How & Why to Practice Self-Compassion When Change Feels Impossible


Let’s face it, change is hard.

Even when we feel successful in the short-term, maintaining change can be more challenging.

Sometimes, we find ourselves drifting back to old patterns and, before long, it appears as though our gains have disappeared.

We might gravitate back to our old selves, old patterns, old self-criticisms, negative internal dialogues, and a growing confidence that we will never be able to make the changes we were hoping for.

When we reach these points in our pursuit of change, the practice of self-compassion may very well be the anecdote that gets us back to the starting point.

Self-compassion involves self-kindness, self-understanding, and a gentleness with ourselves that allows us to see that in the midst of not changing in certain behaviors as we had hoped to, we have still indeed changed.

We have journeyed further, we took on new challenges and, despite the outcomes, we did engage, we did start something, and we did change in the process.

We are not the same today as we were in the past.

The First Next Step

Sometimes our greatest challenge is to begin again, by putting one foot in front of the other and taking that first next step.

Often, instead of focusing on just that one step, we shift our gaze to the ultimate outcome that we’re seeking.

This can be incredibly daunting and may appear so very far off in the distance. We may feel overwhelmed and too low in confidence to believe that we will ever make it.

Sometimes, this can paralyze us and cause us not to take any action at all.

If you find yourself there, after attempting to make a change (what Brené Brown might call “daring greatly”) and having missed your desired outcome, just allow yourself to be in that moment.

Begin to engage with your practice of self-compassion and self-acceptance.

Be kind and not critical, be compassionate and not harsh, accept yourself without judgment, and encourage yourself to begin again and to focus on just the next step right in front of you.

If you are able to, focus on just the next 2-3 steps in front of you. And before you know it, you will be changing and moving along on your journey toward better health and well-being.

Self-Compassion & Taking Small Steps Toward Change

Remember, you don’t want your focus to be on the end or the ultimate outcome that you’re trying to achieve, but instead, on the small steps that you can take every day while moving in that direction.

I’ve read that mountain climbers often remind themselves of this same process when they face their next summit. Instead of focusing on the mountain and the summit so far off in the distance, they focus on only the next step, and the next step after that, and the one after that.

They don’t focus on the entire distance, just the next step, just the next rope length in the right direction.

I believe if we practice self-compassion and a focus on small changes and small steps in our journey to our own summits, then we will also arrive. But we arrive by putting one foot thoughtfully in front of the other, again and again, until we arrive at our desired state of change.

Sometimes we slip, and we may even fall, but getting up and beginning again, putting one foot in front of the other while kindly and compassionately encouraging ourselves along the way will get us to the change we so very much desire.

Lasting change is a slow and gradual process. If we can trust in each step we take, they will eventually get us to our summit.

Wise Words from Jan Reynolds

Jan Reynolds is a well-known mountaineer and Vermont author whose books include High Altitude Woman, Only the Mountains Do Not Move, Everest Grand Circle, and many other titles.

I met Jan at a women’s conference a few years ago. In one of her books she writes:

“When we did the first ascent of Pumori, the peak beside Everest, in the winter season, which hadn’t been done before; the first time I looked up at the peak, it was overwhelming. Doubt crept in because it looked like such a huge endeavor.  

But when we took the time to really look at the peak, and to break it into pieces in our mind’s eye, rope length by rope length, we saw how we could get it done. We saw that each section was doable, with the critical part being the organization and the logistics of putting it all together, with the right resources, equipment and weather converging. It was the organizing of the effort that made all the difference, being prepared. This allowed for our success.”

Jan ends her speaking engagements with the following:

If I could do anything, I would be the voice in every little girl, and every woman’s ear that says, ‘you’ve got this, you know this, you can do this. You have everything you need to make it happen right now’”.

With your growing practice of self-compassion, self-kindness, and self-acceptance, I hope that you will also hear Jan’s voice in your ear at every small step forward, remembering “you’ve got this, you know this, you can do this. You have everything you need to make it happen right now”.

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About the Author

Carolyn Whitney, PhD

Carolyn is a trained social psychologist who has spent much of her career teaching about and researching positive psychology topics and health and wellbeing. She uses a holistic approach to coaching and empowering clients to make desired changes in order to live more fulfilling and rich lives. At Green Mountain and within her blog posts, she teaches on topics including unhooking from negative self-talk, cultivating gratitude and self-compassion, strategies to simplify life, mindset management for stress reduction and more. Carolyn is the Behavior Lead at Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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