We always walk a fine line when we try to create our self-image and examine our own actions. We want to stand up for ourselves, but we don’t want to become a bully. We want to treat our children as special and unique, but we don’t want them to become narcissists. We want to do a good job on a project at work, but we don’t want to be losing sleep over it.
Striking these balances can often feel like walking a tightrope — on the one hand, we want to accept ourselves where we are, and yet we also want to strive to be better. But walking a tightrope is stressful — it is far too easy to fall over one side or the other. So some researchers have wondered: is there a more effective way to help us accept our human failings and be motivated to improve?
There’s a new, emerging field that may actually help in this struggle. It’s called “self-compassion,” encouraging us to treat ourselves with the same level of kindness and understanding that we give to those we love. As a recent New York Times article notes,
[t]he research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight. (“Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges“, New York Times, 2/28/11)
What seems so promising about self-compassion is that it’s not about trying to “get what we deserve” or even striving to be happy, because working towards those goals can easily lead to self-indulgence and entitlement. Instead, aiming to treat everyone — ourselves and others — with compassion, kindness and understanding can provide a crucial context of acceptance that is much more conducive to self-improvement.
After all, think about the various methods we use to encourage the people we love when they are struggling with something. Yes, we want to push them to do better, to reach higher, to grow and to learn. But we also know that berating them, putting them down, or constantly criticizing them is not the way to do it. Instead, the most effective way to help someone improve is to place those suggestions or constructive feedback in the context of unconditional love and acceptance for the other person as a whole, simply because we care for them.
And yet providing unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves can often be harder than it looks. As the Times article explains, “People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.”
So what do we do? How do we motivate ourselves to improve without lapsing into self-criticism, and accept our failings without becoming self-indulgent?
There’s a debate in Jewish tradition that can help shed light on this issue. Two rabbis are trying to decide on the most important verse in the Torah, and one rabbi, Rabbi Akiva, argues for one of the most famous statements in all of religious literature — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, for many of us, that guideline inspires many of our ethical actions.
But there’s a problem with it — it’s relative. If we do not love ourselves, then we will never learn to love our neighbor – and if we use that model, then how we treat others will be almost completely dependent upon how we treat ourselves.
So instead, another rabbi, Ben Azzai, argues for a different verse: “In the image of God did God create humanity.” In contrast to “love your neighbor as yourself,” this verse implies an objective standard. If we view every person as having been created in the image of God, then we have responsibilities towards both ourselves and others — regardless of how we are feeling at any given moment.
So even more important than having a right to receive compassion, love, and acceptance is our responsibility to create them — for ourselves and for others. Because if we can do that, if we can act compassionately towards ourselves and towards others, just imagine how much more peaceful and more whole our world — and our selves — would be.