One of the key concepts in Christianity is compassion for others. Jesus exhorted us to love our neighbors and our enemies, to give to the poor, and to deny ourselves. Compassion is listed along with other New Testament virtues such as “kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is probably one of the best examples of compassion in the Bible.
In school, children learn that compassion is empathy + action – it’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective, and then take action to make their situation better.
So what, then, is self-compassion, and does it fall into the realm of something Christians should pursue?
Self-compassion has become a popular concept over the last several years. According to Good Therapy, the psychological definition of self-compassion is “the ability to turn understanding, acceptance, and love inward.”
It’s the simple reality of turning the compassion we should cultivate for others into something we cultivate for ourselves. For some people, this is more difficult than for others.
What is the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem?
The self-esteem movement began in the 1960s and flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, and was rightly criticized by Christians as being founded in pride and selfishness, although this was not always the case.
It should be acknowledged that self-esteem can be helpful insofar as it causes us to recognize what is true about ourselves. (Try going to a job interview with low self-esteem; you won’t be able to offer an honest assessment of your positive contributions to the workplace.)
Compassion for yourself isn’t quite the same thing as self-esteem, however. While self-esteem is focused on what we’ve accomplished or achieved, “self-compassion is a form of self-acceptance, even in the face of failure.
A person who scores high on measures of self-compassion might accept failures without defensiveness or justification and recognize that all people, even one’s own self, are deserving of love and acceptance. On the other hand, high self-esteem might lead to a tendency to ignore or hide any personal flaws.” (Good Therapy)
Origins of Self-Compassion
The origins of the concept of self-compassion are a bit murky, which can cause concern for Christians who are unsure of its religious or spiritual meaning and ties. Compassion for yourself is often connected to the idea of mindfulness, or being connected to the present moment and letting judgments and distractions disappear. Mindfulness often raises red flags in Christian thought as well, due to its connections to Buddhist philosophy.
However, neither of these concepts needs to be tied to another religion in order to have value for mental health. The Wikipedia entry on self-compassion describes its correlation to mindfulness:
“Mindfulness in the context of self-compassion comprises acknowledging one’s painful experiences in a balanced way that neither ignores or ruminates on the disliked characteristics of oneself or life… Mindfulness tends to focus on the internal experience such as sensation, emotion, and thoughts rather than focusing on the experiencer.Self-compassion focuses on soothing and comforting the self when faced with distressing experiences.” [emphasis added]
In other words, while mindfulness focuses on your subjective experience, what you’re thinking, and your senses, compassion for yourself is more focused on your outside circumstances and how you respond to them. How can you offer grace to yourself when you don’t react the way you want to? How can you remain calm and balanced when you fail? How can you accept your imperfections in less-than-ideal circumstances?
From this perspective, you can start to see how compassion for yourself can be integrated with a Christian worldview. As Christians, we recognize that we are sinners. We also recognize the reality that we live in a fallen and imperfect world. How will we live and cope with that reality on a day-to-day basis, without succumbing to self-hatred or discouragement? Self-compassion can be part of the answer.
Current Literature About Practicing Compassion for Yourself
Studies on self-compassion have found that in a general sense, women tend to have less self-compassion than men do. Researchers believe that this is because women are more likely to perform caregiver roles in their families, where they are focused on offering compassion to others and tend to neglect to offer compassion to themselves, possibly believing it would be selfish.
Kristin Neff is an academic researcher who studies self-compassion and has pioneered research about the concept. She offers a six-factor model regarding self-compassion. Her model focuses on three elements, and the six factors are comprised of those three elements and their opposites:
1. Self-kindness vs. self-judgment – not harshly criticizing oneself
2. Recognizing one’s own humanity vs. isolation – no one is perfect and everyone experiences pain
3. Mindfulness vs. over-identification – “maintaining a non-biased awareness of experiences, even those that are painful, rather than either ignoring or exaggerating their effect.”
In Neff’s model, a self-compassionate person is able to offer kindness to herself instead of harsh criticism. She can understand that she is only human, just like everyone else. She is not unique in her experience of pain and failure, and she knows that.
And, she is able to connect with her experiences (instead of sweeping things under the rug, for example) by identifying what’s going on. She can do this without over-identifying with her pain.
In a piece for Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Neff underscores the importance of realizing what self-compassion is :
- Self-pity. Having compassion for yourself doesn’t mean you heighten your experience over those of others and think you constantly have it harder than everyone else. That would go against the second element of Neff’s six-factor model, which emphasizes that you connect with others’ humanity instead of living in isolation.
- Weakness.Self-compassion doesn’t mean you sit and relax and give in to your shortcomings. It doesn’t mean you don’t try again. It doesn’t mean you live in your failures.
- Complacency. Self-compassion doesn’t mean you accept yourself as you are in the sense that you never try to improve.
- Narcissism. It also doesn’t mean that you are boastful, presumptuous, grandiose, or self-important.
- Selfishness. Self-compassion doesn’t negate the need for others-compassion, or it isn’t balanced or healthy.
Self-Compassion vs. Self-Hatred
What is the alternative to self-compassion? It’s self-hatred. It’s thinking poorly of ourselves and in doing so, dishonoring who God created us to be.
Self-compassion allows you to embrace the fact that you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). God made a good creation when he made you. For you to hate yourself and think you are lower than everyone else does not honor what he did when he created you.
Self-compassion involves recognizing and internalizing God’s compassion for and acceptance of you. This is a mentally healthy mindset. If you struggle to accept yourself as you are, Scripture can help you can recognize that God accepts you. That recognition can be the first step towards overcoming failure and mental isolation.
Finally, self-compassion involves the realization that if you succumb to self-hatred, you are dishonoring God’s creation. He didn’t make you worth less than other people. You have inherent value even in the midst of your sin and failure.
If you have undergone bullying, cruelty, or abuse from others, this can have extremely detrimental effects on your personal identity and self-worth. You may blame yourself and struggle with feelings of guilt or worthlessness. Meditating on God’s kindness and compassion can help you begin to embrace God’s love in a powerful way.
Ways to Implement Compassion for Yourself
Self-care is certainly a part of self-compassion. At its most basic level, self-care means taking care of yourself the way a parent does a child. It’s making sure you get enough sleep, nutritious food, movement, socializing, solitude, etc., to be a healthy and well-balanced person.
Recognize that you need these basic things. Which types of self-care do you tend to neglect? Give yourself permission to care for yourself. Start building small habits of self-care that will improve your life and enhance your well-being over time.
Acknowledge your identity as a human being who is both flawed and loved. Recognize the forgiveness that God offers for your sin in Christ. He made you, knows you, and loves you. Other people don’t define you, only God does, and he says that you are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Don’t accept blame-shifting from other people. Take responsibility for your own faults and choose to change and grow by God’s grace, but don’t allow others to blame you for their shortcomings. If you need to set boundaries with difficult people or implement tough love, this can be part of recognizing that you are a person who deserves to be protected and loved.
As yourself, “What practical things can I do to improve my situation?” If you are going through a difficult time, ask yourself how you can de-stress. Are you being too strict with yourself? Or do you need to cultivate self-discipline so that you can have a more balanced and healthy lifestyle?
Some of the exercises experts recommend for developing greater self-compassion include:
- Asking yourself how you would treat a friend.
- Exploring situations through writing and journaling.
- Changing your critical self-talk.
- Identifying what you really want.
As Christians, we should cultivate compassion for others and ourselves. The motive of self-compassion should not be selfish, but life-giving, as we embrace the love God has for us. That love flows outward (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
As God comforts us, we can embrace that comfort, and allow it to flow through us to others. This is the test of whether our compassion for ourselves is real: does it become compassion for others, or does it stop with us? If the first is true, then don’t worry. You are embracing a life-giving element of your walk with God.
If you struggle with self-hatred or low self-esteem, it’s probably difficult for you to have compassion for yourself. Seek Christian counseling to help you develop a more compassionate heart for others by learning how to walk in your value and worth as God’s child.
“Red Heart and Man”, Courtesy of Nick Fewings, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Keeping the Rain Off”, Courtesy of JW, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Heart of Light”, Courtesy of Bart LaRue, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Begin,” Courtesy of Danielle Macinnes, Unsplash.com, CC0 License