When Jesus was asked “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Mt 22:36), he answered by quoting the two great commandments. Most people pay close attention to the first one about loving God with all our mind, heart, and soul. Not so many give equal notice to the second: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:34-40). It’s the “as yourself” part that tends to be forgotten or dismissed.
This hesitancy about loving ourselves as much as we love others is understandable. Most of us were taught that paying attention to our self promotes pride and selfishness. Thus, there is a built-in fear of becoming self-centered or narcissistic. True self-compassion does not lead to self-absorption or egocentricity. Rather, it enables us to develop greater love.
The more genuinely kind we are to ourselves, the more understanding we will be to others.
Self-compassion means that we approach ourselves in the way Jesus approached those who suffered. This self-regard focuses on being sympathetic, comforting, and considerate. Instead of disregarding our difficulties or downplaying distress, we recognize what hurts and offer ourselves attentive care, just as we would to someone else in our situation.
It is also about the attitude we have toward ourselves, the judgments we make, and the stance we take toward our limitations and failures. When I was young, I often judged myself harshly for my wrongdoings and inability to be the person I could be. I responded the same way about others who manifested shortcomings. It took a long time for me to realize and accept that we are all imperfect creatures on our way to spiritual transformation, and that love, not harshness, is the fruitful motivation for changing our ways.
Some people fear that being kind to themselves might keep them from growing and changing. Paul Gilbert acknowledges this concern in The Compassionate Mind: “If I’m not self-critical, I might become lazy; I might not achieve. I might become arrogant and not see my faults; I might become unlikeable.”
I thought about this at a recent retreat when a young man spoke to me. He expressed disgust as he described a new awareness of how his ego rules his mind, saying with a voice of repulsion, “It’s always about me.” Harsh inner criticism absorbed him. He believed this would move him to change. I gently reminded him that self-loathing is not advantageous for spiritual growth. This negativity only saps our energy and moves us away from our growth by focusing even more on our self.
I then encouraged him to remember the deeper layer of goodness within him and to turn toward the transforming grace of God, whose power working through us can “accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20-21). This approach brings strength and hope of entering into the desired change—instead of beating ourselves up mentally for not being the person we long to be.
No matter what age, profession, or state of life we are in, everyone needs to deliberately extend love toward him- or herself. Numerous areas of life require this, especially the following: external events and experiences resulting in sorrow and grief, illnesses that sap our vitality, the push and strain of daily work, unending caregiving, inner turmoil and struggle known only to us, past experiences that lay siege to our mind and emotions, difficulties with relationships, issues of self-worth, physical or mental limitations, and the reality of having a less-than-perfect personality.
When we do not take care of self, others suffer because of this neglect. In The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer tells of his wife returning home from the hospital after hip surgery. Being an especially independent person, she really wanted to be able to manage her recovery on her own. But both she and Germer realized she would need help on the first morning.
He was not an early riser but he made sure he got up to assist her. Even though he suffers from hypoglycemia, Germer did not take time to eat or drink anything. Consequently, his hypoglycemic crankiness affected his wife’s disposition.
Germer writes, “As I arranged my wife’s rehabilitation—gripper, pressure-sock sleeve, special shoes—I noticed I was feeling tense and grumpy.”
As he struggled to get her sock on, she became sad and started to feel bad about her dependency. The situation worsened and then Germer began to blame his wife for having to get up early. Eventually, he realized what was happening and went to drink some orange juice to ease his touchiness. When his irritability subsided, he returned to the work of getting shoes on his wife’s swollen feet. They both relaxed, and the procedure went much better.
That’s how it is when we do not tend to our own needs and focus completely on someone else’s. We can easily slip into anger or impatience, which leads to making harsh judgments of self and others. If we are overly-stressed, we might harbor resentment toward those in our care, or fall into the well of self-pity and take on the role of a martyr. These inner disturbances of ours influence those around us.
What’s Holding Us Back?
There are many reasons why a person may find it difficult to forgive oneself. The following areas identify some of these.
1) An Overemphasis of Self-sacrifice.
The cross of Jesus is always before us, revealing a powerful message of unconditional love (“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”—Jn 15:13). This principle permeates Christian spirituality. The cross of Jesus generates a desire to love as deeply, strongly, and fully as he did. Generous giving of self is much needed in a world of suffering.
However, this kind of giving also prompts weary caregivers, exhausted parents, grieving widows, stressed workers, and those encumbered with aching afflictions to waver in providing for their own welfare: “If I take care of myself, I am selfish. Shouldn’t I just give and give, even when I’m exhausted? Isn’t that what I am supposed to do—carry my own cross?”
Yes and no. Balance is the key in offering kindness and understanding to self and others. Gail Straub, author of The Rhythm of Compassion, encourages her readers to be aware of the in-and-out pattern of their breath. Straub compares this natural rhythm of the physical body to caring for self and others. Breathing in is like “caring for self.” Breathing out is like “caring for the world.” Both are essential and must be kept in balance for life to occur in a physically and spiritually healthy manner.
Jesus taught, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35a). At the same time, he recognized the consequences of being a generous giver and reminded his followers of the need to pause and care for self: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). He did not want people to suffer if their spiritual malady or physical infirmity could be alleviated. When those who were ill and distraught came to Jesus, he did not tell them to “offer it up” or “just live with it.” Rather, he brought them back to health. Jesus wanted them to be well.
If we delve into the Gospels with the intent of discovering how Jesus cared for himself, we will find numerous times when he took care of his body, mind, and spirit. Amid an intensely active ministry, he went apart for quiet prayer and reflection (Lk 4:42). He gave himself the gift of bodily rest, sitting down when he was tired from his journey, and sleeping in the boat amid the storm (Jn 4:6; Mk 4:35-40).
When pressed by the crowds, Jesus found psychological and physical space by leaving the land and teaching from a boat (Lk 5:1-3). He took social time to nurture his relationships, visiting his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.
After Lazarus died, Jesus did not deny his grief but allowed himself to weep and mourn (Jn 12:1-2; Jn 11:1- 12). When he faced excruciating agony in the last hours before his death, Jesus asked for support from his disciples so he would not have to go through his pain alone (Mk 14:32-38).
2) Influence of Family of Origin.
I grew up in a predominately rural area. As a youth, I heard my father of Germanic descent say such things as, “Don’t cry. It doesn’t hurt that much. You’ll get over it. Just tough it out.”
When my younger brother drowned, few tears were shed and not much was spoken about this significant loss in my family because we were taught to be strong and hide our pain. The consequence of this was living among parents and siblings whose concealed grief affected our relationships for years.
The good news is that we can grow through and beyond past experiences and attitudes that hinder us from caring for ourselves. Through my volunteer work with hospice, I observed how strong, autonomous people allowed themselves to be receptive to those offering care and comfort in their dying process. This awareness helped me to shed many of the old attitudes that kept me from being kind to myself.
3) Society’s Expectations.
“Go as fast as you can. Do as much as possible in the shortest amount of time.” How many of us in our Western culture struggle with the reality of being regularly stressed and overwhelmed, unable to complete what is required or planned for each day? We expect a lot of ourselves and do not give our body, mind, and spirit the attention each deserves.
Even if we feel physically miserable, we drag ourselves to work. We push on to attend a social gathering when going for a swim or taking time for some quiet reflection would restore our depleted energy. If we feel deep sadness, we shove it aside, saying, “I shouldn’t hurt this much,” or “I ought to be over this by now,” or “I don’t have time for this.” We omit prayer and meditation in order to hurry on to what presses us forward. When we are physically ill, we do not say to our hurting self, “I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. I’ll take good care of you.” Mostly we just suffer through things like a bad case of the flu or a nasty cold.
We would be much better parents, friends, spouses, and colleagues if we took to heart the words of Brené Brown in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: “Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.’”
4) An Inability to Receive Graciously.
Whether we have grown into our independent spirit from family upbringing or from our American culture, this gift can also be our downfall when it comes to caring for ourselves. I recall visiting a friend who extended her time and energy generously to others. She could always be counted on to be there when they were ill or in need of some form of help. Then she became seriously ill, unable to do much for herself. At first, this independent and formerly strong woman resisted offers of assistance, feeling she ought not receive from others because they were “so busy.”
Underneath this resistance was the true reason for her hesitation: she had been in control of her life when she helped others, and now it was difficult for her to be the one who was in need. Gradually, she came to realize that life involves both giving and receiving. As she became receptive to others helping her, she relaxed and healed much more quickly than if she had pushed on in an effort to mend by herself.
Each of us is capable of changing. “By changing the way we relate to ourselves and our lives, we can find the emotional stability needed to be truly happy,” writes Kristen Neff, a pioneer in the study of self-compassion. The more this approach becomes central to our life, the easier it will be to find a balance between caring for others and caring for self.
As we develop this beneficial rhythm, peace and joy will flow from us into the lives of others. Each gesture will benefit our personal well-being and contribute to the well-being of our world.
Joyce Rupp is well known as a “spiritual midwife,” international retreat leader, and conference speaker. She is a member of the Servants of Mary community, author of numerous best-selling books, and codirector of the Institute of Compassionate Presence. You can visit her online at joycerupp.com.