Saturday, June 1, 2013

Compassionate Curiosity

Thanks to my cousin Adam, embarrassingly, over the past week and a half I have read all 495 pages of Gabor Mate's "In a Realm of Hungry Ghosts," twice. This book shares the lives of several different hardcore drug addicts and in great detail, describes how addiction affects the brain. I have been underlining, highlighting, and writing little notes in the margin like a true nerd... Thanks Adam. :)

Mate believes that all addictions, whether it be substance abuse, gambling, shopping, or even workaholism, are rooted to a painful experience. Like the quote I used in my Addiction post says, all addictions are the essentially same; the only difference is where a specific type of addiction falls on the continuum. Some addictions might be written off as bad habits due to a level of social acceptance, but if the behavior is used to escape the mind, cope with bad memories, or ease anxieties and boredom, it is considered an addiction.

More often than not after I make a mistake or have a rough day in my recovery, I am left with thoughts of, "I'm so stupid. I should know better than that," and "When will I ever learn?" At this point in my recovery, I feel as though I have acquired enough knowledge to handle most situations. Logically I know what is best for me; however, I still make mistakes. Lots of them. When this does happen, I begin falling into the negative spiral of doom. 

Toward the end of the book, Mate writes about the healing process. One of the initial steps toward sobriety or healing is to direct compassionate curiosity at oneself. Mate believes, "In cultivating loving-kindness, we learn first to be honest, loving, and compassionate towards ourselves."

Rather than beating ourselves up and thinking "I'm so stupid. When will I ever learn?" Mate suggests we attempt to change our thoughts into those of an empathetic friend. Instead of instantly judging our behaviors as stupid or wrong, what would happen if we looked inward with a little compassionate curiosity?  A good friend would ask what was really going on to cause those self-destructive actions, not belittle us.

"Compassionate curiosity directed toward the self leads to the truth of things. Once I see my anxiety and recognize it for what is is, the need to escape dwindles."

 Mate also uses the acronym COAL as the main attitudes of compassionate curiosity: curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. The purpose is not to justify or rationalize, but to understand. Treating myself with any of the four COAL attitudes is the complete opposite of how I am used to treating myself in all situations, not just on those bad recovery days. Kind of sad to think about. My therapist has reminded me a million times that I would never treat a friend as harshly as I treat myself, which only feeds my inner perfectionist.

This book has also taught me that incompleteness is the baseline state of all addicts. Mate suggests, "The addict believes - either with full awareness or unconsciously - that he is "not good enough." As he is, he is inadequate to face life's demands or to present an acceptable face to the world." Those not good enough thoughts are at the core of my eating disorder and other past addictive behaviors, which has made facing my issues without that addictive release excruciating at times. Recovery means facing all of those emotions I have numbed out for years and even though I really hate it sometimes, it is absolutely necessarily.

So my goal for this week (and for the rest of my life) is to begin exploring my bad days with a little compassionate curiosity rather than cruel self-judgments. There is a very good chance I will not master this new skill after my first (or second or third) attempt, but I'm not perfect.

"Along with our ability to feel our own pain go our best hopes for healing, dignity, and love. What seems non-adaptive and self-harming in the present was, at some point in our lives, an adaptation to help us endure what we had to go through then."

My past with an eating disorder and other addictive behaviors does not make me a failure. At that time in my life I was doing the very best I could to tolerate painful past experiences. How I choose to deal in the future, however, is my responsibility and with a little compassionate curiosity, I just might be able to see myself as "good enough" someday.



  1. Good luck with that. I am SO not to a point where I could even attempt to try this methodology. Jealous that you are.

    1. You'll get there, too. Give yourself a little credit.

  2. Wow, Kelsi. This is EXACTLY what I am working on with my therapist right now. Thank you for a fresh perspective. It helps me to see that the "I've been in treatment X-many times, I should know this by now" and "My future is screwed because of this" approach actually keeps you in the past and looking negatively at the future. Looking at you situation almost as a 3rd party helps the judgement to come down a notch, the mindfulness to ground itself, and the constructive, recovery-driven "Here's what I can do differently in the future" thoughts to arise. That's when you move forward instead of getting bogged down in the perfectionism and self-depreciation, or worse, sliding back down the mountain.

    Thanks, Kels!

    1. Yay! You've got it, Sarah. It is really easy to dwell on the past and how many times we've screwed up, but that doesn't seem to get us anywhere. Keep up the good work! :)

  3. Hello
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    Ana S.

  4. Compassion is so loving. I think it is the highest stage of love (I don't know how I say it... but it sounds right to me to say this way...) I like your last paragraph on this post. I keep learning about being compassionate towards myself. It is still often "act as if", but in the future, it will be real if I keep trying. xoxo

    1. All you can do is keep trying - You are doing the very best you can! <3