Compassionate Self Observation: A Key to Overcoming Destructive Habits

I’ve discovered a powerful remedy for self-destructive habits that is so simple I wondered how I missed it over the years. My self-destructive habit involved eating junk food late at night, yet my discovery will work for any chronic, self-defeating behavior.

Do you do things every day that you wish you didn’t?

Most people wish they had control over certain behaviors, from addictions like smoking, drinking, gambling and junk food to emotional behaviors such as anger outbursts and yelling. Other seemingly stress related habits plague millions, such as biting fingernails, fidgeting or even shopping too much. We are creatures of habit, but sometimes our habits get the best of us, even though we understand the consequences.

Science Daily recently reported on a University of Alberta study involving lifestyle habits:

“…it was clear that they understood what types of behaviour are the riskiest, but that knowledge wasn’t enough to motivate them to change their ways,” said Dr. Cindy Jardine, an assistant professor of rural sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

“The results showed that in fact, people have a very realistic understanding of the various risks in their lives. We as risk communicators–scientists, academics, government agencies–have to get beyond the thought of ‘If they only understood the facts, they’d change.’ They do understand the facts, but we need to look at other factors we haven’t been looking at before.”

Here it is, then: we understand the danger, yet we do it anyway!

What must be true if we do daily, harmful things to ourselves? Here are my answers:

1. We just don’t care that much about ourselves, indicating low self-esteem.
2. We lose awareness in the moment.
3. We have more pressing needs that are being met though the self-destructive behavior.
4. A combination of the above.

Now for the good news

Self-observation sets in motion a process of healing that is more powerful than our self-destructive tendencies. When we observe ourselves we feel greater awareness, maturity, compassion and self-acceptance. A student in our online NLP course recently said the following:

When took a step back and observed myself in the moment, mindlessly surfing the Internet when my family was just outside my bedroom wanting to spend time with me, I felt an immediate letting go – sort of like I walked in and ruined my own little party, but it wasn’t a shameful thing. I just realized this wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. So I shut my laptop and went to play with my kids. When I saw myself clearly, I wanted to do something else.

This captures it nicely. True self-observation invites our most adult self to be at the helm, shining the light of maturity and compassionate self-awareness toward whichever aspects of ourselves we are willing to observe.

How to observe yourself.

In NLP we call self-observation, dissociation. Of course, NLP’s dissociation doesn’t resemble clinical dissociation in any way! It simply involves taking a step back and seeing yourself as a more neutral or compassionate observer might see you. Dissociation pulls us out of our stressed and distracted, self-involved states that tend to lead to bad behaviors. Then, we simply observe the moment. When we do this without attempting to coerce ourselves, miracles happen.

Try it. Here are some simple methods.

• Label what you are doing without judgment. The next time you are caught up in the moment, label what you are doing. Right now, I am doing X.

• See yourself. Imagine looking upon yourself as if from a distance. How do you appear? This works particularly well for situations that involve arguments with other people. When we see ourselves and our actions, things change.

• Ask yourself a big picture question. What’s really going on here? What do I really want right now? What am I trying to accomplish here? What does this do for me?

What if I keep doing it anyway?

What if you observe yourself and do the unwanted behavior anyway? Don’t be surprised if you do. It took me weeks of self-observation before I lost my desire to overeat late at night. Of course, I had been doing this self-destructive behavior for 20 years, so a few weeks is a swift recovery if you think about it.

With habits and addictions there are often deeper, unmet needs that need to be identified before self-observation becomes meaningful. If you aren’t aware of your deeper needs, then self-observation may fall flat, like looking through a stranger’s family photo album. What you see doesn’t mean much because you don’t have a strong connection to the family or its history.

When you understand your historical, unmet needs, observing yourself takes on new meaning and automatically fosters greater compassion and self-acceptance, which causes the underlying stress to melt away.

The process of self-observation, compassion and releasing unwanted habits can take some time and may even require some coaching. When you are in a position to practice regularly, however, you will be amazed at the results. Poor habits, even long-standing ones, are weak compared to the power of compassionate self-observation.

Mike Bundrant is a retired mental health counselor who conducts online NLP training with the iNLP Center.

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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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