giving up, perhaps try seeking to understand, and accept each part of you, and why that part does what it does for you. The more you understand, the more you can offer these different aspects of yourself compassion, the more they might actually be willing to change, and perhaps get on board with the decision in a harmonious way, rather than be forced in to something they don't want to do.

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