Thought Experiment: You have forgotten your car keys and have to return to your house. What would you would say to yourself. Hear the words, notice the tone. Were you kind or gentle on yourself? This will indicate whether you need to listen carefully to this sermon and perhaps download the workshop notes from GUC website to do some work on your self-care.
There is a story about a Tibetan monk who was held in jail for years by Chinese prison guards. Later he was released and had an audience with the Dalai Lama. He was asked about his time in prison and the monk said he faced danger a few times. The Dalai Lama asked “What danger?” The monk replied, “Of losing compassion towards the Chinese.” We have a problem in that it is often hard for us to be compassionate to ourselves!
God as Compassionate
God is portrayed as compassionate in the Old Testament (eg., Daniel 9: 9) and in the New Testament the example of Jesus is central. Believers are encouraged to put on or to wear “compassion” (Col. 3: 12). This is seen as an attribute of God and a virtue in those who follow Christ. Mostly compassion is expressed to those in need.
But here is a problem. It is OK to be compassionate to others but seems self-indulgent to be compassionate to oneself. Christians are vulnerable. I think we are one of last communities to be guilt sensitive – so we tend to be harder on ourselves than almost anyone else. Think about the car key example: would you use the same words to describe a loved one or a friend?
We often think about the relationship to ourselves in terms of self-esteem. But this is problematic (Marshall, et al., 2015). And ultimately it must fail because it puts us on a treadmill of ‘one success after another’. Do I need to be better-than-average to feel good about myself? Can we all be better than average – in everything? I am without musical or athletic ability but does this ‘limit’ my self-esteem? This has been called the ‘self-esteem trap’.
When I was training to be a psychologist, I remember the ‘feel good’ advice to write something good about ourselves, stick it to the bathroom mirror and daily remind ourselves that we really are an ‘exceptional person’. Or beautiful, or intelligent, or special. Did it work? Not in my experience, it feels like self-flattery which is never convincing.
We need a better basis than contingent self-esteem to relate in a healthy way to ourselves. Can our kindness extend to ourselves when we are disappointed, feel a failure, or rejected and hurting? Instead, we can learn to be self-compassionate: To recognize that we are hurting. Then to hold ourselves kindly and gently (Harris, 2011b). And if we are left with profound regrets about instances of bad behavior, can we forgive ourselves? (Rangganadhan & Todorov, 2010). This leads us to the point of self-compassion – it works best when we fail!
Mindfulness is ‘in’. It is simply paying attention, internally or externally, in an accepting way. It is characterized by attention with a gentle curiosity. This has influenced the ‘3rd wave’ cognitive behavioural therapies which include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and Compassion Focused Therapy. All share a focus on relieving psychological distress through changing the person’s relationship to their problems. These two streams flow together in Mindfulness based Self-compassion.
Mindful Self-compassion is a relatively recent addition. One of the leading researchers is Kristen Neff (and I recommend her YouTube videos).
She has articulated three principles of Self-compassion. You might consider them three portals or door-ways to being more self-compassionate:
- Self-kindness versus self-judgment SC encourages you to relate to yourself with kindness and understanding not harsh judgment. Sometimes it seems natural to be ‘tough’ on ourselves. We justify this with words like being ‘realistic’ or keeping our standards high. But I think it’s like punching yourself with the goal of making yourself stronger. Remember the movie Fight Club (1999) when the realization eventually comes that people are hitting themselves and not an opponent.
When we are self-critical it leads to psychological bruises, at the least, and probably depression, at worst to self-destructive urges. The person we most often injure through self-criticism is ourselves!
The first skill is to notice automatic self-talk. A thought diary can help. Once we notice we can also see how bruising it is to talk to ourselves that way
- Feelings of common humanity versus isolation. Do you expect yourself to be perfect? If you were to be perfect you would be a member of a very select group! (for Christians only Jesus would qualify). This is isolating. The alternative is to see your failures as part of a universal human experience. To be human is to err, well, to be imperfect. Understanding this can help us to feel connected to imperfect humanity. Christians might think of the Biblical “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 23). Eastern religions recognize being finite or limited – but again being human. This is our common ground.
To Do: Can you say to yourself (with conviction): I am human. I make mistakes. It is natural for me to fall short of what I expect of myself. (How does that feel?)
This can lead to a dramatic shift in how we evaluate and speak to ourselves. It is an important step towards self-compassion.
To Do: Can you visualize yourself as a drop in the ‘great sea’ of humanity? Or you are one grain of sand on the beach. Try whichever appeals to you.
- Mindfulness versus over identification. There has been a mindfulness revolution in mental health circles. Mindfulness involves being aware of the present moment. Mindfulness is also self-accepting. This encourages us to change our relationship to negative thoughts (which are associated with low moods). Symptoms are secondary; acceptance comes first.
A thought is just a thought. Self-compassion encourages the balance of holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness, rather than avoiding or being overly fused with them (Neff, et al., 2007).
Try saying something like: soften, soothe, allow.
The first response from self-compassion is to recognize that we are hurting and respond with care-of-self. This might be as simple as acknowledging that we feel an uncomfortable emotion, say frustration in a situation and then acknowledging that it is normal to feel that way. It is not the stoicism of ‘grin and bear it’, it is active in offering soothing and comfort to the self (Neff, 2011).
Personal reflection: I had to practice self-compassion when one of my ex-patients committed a murder. I had seen this man a number of years before but in a fit of rage he killed his wife. Obviously, I didn’t cure him of any homicidal tendencies. I had to say to myself, in a soft compassionate way: “I am not a perfect psychologist. I make mistakes, but I am a ‘good enough’ psychologist and I’ve helped many people.” Note that both observations are realistic.
Self-compassion is rich for both spirituality and more specifically Christian theology. While there are theologies of self-abasement, arguing for humility before a harsh cosmic Judge (we called this worm theology at college), this view of God is a distortion and does little justice to a profound theological reflection over the centuries. There are many theological themes relevant to a more positive attitude to ourselves: Created in the image of God (Gen 1:26), salvation history including Israel chosen by God (“Let my people go” Exodus 5:1), and the redemptive love of Christ (John 3:16). And this is simply three dishes of a smorgasbord truths to support Self-compassion from a theological perspective.
Ultimately any theology of Self-compassion will rest on a theology of how God sees us. Does God love us? This seems easy to assert. But does God like us? Are we likeable? This implies ‘as we are’ which I think is more theologically confronting. So I turn to one attempt to articulate a sense of being liked by God. James Alison is an influential theologian who has written On being liked (2003). He is an openly gay Roman Catholic priest. As might be imagined him admitting this in a largely conservative church, would draw adverse comment. Indeed, he was expelled from his religious order. He wrote, “God likes us. All of us. God likes me and I like being liked. It has nothing to do with whether we are good or bad, indeed, he takes it for granted that we are all more or less caught up in the sacred lie” (Alison, 2003, p. 15). We have our categories, which we find hard to look beyond, but God’s category for us is created. And at the very least this means we are worthwhile to God.
The word love can be over-used. In Christian circles, according to Alison, it carries the sense of being forcefully rescued. But behind the word liked is an astonishing gentleness. This can lead to self-compassion. Alison also got to point of recognizing that he was emotionally bankrupt. He described going from England to Brazil, for graduate studies, but also to minister to those dying of AIDS. Here he came to a realization “what was missing was the ability to like anyone. Either them, or myself.” (p. 67) Through a series of steps Alison discovered a capacity to be liked and to like. In this inherent reciprocity, “There is something deeply non-moralistic about this, because it means that we find ourselves learning to receive the other as a gift.” (pp. 75-76).
Ultimately Self-compassion is about seeing ourselves ‘through God’s eyes’ – the Creator who likes what he made. As infants, when first born, we can only see ourselves through the responsiveness of a parent or care-giver. This has been called ‘the looking glass self’ (Winnicott, 1971). If this is true about our parents, it is surely equally true about God.
There is a rich tapestry in self-compassion. The threads of truth are woven together: the importance of self-care extending to ourselves, the nature of our common humanity, of the healing potential of mindfulness, of the devastation of harsh self-criticism, of this pathway to enhancing care of others, and of the spiritual or theological implications. The challenge is to limit your Inner-critic and to strengthen your Inner-soother! (Neff, 2011a).
Rev’d Dr Bruce Stevens is a clinical and forensic psychologist. He is the supply minister at GUC.
To Do: Self-compassion Scale go to (Self-Compassion) Best to do it online as this is auto-scored and rated.