When Jesus related the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” built into that phrase is a message to take care of our own mental health.
All of us are familiar with this famous Scripture quote, “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mk 12:31). More often than not, most people focus most of their attention on the first half of this command, “Love your neighbor.” As a mental health professional, I have always been intrigued by the latter half of the passage that says, “as yourself.” I have often asked myself, What does it mean to “love your neighbor as yourself”? For the longest time, I did not really understand this part until I was introduced to the notion of self-compassion.
Self-compassion is the act of turning one’s compassion onto oneself and looking at oneself with love and care. Only when I understood this Scripture passage did the proverbial light bulb go off in my head, and I realized this command was not simply a guide to show love to our neighbors, but it was a command to show that same love to ourselves.
Changing the Narrative
When I was a child, my parents always taught me to show compassion to those around me. They instilled in me, as I imagine many of your parents did, the importance of loving others and being compassionate to those in pain. But what was often missing was an approach to turning that same kindness inward. More often than not, we are critical of ourselves and don’t show compassion when we make mistakes or experience strong emotions. Remember, there is a second piece to the commandment (“as yourself”), and, for me, this is a game changer.
So, what is self-compassion? It is simply a way to be as kind and caring to ourselves and accept that our emotions are as valid as those experienced by the people around us. Showing compassion to ourselves may sound like a silly idea at first, but I think that it is vital to mental wellness. Being able to comfort ourselves when we are struggling in life gives us another tool to help us navigate this challenging world.
When people talk about compassion, it is often in reference to another person. For example: “My friend is suffering from the loss of a loved one. I should reach out to see what I can do for him/her.” There is nothing wrong with helping out your friend, as showing compassion to others is often taught to us from a very young age, but we are often not taught to show the same compassion to ourselves. So, when we are critical of ourselves or feel strong emotions, we may tell ourselves, I’m being weak, or I shouldn’t be showing my emotions like this.
We often take an emotion, place a negative spin on it, and then criticize ourselves for feeling that particular “negative” emotion. This negativity may escalate into concrete and judgmental statements, such as I am stupid, I am unlovable, or I am weak. Thus begins the mental spiral as noted in the example that follows.
Start with Self-Reflection
Sally works for a large accounting firm in Chicago. When she arrives at work, Sally receives an email from her boss asking her to stop by sometime that day to discuss something. Naturally, Sally’s anxiety spikes, and she finds herself going through the possible reasons why her boss wants to see her. She finally makes it to her boss’s office, and her boss points out a computing mistake that she made on a client’s financial reports. As Sally leaves the office, she feels defeated and embarrassed that she made the mistake. As the day continues, Sally starts feeling angry, mostly at herself for making “such a stupid mistake.”
That evening, as she goes to bed, Sally finds herself thinking, I am really stupid, I should have known better, and I should have double-checked my work. Sally is a good example of how we can take an instance in our lives and escalate it to a self-defeating attitude.
Self-compassion can be broken down into two key steps: first, using nonjudgmental language; second, planting seeds of encouragement. Self-reflection and practicing the use of nonjudgmental language is probably the most challenging of the two steps. First, we have to take the time to actually reflect on this perceived negative event, which is difficult for many people because it can often mean having to experience those same negative feelings all over again. It is important to remember, especially here, that we should talk to ourselves as we would talk to our friends or family when they are struggling.
Do you judge your friend for being upset about a mistake he/she made? If you answered no, why would you judge yourself? The goal in this step is to not place judgment on the emotions or thoughts that you are having. One tip is to avoid using the word should, such as, I should not be feeling this way, or I shouldn’t have made that mistake. The word should automatically places judgment on the person for doing or not doing a certain thing. It often labels the event as negative and results in criticizing oneself for not doing something the “right way.” Would you tell your friend not to cry if something is affecting him/her?
During self-reflection, you really want to be gentle with yourself. In Sally’s case, I would encourage her to see her mistake as simply that—a mistake—and not attach negative emotions to it. For instance, she frames the mistake as “really bad.” By adding that simple descriptor, Sally opens herself up to the critical part of her that will take it and run with it. When she is able to simply say, “I made a mistake,” this gives it less power and gives her the opportunity to work in a healthier way with any emotions that come up with that situation.
The hardest part of self-compassion is turning off that critical inner voice. But if we are able to simply look at an event or feeling for what it is, not adding any qualifiers, then we are in a better space to move to the next step of planting seeds of encouragement.
Just as you would say to a friend, “You can overcome this,” or “I know that you’ve got this,” we can say these things to ourselves, but it is going to take some practice because we often don’t believe ourselves when we say these things. This is why I refer to this step as “planting seeds of encouragement.” Just like in gardening, it is going to take some time and nurturing to accept this kind of positive thinking.
Begin by simply introducing the positive statements in your mind—and the more you feed this encouragement—the more that it will grow and the more likely that you are going to believe it. Let’s look at the case with Sally. At this stage, I would invite her to offer herself some words of encouragement. I may ask, “What would you say to a friend struggling with a similar challenge?”
Then we would look at some things that we can say, for example: “Many people make mistakes at work. I can learn from this experience.” By offering a piece of encouragement, Sally removes the sting of the mistake and reframes it to be a source of strength to better herself at work.
That is one of the greatest gifts of encouragement: It reframes a negative event into a positive outcome. By walking through these two steps—self-reflection with nonjudgmental language and planting seeds of encouragement—a person is able to begin to follow the latter part of the commandment that Jesus shares in Mark 12:31.
Eventually, a person will be able to encounter many challenging situations, which may initially be perceived as negative, and turn them into a more affirming, even enriching experience. By practicing the art of self-compassion, we are actually following more closely a core teaching of the Gospel.