Is self compassion a struggle?

Ok, I have found out something recently that interests me greatly. Many people don’t really like talking about, or feel conflicted and confused about practicing self-compassion. I have discovered this in conversations and interactions I have had with many people over the last few years, but I don’t know for sure if this is representative of people generally (ie of any or no faith) or if there is something particular about identifying as a religious person that for many of us mitigates in some strange way against an instinct for or ease with self-compassion – but it has got under my skin and disturbed me?!

The contexts for these discussions has been various.  The first has been reflecting on my own life and experience. Secondly, I have spoken informally and taught more formally about God’s compassion for us and a bit about self compassion and there has been a significant, even startling, difference in response. There have been many nods of agreement and joy expressed at the concept of God’s compassion for us (although not easy to accept for everybody for a plethora of reasons, but still the acceptance of the concept is there by and large). There is generally warm assent all round that God loves us and has compassion ‘on all that He has made’. Similarly, there is deep agreement that God wants us to reflect love to others, to be compassionate to the people we meet and even those we don’t so we are energised to pray for all, give generously and walk supportively with those going through suffering. Even if this can feel hard at times, there is genuine consensus that this is a significant part of what it means practically to follow Jesus. Cue lots more nodding and smiles.

But then, when I talk about intentionally offering compassion to ourselves? Crickets, tumbleweed, blank stares, looking away, even occasionally slight annoyance? Ok, I am exaggerating slightly and obviously this isn’t a universal response, but there is a noticable discomfort and coolness to the subject over all. Tangibly so sometimes. But it has now happened so many times, in so many contexts, that despite some serious self-reflection and leeway for other factors on my part, I think there really might be an issue with self compassion in church circles? Or perhaps it is so seldom talked about we hardly know how to talk about it or do it? It has left me wondering….

Let’s take a closer look at self-compassion

So can we unpack this a little bit? I mentioned self compassion a few blogposts back as the foundation for self care, but I think it is worth digging a bit deeper into the definition and crucial importance of self compassion in its own right, because it is so important for wellbeing and emotional health.

So, what do I mean by self compassion? For clarity, let’s start simply with compassion because that is more familiar ground. Compassion is the ability and willingness to recognise clearly the suffering of others leading to a desire to help them. In other words, compassion has eyes wide open to the suffering of others, and a kindness of heart that motivates our involvement and help. The root of the word comes from the Latin, ‘compati’ which means ‘suffer with’. Eyes and heart open to suffering, and the desire to step in and be with, to suffer with. That all makes sense and I think we can agree that compassion is beautifully modelled in the person of Jesus, and we would love to be more like Him in the world, as His students and followers.

But what about self compassion? It is exactly the same thing but offered to ourselves, intentionally, generously, patiently, kindly. Hmmmm! This feels a little bit weird to many of us, it seems? Does it feel icky or complicated (or impossible, even), to you? And yet, it is a clear command from Jesus, in fact it is included in the greatest commandment of all, Mark 12: 29-32  (Passion translation) “The most important of all the commandments is this: The Lord Yahweh, our God is one! You are to love the Lord Yarweh, your God, with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, with every thought that is within you, and with all your strength. This is the great and supreme commandment. And the second is this: You must love your neighbour in the same way that you love yourself. You will never find a greater commandment than these.”

The second part of the double commandment is crystal clear – we are to love others as we love ourselves. In loving ourselves we must be compassionate to our own suffering, sorrows and failings as we would be to another person. As we hold our own frailty with compassion, so we practice recognising suffering and caring deeply and pro-actively – which will help us love others with deeper compassion. It is all linked. We cannot get away with loving others, but hating and criticising ourselves if we want to live in the healthy, integrated, congruent way that Jesus has modelled for us. It requires us to recognise the level playing field of human weakness, limitation and frailty and include ourselves in the circle of care we offer. I think that is worth sitting with and pondering a little bit? Do you include yourself in the circle of care you give and experience? Do you intentionally offer yourself grace and compassion when you screw up or feel anxious or upset? What is the tone of your self-talk? I know, me too. It is hard to be honest about sometimes.

Why do we sometimes shrink from self-compassion?

So why does it feel so foreign, or hard or awkward to be self compassionate sometimes? Here is my list of possible reasons, you could probably add several more:

  • We live in a hyper individualistic, highly competitive culture, and self criticism and harshness are suprisingly effective in the short term in spurring us on to more work, more achievement, more accumulation. Even worse we can use self condemnation or criticism to keep us on our spiritual toes. All stick and not much carrot. It gets stuff done fast and efficiently for a while but causes deep self wounds, pain and exhaustion eventually. As the bible says we can gain the world and destroy our souls in the process.
  • Companies spend billions of pounds advertising to us in ways that make us feel incomplete, useless, broken unless we buy their products. They intentionally target our most vulnerable, insecure feelings to capture a sale. Social media is purposely designed to be addictive and to feed our feelings of inadequacy and desperation for external validation rather than internal self compassion. The never ending quest for more likes, more followers, more traction. Constant 24 hour a day messaging that cranks up our nervous systems, energises our inner critic and insecurities but does nothing to encourage loving kindess to ourselves. Advertising, celebrity culture and social media can go a long way in alienating us from our capacity for self compassion. It can knee-cap our ability to think of ourselves in loving, kind ways. It whispers to us to abandon ourselves in a million different ways. If this makes you sad and angry, me too. It should.
  • Somewhere in the ether I think there is a toxic theology floating around that suggests we should just carry our cross, take every flogging life gives us and blame ourselves if we feel lost or sad or terrified. That suffering comes to the bad or lazy or wilfully broken, so it is all our fault and we should just suck it up and accept the punishment for our failings (or some slightly more nuanced, slippery, plausible version of that instinct). Instead of self compassion and kindness this leads to self loathing and disgust. It is certainly antithetical to the gospel I believe in and stacks up in no way at all with how Jesus describes a life with Him at the centre: “Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (The Message version, Matthew 11:29-30) That sounds so good, doesn’t it, it feels like I can breathe again.
  • I have wondered if Christians (and maybe people other faiths) have a particular world and self view that can work against self compassion if we cease to live in grace and forgiveness, deeply connected to the love of God? Why? Because the sense of distance between how we behave/feel/think and how we feel we should be (ie like Jesus!) can seem so enormous that self-recrimination and shame can creep in and undermine our ability to be self compassionate?
  • From a tender age we may have been modelled self criticism rather than self compassion. The angry inner voice we live with is often a learned one that reflects the criticism we have had spoken over and to us by parents, older siblings, teachers, peers – voices that have become internalised over the years. Sometimes we can even hear the tone of those people’s voices in our self-hatred, or recognise distinct phrases that have been said to us. Even the self-criticism those people have said in our hearing to themselves can model for us how to treat ourselves. So, if we have heard a parent say things out loud that are hateful and critical to themselves, we learn this is how to treat ourselves. God longs to free us from this, and replace the inner critic with the loving voice of grace and compassion, but this can take time.
  • We confuse self compassion with particular notions of self esteem. High self esteem can sound a lot like rating yourself highly compared to others, being happy because you are confident of your own virtue and abilities? There can still be some reliance on ranking, comparison and external validation at the core of high self esteem (in some definitions of it), and that doesn’t sit well. Self compassion says we are are all a mixture of good and bad, extraordinary potential and a stubborn propensity to mess up – but we can love ourselves and eachother through all that with generosity and kindness. That sounds more true and more hopeful to me.
  • For some people, I wonder if self compassion can be confused with a soft, indulgent sort of self mollycoddling? Nothing could be further from the truth – compassion looks straight in the eye of what actually is, offers acceptance and kindness but also seeks to aid and find right actions. There is nothing weak about it.

So, how do we learn self compassion and why is it so important?

Self compassion is key because sometimes when life is very hard and makes no sense, and friends and even God seem far away, self compassion is the bedrock, the soft place to fall when everything else has given way. It can hold us, comfort us, and lead us very gently by the hand back to trust in God and life and goodness. It is both an extraordinarily powerful safety net and a bridge back towards hope and wisdom to find the next right step. Life can seem a lot less frightening when we are able to rely on ourselves to provide friendship and kindness through painful times. Self abandonment can feel terrifying, and self-compassion is the opposite of that. It also helps us understand ourselves, and with that understanding comes greater resilience and self awareness. Finally, as we practice, day-by-day, that open-eyed, open-hearted self acceptance and help, I wonder if we become better at, (or at least have more capacity to offer) compassion to others? Put simply, as we recognise and honour the Divine image in ourselves, so we see it more clearly in others and are moved to draw closer to their suffering not further away. We love others as ourselves. Imagine if this was widespread reality in the world – the transformational impact on relationships and communities? God’s love and compassion working in us and through us is always creating concentric rings of healing and hope, it is easy to underestimate its dynamism and power.

So how might we begin a practice of self-compassion? I can’t offer you a programme or formula, but I can share what has helped me.

  • Get quiet and still for a few minutes once a day and just listen to the stream of self chatter that goes on, notice the words and the tone. Is it compassionate or harsh? Noticing is the mother of change. Don’t beat yourself up further or see it as failure if the inner critic is active, just listen in with compassion and realise even a harsh voice is probably trying to protect you from something or help you get something you think you need. So go easy. Just imagine how you respond in a kinder way, as you would to a dear friend. Try saying a few words to yourself in that more compassionate voice, how does it feel? There is no shame at all in small, first steps.
  • Practice saying this rather wonderful sentence when you feel under pressure, (written by the brilliant author Brene Brown): “Don’t Shrink, Don’t Puff Up, Stand on Your Sacred Ground.” Or find a bible verse that reminds you of your identity as God’s beloved child. Keep it in your pocket or wallet and look at it, let it sink in, whenever you need to.
  • I have recently done a course with Mark Scandrette who has written and taught a lot on spiritual and character formation and he suggests in order to get our identity in line with Truth, stand or sit up straight every morning, hand on heart and say something along the lines of: “I am made in the image of God and I am a creature of infinite worth and value.” No more pushing, striving, earning, competing needed when we believe that! And as we feel the truth of it, so we feel the truth of it for every other human being. There is something about offering yourself kindness in this kind of intentional and embodied way that feels strange at first but keep going with it, and I think the brain begins to rewire a bit in the direction of truth and compassion. God uses you in the transformation of you – all the power is from him, but we are called to be active partners in the process of healing and making whole!
  • Be aware that this is a process of learning, or re-learning kindness to yourself. A willingness to see your own suffering and move towards it with kindness and gentle strength does not come overnight and can be buffeted by difficult circumstances and events. But I believe with all my heart that it is worth perservering with because of the resilience and good fruit it produces so generously in our lives, not just for our transformation, but also for the good of those around us too.

I will leave you with the wise words of counselling psychologist, Dr Hillary McBride, “Remember that sometimes the person in the room that really needs your compassion the most is you.”


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