Many times we engage with psychological techniques with an outcome focus. The idea is that we work with a technique for a certain length of time and then hopefully it becomes part of our functioning. From there we can either move on to a new or more advanced technique or we may think we have reached the point of growth or recovery that we’d hoped for. I see this more and more, especially in the area of self-compassion, where there is an implicit idea that a few weeks or a couple of months of work will remove a lifetime of self-criticism.
This perspective is extremely common and, I believe, contributes to a great deal of disappointment with the results. To make more sense of this, I’m going to tell you an absurd story. Hopefully this absurdity ends up leading to clarity. Here goes.
There was a man called Bob and he had a problem. And his problem he called “hunger”. Now Bob was talking to a friend of his one day, who said that he had read a new journal article in some highbrow psychological journal which stated that that they might have discovered the cure for hunger. Bob’s interest was piqued by this, as he felt that he was a cutting-edge, rational, scientific type of guy, as well as being a little open-minded. His friend said that this cure for hunger was called “food”. Anyway, Bob decided, as the open-minded, scientific guy, that he would give this “food” stuff a try, once he ascertained that the study came from a reputable university.
So the next morning Bob wakes up, bright and early, with his chronic problem of hunger still there.“Aha!” he thinks. “Time to try out this new ‘food’ thing everyone’s talking about.” So after careful research he makes for himself something called “bacon and eggs”. Pretty soon after eating his breakfast, Bob realizes he’s not hungry anymore and thinks: “My God! We might really have the cure for hunger here. I’m so glad I’m a cutting-edge, open-minded, scientific type of guy who is willing to give these things a go!”
So for the rest of the morning Bob’s feeling pretty pleased with himself and his efforts. However, lunch time comes around and Bob finds that the hunger problem returns once again and he’s feeling very disappointed. He thought that he’d found the cure for hunger, but he might have been a bit premature in signing off on it. After some more consideration he decides: “Maybe food is like antibiotics and you need a course of it. It’s not a one-shot deal”. So Bob decides that he’ll give this “food” stuff a really good scientific go. He’ll try it out three times a day for a month, as a scientific experiment, thinking that by the end of one month he’ll surely know whether food is the cure for hunger or not.
Bob spends the next month taking regular doses of “food” and carefully monitoring its effects on his hunger. But when he reaches that last Friday afternoon at five o’clock and feels the hunger pains returning, he starts to lose hope in the idea of food being the cure for hunger. But he’d watched an Oprah special earlier that day, where she mentioned that pineapples with ice cream might be the cure for hunger and he hadn’t eaten any pineapples or ice cream in the last month so he thought he’d give it a go.
Next morning he wakes up bright and early, and goes and gets some pineapple and ice cream and eats them. And for a few hours, he’s excited again, thinking that, potentially, Oprah could be right and Harvard University could be wrong, that it was pineapples and ice cream all along. However, by lunchtime, the familiar hunger pains return and Bob’s feeling disappointed again. Anyway, Bob doesn’t lose hope just yet. He notices articles in magazines when he’s getting his hair cut, documentaries on TV and obscure internet web forums, all giving him various ideas about the cure for hunger. Some say its pizza, some say its almonds, some say it’s just plain old water. And so Bob spends the next two months trying every conceivable variation of food that he can find, from all over the world. Now, at the end of his three-month journey, Bob returns to his friend and tells him that he’s just conducted the most thorough, rational, serious experiment, to test the idea that food cures hunger and he can tell his friend, with absolute certainty, based on his rigorous processes, that food doesn’t cure hunger and therefore he’s going to give up on food and explore other things. Perhaps dirt.
Of course food doesn’t cure hunger. I hate to break it to you but you’re going to need to eat a number of times a day, for the rest of your life. And that’s not a bad thing. Have you ever heard anybody, near the end of their life, saying “Thank God! I’m going to leave this earth soon, and then I won’t have to have one more damn meal. Eating three times a day, for ninety five years, it’s been the biggest nightmare I could imagine and I’ll soon be free from all this!” Of course not. We watch cooking shows, we eat at restaurants, we try new dishes. We don’t see the fact that we have to eat as some sort of defectiveness or deficiency of the human condition. It’s something we do and we can enjoy.
Likewise, self-compassion is a relationship to the self that needs to be nurtured and nourished every day, for the rest of your life. Think of most people’s relationship to themselves. They speak to themselves in a way that, if they spoke to a partner or flatmate, they would leave instantly. Or else, your relationship with yourself is like being married to somebody who’s in another country, and the only contact you have with them is once a month, for a five-minute check-in: “Hey, honey. How are you? How’s your month been? Great! Fantastic! Mine’s been okay too. Talk to you next month.” Or else contact happens when a problem occurs: “Hey honey. What’s this 800 dollar bill on the credit card? Oh, that’s the insurance? Okay. Thanks for letting me know. Talk to you at the end of the month.” How long would that relationship last? Not very long. But most of us have relationships with ourselves of this type of quality. No wonder much of the population has a fragile sense of emotional security.
Working on your relationship with yourself and developing that self-compassionate voice is something you need to be serious about on a long-term basis. But it could be one of the most important things you can do psychologically. Don’t give up on it when your self esteem gets hungry again. Don’t jump to the newest bandwagon when your stomach starts rumbling. Enjoy eating those meals! Change it up! Experiment! The forthcoming Optimal Mind book and future blog posts will talk about all this in more detail. Stay tuned!