Self-Compassion: Helpful for a Christian?
Steve Scruggs, Psy.D.
I became a believer as a teen and was very taken by the gospel. I learned that my sins were forgiven, my fracture with God healed, and my standing as God’s child secure because of Christ’s work on the cross. However, I soon learned that many of my new friends who grew up in the church didn’t experience relief from their sins and shortcomings despite knowing about God’s grace. They could quote the Bible verses that emphasize God’s grace, e.g., “For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14, NIV) and “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us…For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:8, 10 NIV). However, they were often still wracked by guilt and preoccupied with their shortcomings.
Some people describe this as having “an inner critic” and others express constantly feeling that they are “not enough,” e.g., not smart enough, not spiritual enough, not skinny enough, etc. If we become overly focused on results, this tendency will be exaggerated due to our frequent “failures” to meet our goals (if they are unrealistic). Similarly, leaders can become toxic if they focus on outcomes rather than process and criticize, belittle, or shame people for not meeting unrealistic expectations.
Why is this? Perhaps American church culture emphasizes appearance over honesty or even works over grace. As a psychologist, I find that many of my Christian clients struggle to experience God’s peace, forgiveness, and acceptance in their lives. Even those who regularly share the gospel and have committed their lives to serving Him often feel little peace and rest in Christ. In theological terms, this is being unable to appropriate grace. In psychological terms, this is difficulty with self-compassion.
You might be skeptical, wondering if this is another pop psychology fad like self-esteem that may unwittingly encourage self-pity or self-indulgence. And, in fact, there are some problems with the concept of self-esteem. In trying to get more self-esteem, a person might exaggerate their strengths or minimize their weaknesses, making change difficult. Someone might also put others down to feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, high self-esteem is associated with prejudice and narcissism. Not surprisingly then, high self-esteem is also associated with anger and aggression towards those who threaten a person’s ego (leaders are especially susceptible to this). Finally, self-esteem is dependent on success and may falter when faced with failure. (1) *
Self-compassion is a better alternative since it is based on kindness and understanding when facing challenges and doesn’t require one to be “better” than someone else when life’s difficulties arise. To clarify, self-compassion is not focused on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain (hedonism). Instead, it is a part of what philosophers’ call “eudemonic” happiness, i.e., seeing purpose and meaning in your life despite difficult circumstances. Self-compassion has been recognized in over 20 studies as resulting in less mental health problems, increased motivation, improved health and body image, and improved relationships with others. (1) Further, people with higher self-compassion were found to be less likely to be depressed over time, suggesting that self-compassion is a resilience factor for stress. (2)
Self-compassion involves relating to ourselves with care and support when we suffer. A useful definition is “an attitude that is relevant to every personal experience of suffering and that entails three interacting components: 1) self-kindness vs self-judgment, 2) a sense of common humanity vs isolation, and 3) mindfulness vs over-identification.” (1) Self-kindness involves treating oneself with tenderness, warmness, and understanding in the face of suffering rather than with harshness and self-judgment. A sense of common humanity refers to seeing one’s failures and painful experiences as part of the larger human condition rather than feeling isolated and cut-off from the rest of humanity. The mindfulness component involves maintaining a balanced awareness of the painful experiences instead of over-identifying with painful thoughts and emotions. (3)
Instead of self-indulgence, I believe understanding self-compassion correctly can do the opposite and encourage humility. It is not saying that it is OK for a person to sin, but that each person can own their sin and recognize that shortcomings are part of our everyday life. Humility opens us up to hearing what God wants us to know about ourselves and Himself. Self-compassion and toughness are not contradictory ideas. For example, in a study of elite women athletes, the findings revealed that self-compassion was helpful in “coping with sport-related adversity and in achieving a mentally tough mindset. Self-compassion and mental toughness are compatible processes…” (4, italics mine)
How to Develop Self-Compassion
Do you have difficulty experiencing God’s grace despite knowing theologically that He has forgiven you, loves you, and accepts you as you are? If so, below are some ideas to help you to start learning self-compassion.
- Start by evaluating the messages that you received in childhood. Even though it is cliché, it is often true, nonetheless. How did your parents and/or caregivers talk to you when you made a mistake or were dealing with a shortcoming? Does your ‘inner critic” sound like that? Just because it was said to you, does that make it true?
- Beware the tendency to think being hard on yourself is necessary to “motivate” you. It works moderately well in the short run but costs you far more in the long run-in terms of constant stress, depression, and worry. (5)
- Avoid comparing your difficulties with others. Although there is always someone who has it worse, it is OK to acknowledge the difficulties that you are facing.
- Sometimes we realize that the “inner critic” is giving us messages that are not realistic or helpful. Learn to catch, challenge, and change unrealistic or harsh messages with realistic and/or healthy messages. Self-compassion is a kinder, healthier, and helpful alternative to self-criticism. (4) For example, instead of “I always mess things up” you might say to yourself “I sometimes mess things up, but I can learn from this and make less mistakes in the future.”
- Realize that God is for you, not against you. Matthew 11:28-30 and Romans 8:31-39 are good places to get a reminder of this. (6) Pray that God will help you to “grow in grace.” (II Pet. 3:18)
- Take your hand and gradually move it towards your face until it is very close. You will notice that your hand looks very big, is out of focus, that you can’t see all your fingers, and it is blocking much of your view. That is an analogy of how the “inner critic” can have so much power over you. It looks huge when it is “in your face.” However, when you move your hand away and see it in its real size, can see it clearly, can see all of it, and don’t have your larger view blocked, you have found perspective. The problem is often not as big as it first appeared. This is what is meant by mindfulness, having enough distance from the problem or situation to be able to have a thoughtful perspective.
- Find a person or group who you can be authentic with. You may decide to start with a therapist (who is legally required to keep what you say confidential) to learn how to open up. In everyday relationships, trust takes time to develop and happens when you take small risks to self-disclose and learn that the other person will treat what you say privately, honestly, and respectfully. This allows you to share more over time in a safe way. Acceptance by another person, despite your shortcomings, is a powerful antidote to your inner critic. This explains why there are more than 40 “One another” passages in the New Testament, e.g., accept one another, care for one another, bear one another’s burdens. (Rom. 15:7, I Cor. 12:25, Gal. 6:2)
- Breathe. Take deep, relaxing breaths and slowly recite a favorite verse or Biblical truth. Breathe in God’s truth on your inhale, rest in God’s truth on your exhale. Ps. 23, Ps. 46:1, Prov. 3:5-6, Mark 10:27, Phil 1:6, and Jude 1:24-25 would be good places to start as you discover what is most restful, encouraging, and life giving for you.
*Self-esteem as a concept is not all negative, but these limitations are noted to emphasize why the concept of self-compassion is more helpful.
- Neff and Knox (2017). Self-Compassion, in The Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences.
- Raes (2011), The effect of self-compassion on the development of depression symptoms in a non-clinical sample.
- Neff (2003B). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion.
- Wilson, Bennet, Mosewich, Faulkner, and Crocker (2019). “The zipper effect”: Exploring the interrelationship of mental toughness and self-compassion among Canadian elite women athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
- Neff (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself; Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.
- New International Version of the Bible (1973).