People fail. From time to time they mess up on the challenges of family relationships, life style, work etc. And when they blunder, they suffer adverse consequences. No wonder then that we speak of being kind and sympathetic to those who fail – who are struggling financially, emotionally, or interpersonally. But when it comes to our own problems, do we feel we ought to show the same thoughtfulness, the same gentleness, the same tolerance? Don’t we need self-care as well as care for others? The mindfulness movement advocates we practice self-compassion.
“Self-compassion is a practice in which we learn to be a good friend for ourselves when we need it most – to become an inner ally rather than an inner enemy.” (Kristein Neff & Christopher Germer, mindfulness teachers)
Why is self-compassion needed?
“All of us wish we’d had perfect childhoods, with a mother and father who modelled ideal parental attitudes and taught us to internalize the tenets of self-love. Many of us, however, did not.” (Marianne Williamson, American author, spiritual leader, politician, and activist.)
Self-compassion and self-criticism
One can be sympathetically honest with a good friend regarding their weaknesses or mistakes.
“Sure, the job of high school teachers is not to tear down students’ self-esteem. But it’s certainly not to inflate students’ sense of self-worth with a bunch of unearned compliments and half-truths.” (L.Z. Granderson, American journalist)
Likewise having self-compassion and accepting our own faults does not mean agreeing with them. Honest self-acceptance can lead to correcting our mistakes. Self-evaluation is the vital first step towards personal change.
We can be self-critical without indulging in harsh self-criticism. Unless we honestly look at ourselves, we are in danger of self-justification, amounting to self-deception.
Self-compassion and self-pity
One can have sympathy towards one’s own plight without being absorbed in oneself and wallowing in self-pity.
“Self-pity is never useful. It tends to distort like a fun-house mirror.” (Anne Roiphe, American feminist and author)
“Discontent, blaming, complaining, self-pity cannot serve as a foundation for a good future, no matter how much effort you make.” (Eckhart Tolle, spiritual author and teacher)
One can be kind to oneself without going on a self-indulgent binge or spending spree. Self-compassion is compatible with self-restraint.
I would suggest there has been a pressure on people to look perfect heightened by the celebrity culture. This has led to inadequate feelings particularly in many women exploited by advertising.
“L’Oreal’s slogan ‘because you’re worth it’ has come to epitomise banal narcissism of early 21st century capitalism; easy indulgence and effortless self-love all available at a flick of the credit card.” (Geoff Mulgan, British social and political writer)
Loving oneself is good. For unless we love ourselves, how could we hope to love others? Likewise, without self-respect, how could we respect others?
There is a balance needed between love of self and love of others. A big difference lies between, on the one hand, having sufficient love and compassion for yourself and, on the other hand, narcistic self-love. The latter amounts to prioritising self-love which is never going to lead to feeling compassionate towards others in need. For when self-love rules, it results in self-serving, self-interest and selfishness.
“A modest dose of self-love is entirely healthy – who would want to live in a world where everyone hated themselves? But taken too far, it soon becomes poisonous.” (Geoff Mulgan)
Lack of self-compassion blocks compassion for others.
Compassion for others may sound like a tall order. This is the case especially for those of us who lack self-compassion. But it is a higher calling.
Compassion is the key to living outside the confines of your lower self. (Debbie Ford, American self-help author and coach))
Can self-compassion as we have defined it, actually help us to find this deeper concern for others?
“Self-compassion encourages mindfulness, or noticing your feelings without judgment; self-kindness, or talking to yourself in a soothing way; and common humanity, or thinking about how others might be suffering similarly.” (Rachel Simmons, American author)
How can we care for others if we cannot practice self-care? How can we be kind to others unless we are kind to ourselves? However, when we accept our own difficulty and unhappiness then we can better recognise that of others. Our pain is part of the shared human experience. Everyone makes mistakes and experiences hardships in life. As Kristein Neff & Christopher Germer point out, we are all flawed works in progress. When we see this then it helps us to feel connected with others in the same boat as ourselves. It facilitates a compassionate attitude towards our common humanity.
Self-compassion and Christian heritage
I see this growing interest in self-compassion as a healthy reaction against an unfortunate strand in our Western Christian heritage. This has been in my view a somewhat punitive notion of God. It assumes f there is a possibility the God who is love and mercy itself might not want to forgive us for any wrongdoing.
According to the analysis of spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, this mistaken attitude stems from treating the biblical picture of multiple deity as literally true when it’s meaning is metaphorical. Not three Gods but three aspects of the one God. As a result of this error a common image of God the Father has been one of wanting humankind to suffer for falling by the wayside. This anger, it is supposed, could only be appeased through the self-sacrifice of God the Son.
I would say this mistaken notion of deity has resulted in the traditional idea of ‘original sin’. If true such a doctrine would mean we are all born guilty sinners deserving harsh treatment.
Such a negative view has permeated our ways of thinking. Unsurprisingly, we are quick to criticise our own shortcomings, failings and wrong-doing as warranting ill-fortune, punishment or rejection. And some of us actually condemn ourselves as unworthy of self-respect and care of others. The Gospel, however, is clear about our proper attitude to ourselves.
“Love your neighbour as yourself” (Jesus Christ)