How to Transform Self-Punishment into Self-Compassion

Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., MFT

As 2015 comes to a close, many of us are thinking about New Year's resolutions. We declare 2016 to be the year we'll lose weight, drink less, spend more quality time with family, and find true love. Many of our clients will make similar resolutions. But, in our struggle for perfection, what we often end up with is self-punishment.

With New Year's resolutions like these, we set unrealistically high expectations for ourselves. Then, when we gain a few pounds or fall for someone who hurts us, we label ourselves "failures" and the year "ruined" even though it may have just begun.

As a psychotherapist, it's your job to give your clients the guidance they need to make healthy decisions that will bring them contentment. While choosing to eat carrot sticks over cookies may be one kind of healthy decision, making the choice to eat carrot sticks over cookies part of a New Year's resolution may be an unhealthy decision.

This New Year, introduce self-compassion as a more worthy resolution than one that could lead to self-punishment.

One of the problems with your client's self-punishment is that it makes it nearly impossible for him or her to do the important work needed to build a happier life. When a client with low self-worth labels himself "fat," makes a resolution to lose weight because he thinks being thin will make him happy, and then slips up and gains a few pounds, he'll berate himself. He may see his weight gain as proof he's the failure he feels he is. This self-punishment could then lead to further weight gain. "I'll never lose weight," he'll say to himself, "so why try to eat healthier?"

A lot of the things we make New Year's resolutions about are learned behaviors from childhood. An unhealthy relationship with food and a tendency to date people who mistreat us, for two examples, are behaviors passed down to us from our caregivers who also made unwise decisions about food and romantic partners.

To lead clients away from self-punishment when they think they've failed at keeping a resolution, remind them of these four things:

1. They did the best they could with the skills they had.

For whatever reason, your client learned unhelpful coping skills as a child. For instance, if he learned to numb his emotions with food by caregivers who did the same, his emotional overeating is an unhealthy coping skill that isn't his fault. Repeat this as often as necessary: Unhelpful coping skills you learned from your parents aren't your fault.

2. Going to therapy is a huge step in the right direction.

Admitting we need help in one or more areas of our lives and going to see someone for that help takes a huge amount of bravery. Now that your client is in therapy, he or she can learn new, positive skills that will make it easier to make healthier decisions.

3. Each mistake is an opportunity for growth.

Some of the most important lessons we learn in life come from our mistakes. Let's say your client chooses a romantic partner who is unfaithful. She says, "I always pick the wrong guy." Reframe this. While her heartache is understandably awful and she did pick this one wrong guy, she's also learnt an important lesson about what warning signs to look for in a potential partner. Each new date she goes on is a do-over, an opportunity for future love.

4. The process of self-improvement is hard work, but it's worth it.

At times, your clients will slip up. They will punish themselves for "failing" at achieving a goal. At times, they will think they're going backward. Suggest to your clients they keep a diary of their progress so they can see what works and what doesn't and how, inch by inch, their life is improving. The road to self-improvement isn't clean, straight, and always uphill for anyone, ever.

Say to your clients: Don't beat yourself up because there are ways you need to change. Instead, pat yourself on the back for working on this now. Next time you start to self-punish, say this to yourself, too.

I hope you have a happy, and self-compassionate, New Year.

This blog was contributed by PESI speaker Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., MFT. Brandt brings over 30 years of clinical experience to her work as a renowned psychotherapist, speaker, and author. A pioneer in the field of treating anger issues, she also works with a full range of emotional concerns: anxiety, aggression, aging, workplace, women’s issues, and relationship dynamics. Her wisdom, warmth, and humor have made her a frequently featured media expert, appearing on numerous television and radio shows and interviewed in the Los Angeles Times,, and Parenting Magazine. She is also the author of Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional HealingFor additional information, visit
CE Seminar on DVD: Mindful Anger: The art of transforming a difficult emotion into a therapeutic tool

Topic: Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry

Tags: Self-Compassion

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