By Leo Babauta

A lot of habit problems can be fixed with an adjustment to how you deal with bad feelings: unhappiness about yourself, guilt, stress, boredom.

These feelings inevitably come up for us, sometime during our habit change. How we handle them can either derail the habit change, or keep us going without much of a disruption.

The way many of us deal with these feelings is not productive for our habit changes. Feeling bored, bad about ourselves, tired, stressed … we might try to comfort ourselves. This can take the form of unhealthy eating, TV, procrastinating, games, alcohol, drugs, smoking, skipping the habit. This doesn’t really lead to comfort, by the way — it’s just our comfort habit, but actually these things often make us feel worse.

So our ways of coping with these bad feelings is often detrimental to the habit change (and our health and happiness). If you’ve been facing these kinds of problems, I suggest making an adjustment: find new ways of coping with these feelings.

There are lots of healthier ways of coping with these types of feelings. For example, stress can be dealt with through meditation, simplifying your task list, having a calming tea ritual, exercise, going for a walk. Boredom can be dealt with through taking on a new challenge, learning something new, doing something creative. Being tired can be dealt with by getting more sleep and doing less during the day.

My top suggestion, though, is to use self-compassion to deal with these feelings.

The Tool of Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is the practice of treating yourself kindly. You can see that we don’t always do this, because if we miss a few days of doing our habit, we feel guilty, we beat ourselves up, we feel bad about ourselves. If we aren’t sticking to healthy habits, we might feel bad about our bodies. This isn’t kindness, it’s harshness.

Imagine someone you love is in pain … they are hurting inside because of a failure. How would you treat that person? You could be harsh, but you know that would only hurt the person you love. So you’d try treating them with kindness: you’d comfort them with a hug, listen to their troubles, offer a helping hand, be understanding, be accepting.

Self-compassion is simply treating ourselves as kindly as we’d treat a loved on who’s in pain.

Some steps you might try:

  1. Notice the signs of your pain: If you feel stressed, bad about yourself, unhappy, bored, tired … these are all signals that you’re in pain somehow. Even if it’s not severe pain, it’s some kind of bad feeling. Start to notice these signals — going off the habit, procrastinating, comforting yourself with unhealthy things … these are all symptoms of the pain.
  2. Turn from your story about the pain, to the actual feelings. If you’re having bad feelings, you’re probably telling yourself some story about it, such as, “I’m not disciplined” or “I can’t do this” or “I deserve a break” or “That person shouldn’t have hurt me (or been unfair)”. Turn from this story, and stay with the actual pain. Notice how it feels. Be curious about it. It’s not as bad as you might think, staying with this feeling.
  3. Be accepting. Accept the bad feelings (the pain), and allow yourself to have these feelings in your body. It’s OK. You’ll be OK. We all feel these things sometimes.
  4. Be compassionate. If someone else felt these feelings, what could you do to be compassionate? Wish yourself well, wish yourself happiness.
  5. Find a better action. Instead of taking action to comfort yourself in unhealthy ways, find a healthier action. Take a walk, meditate, talk to a friend, take a bath, have some tea. Find ways to treat the failure that’s causing the pain as an opportunity to learn and get better.

This is the basic method, and it’s a skill that takes practice. Start today.