I’m beginning a new series of blog posts on self-compassion, recently requested by some friends and clients. It’s an odd concept, particularly if you’re a Christian. In fact, it may ring of a kind of secularized bastardization of God’s love. I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time arguing with those who’d desire a theology of self-compassion and self-love though, complete with lots of Bible proof texts. Rather, I’m writing as a psychologist interested in the inner workings of the human spirit, concerned with how God gets his love deeply rooted in us, and concerned about broken human beings. It’s a bit like a doctor writing on the complex process of healing from a broken bone. The Healer is identified in Scripture, but the specifics of healing are not spelled out. As Christians, we ought to be unafraid to explore what Calvin called the “theater of God’s glory,” this vast and complex world (and inner psychic world) shrouded in mystery, but in need of God’s gracious love. So, let’s explore.
When I think of self-compassion, I’m reminded of the loud Inner Critic most of us wrestle with. This intimidating inner voice attacks us with harsh messages – “You made a fool of yourself in that meeting,” “No one really cares what you think,” “Everyone sees that you’re not as smart as you try to be.” At worst, we say, “I hate myself. I hate how I look, who I am, what I’ve become.” This often condemning voice is something we’d rather see go away. Rather, I think God longs to love even our Inner Critic.
The Critic plays a role within. At its best, it’s our conscience, reminding us when we’ve crossed a line, or prompting us to consider drinking one less drink. At worst, it’s a 10 foot tall monster within, attacking us with accusations, and no doubt prompted by the Accuser himself. But, it’s a part of us no less loved and in need of redemption. And if God won’t turn away from even the scariest or darkest parts of us, who are we to do the same?
I’ll often tell my clients to imagine gazing compassionately on their scary Inner Critic. I’ll say, “What if your Critic just wants a bit of love? Seems like an angry grinch in need of a hug.” Many can believe God loves them and wants them redeemed. I’m speaking of the unique instances when WE are the obstacle to love, when we say, “No matter what, I can’t get past this feeling of self-hatred.”
Let’s be honest. We can argue psychological and theological semantics here, but we can’t deny the experience of the addict, the cutter, the binge eater, the purger, the chronic exerciser, and the gender mutilator. Our self-hatred drives us toward acts of cruelty to ourselves. I’ve seen it time and again. Our broken psyches play vicious games within.
But here’s what I find. When people turn toward their Inner Critic with compassion, what they begin to see is that this 10 foot monster is just a little thing, trying to keep a frantic inner powerless and pain in check. In fact, the Inner Critic’s role is to manage the countless inner contingencies that lie underneath – your propensity to get a bit too wild, to drink a bit too much, to harm yourself, or to harm others. With an eye of compassion, the Critic becomes a beloved friend, shrinking in size from monster to mouse. Stripped of its power to self-condemn, it can be a powerful ally – a sanctified conscience.
In the next post, we’ll talk about why the Inner Critic is so loud. What is it protecting us from? What fears motivate it? And how can we begin to indwell God’s Spirit so deeply as to become our truest selves, capable of profound self-compassion and bold self-sacrifice, in the likeness of Christ?
But before I end, I’m going to introduce you to a poem of self-compassion. This comes from Mary Oliver, an East Coast poet who has clearly had to contend with her own Inner Critic. Ask yourself, what is she saying when she says, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves?” What parts of you betray your First Love? What false selves clamor for security, attention, approval, acceptance, and more, only to fall under the vicious knife of the Inner Critic? What would it mean to “find your place in the family of things”?
WILD GEESE, Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.