You must know and love who you are before you can truly know and love others. That is the essence of self-compassion.
What Is Self-Compassion?
In a recent Operation Joy article I mentioned very briefly the idea of selfishness vs self-compassion. While I did suggest that it is important to know the difference between the two, I didn’t provide any insight into what that difference would be. Selfishness is pretty easy to understand and define. But self-compassion is a completely different beast altogether.
So what is self-compassion?
The idea of self-compassion is best understood by looking at the concept of loving your neighbor, but in reverse. If you’re a regular to this site, you know I talk about “love thy neighbor” ad nauseam. Again, this is because I believe it is one of the most important things you will ever do. Apart from loving God, nearly everything else that is good comes from adhering to this commandment. To love your neighbor as yourself doesn’t mean to treat others as you would like to be treated. It means treat them as you actually do treat yourself. In essence, it truly means to reserve the same kind of compassion for others that you reserve for you.
But then the question becomes, “how do you treat you?” Indeed, if you do not treat yourself well – if you do not consider your own intent or your own heart (or health) – then when you treat others as you treat yourself, you aren’t likely to treat them very well at all. This means you have a responsibility to know and love yourself, before you can apply that to the idea of loving others.
So if compassion is actively getting to know and love others – giving the benefit of the doubt, seeing through to the intent and so on – then self-compassion is the act of getting to know and love you.
What It Means To Know And Love Yourself
I understand that God knows each and every one of us more than we could ever know ourselves. While the expectation is not to know ourselves quite as deeply, it is to try and live by the same example. Of note, myself and many others tend to use the phrase “God is Love.” So even God must love Himself before He can then love others. He must know who He is before He can know who anyone else is.
In that same sense, you must know and love who you are before you can truly know and love others.
For some, that’s easy enough to do. And we’ll get to that. But for most of us, knowing and loving ourselves is actually rather difficult. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, or even painful.
We don’t all necessarily like who we are. Some of us hate the thoughts that run through our heads or the stupid mistakes we make on a daily basis. Still more of us loathe our bad habits, or feel ashamed by something we’ve done, or perhaps still do.
I’m not about to tell you that those things are okay. Bad habits are bad for a reason. You feel ashamed by something you do most likely because you shouldn’t be doing it. Those things need to change. But they won’t change if you don’t care about the person doing those things. And, to be honest, I don’t think you can really comprehend how those things affect others without first understanding how they affect you.
Self-compassion, then, is about digging deeply underneath, unearthing who you are and revealing it to yourself. And beyond that, it’s about becoming comfortable with it. Not comfortable “it’s okay”, but comfortable “this is who I am”. Only then can you love yourself enough to do something about it – to want for yourself.
The Beauty In Self-Compassion
One of my favorite things in the entire world is to see someone embrace who they are. This is me. I’m not perfect. I’m rough around the edges. There are things I will always be working to improve. But I love me! I’m comfortable enough to be able to show who and what I am to the world, warts and all. I know who I am underneath. I know my intentions, my wants and needs, as well as my limitations and how to overcome them.
God made us all to be something special. Embracing that specialness is part of self-compassion. It is, in many ways, an act of accepting what God created and being thankful for it. Is is then moving that idea the next logical step forward and taking care of that thing God created.
The Difference Between Selfishness And Self-Compassion
You might argue that this idea of self-compassion is great and all, but isn’t this kind of inward focus akin to selfishness?
No. Not at all.
The selfish person acts only for the self. It often buries and destroys its true self through acts of greed, narcissism and excess. The self-compassionate person thinks of the self in reverence first to God and then to others.
The selfish person is not comfortable with itself. It attempts to find comfort by means that ultimately cannot provide any. The self-compassionate person may not yet be comfortable with itself, but it seeks to know and understand itself so that it can one day be.
The selfish person seeks to destroy itself via acts of subterfuge within itself. The self-compassionate person seeks to discover and expose itself.
Make no mistake – selfishness is not love for oneself. It is the act of plying oneself with pestilences disguised as wonders in an attempt to feed a hungry, lonely soul. Empty calories that provide no spiritual nourishment.
Selfishness is destructive. Not only to the self but to those around it. Self-compassion is constructive. Again, to itself as well as others.
The key difference between selfishness and self-compassion is simply this: you can take any of the acts of self-compassion that I’ve described above and apply them to other people, but you cannot do the same with selfishness. You can’t really be selfish for someone else. Certainly not in any healthy capacity.
If the selfish person takes and takes and takes, then the equivalent applied to someone else would be to give and give and give. Would that really solve anything? Where would that leave you? If a selfish person idolizes his (or her) own image, then applying that idea to another person would mean to worship that other person’s image. How does feeding another person’s ego do anything for them? How would it do anything for you? Would you even remember yourself enough to care about yourself?
Selfishness feeds upon itself. Self-compassion feeds itself from somewhere else.
Why Self-Compassion Is Important
If we are going to truly love our neighbors as ourselves then we must absolutely love ourselves. But that self love can’t be merely a surface love. It can’t simply be “I love myself because I’m me”. That’s actually rather selfish. We must love ourselves out of respect for where we came from and why we are here at all. We must understand the true worth of the vessel we have been placed in, and in so doing understand and value the worth of every other vessel.
We aren’t ready to know someone else until we know ourselves. We aren’t ready to love until we love ourselves. We have no idea how to look for the best in others until we figure out how to discover the best in ourselves. This is not an act of selfishness – it is an act of Love.
To twist this all around again, compassion is not about giving to others or reaching out for the sake of just doing so. It’s not about doing what’s right either. Compassion is about getting to know someone – know their wants and desires and who that person really, truly is. In getting to know that person that deeply you have no choice but to love that person. And when you know and love that deeply, you begin to want for that person, even if those wants are contrary to your own. That is the basis of compromise and the foundation upon which true wonders are built.
But you must absolutely have that same kind of compassion for yourself before you can ever understand how to have it for someone else. This is why self-compassion (again, not to be confused with selfishness) is so important.