I’ve been reading up recently on the work of Dr. Kristen Neff, a psychologist working out of the University of Texas who has been pioneering research on self-compassion. When I and many other millennials were growing up, our parents, along with the rest of society, were caught up in the “self-esteem movement.” Children were told they were “special,” “unique,” “gifted,” and “talented,” in an effort to construct happy adults who felt good about themselves. Unfortunately, it backfired: many millennial children were pumped up to believe that they were uniquely gifted. When they eventually flew the nest, they found that there were many other birds who were equally - if not more - gifted, special, and unique. On top of that, there was no longer a mother bird to cushion their inevitable falls. The internal dialogue then flipped completely; “I am not special, therefore I must be boring.” “I am not gifted, therefore I must be unworthy.” “I am not talented, therefore I must be a failure.”
Dr. Neff says what is much more important than self-esteem for all of us to learn to make it through the difficult times in life, and much more important for parents to teach our children, is self-compassion. Self-compassion means seeing ourselves through the eyes of love, or in other words, through God’s eyes. Self-compassion means talking to ourselves the same way a loving friend would, who serves as an angel-messenger of God saying things like, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You did the best you could. We all make mistakes.” Self-compassion means intentionally cultivating lovingkindness, beginning with ourselves, and then radiating it outwards. As Christians, we must extend love, compassion, and respect to ourselves because all of us carry the image and likeness of God. This is the heart of worship and praise -- honoring the image of God in us, each other, and in the world -- and it can happen any day of the week, any hour of the day, any place on earth.
You may feel selfish loving on yourself. When I first began practicing Buddhist metta meditation, I found it difficult to begin by saying, “May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I be safe. May I awaken to the light of my true nature. May I be free.” It would have been much easier to begin with my children or some other beloved. It is still difficult for me to practice self-compassion. I often feel I have accrued so many failures in my life that my instinct is to take up pennances rather than self-compassion. Excessive penance, guilt, and shame, however, always lead to bitterness, which bleeds into the world. Self-compassion, however, always expands, glowing outward to God’s people, God’s creation, and finally to God herself. Again, this is the very essence of worship.
I don’t talk about self-compassion because I have mastered it. In fact, most of the things I preach and write about are things I’m currently fumbling with. Pastors are as flawed and as human as you in the pews. Perhaps together, however, we can become a people who remember, especially in these hard times, to cultivate more love and grace not just for each other, but also for ourselves.