How often do you tell yourself things like “you’re a total failure”, “you’re worthless”, or “you can’t do anything right”?
How frequently do you beat yourself up for messing up or being imperfect?
For many of us, this is something we do on a frequent basis. It’s the way our culture has taught us to motivate or produce change. We believe that if we are easy on ourselves, we will be indulging our weaknesses. We grow up being taught to not allow excuses and to beat ourselves into shape. We often push ourselves too hard and are extremely harsh towards ourselves when we don’t succeed. We pursue perfection and excellence–which are difficult expectations to measure up to–and when we come up short we shame, bully, and abuse ourselves.
In addition to what our society teaches us, some of us have additional life experiences that may contribute to our self-abuse. If you were abused as a child, critical and abusive language directed at yourself may have become deeply ingrained and habitual.
Mental illness is another experience that can contribute to treating yourself impatiently and harshly. You don’t have to have a mental illness in order to be your own personal bully, but when you do have a mental illness, its even easier to feel bad about yourself and to get frustrated at yourself. Especially when you compare yourselves with those who don’t have a mental illness. Your illness may make it extremely difficult to do things that other people can do without a second thought. As you see what feels like a chasm between your own performance or abilities and that of people without a mental illness, you may put yourself down or tell yourself you are worthless.
In Matthew 25: 34-46 we read the familiar story of God dividing the righteous from the wicked, where he tells the righteous: “I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”
They then ask “when did we do any of these things to you?”
And in verse 40 He responds: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I was really struck when I read this scripture recently, because so often I feel like the “least” of all people because of my weaknesses, imperfections, and especially my mental illnesses that keep me from being and doing my best at all times. I’m sometimes really harsh toward myself when I can’t do things or when I fail.
But what does God tell us to do to “the least of these”? Condemn them? Beat them up? Verbally thrash them? Motivate through harshness?
No. He tells us to be kind, to be compassionate, to take care of “the least” person. He teaches us to treat them with compassion.
So even if the least person is you, be kind to yourself. After all, He also teaches us “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”. If we wouldn’t say unkind things to our friend who was struggling, if we wouldn’t tell them they’re hopeless or debase them or make them feel ashamed, then we shouldn’t do it to ourselves either.
Even if we make a genuine mistake or mess up, He doesn’t tell us to beat ourselves up. In the story of the woman taken in adultery in John chapter 8, Jesus tells the woman “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” He doesn’t excuse the sin, He doesn’t pretend it didn’t happen, He acknowledges it and the need for repentance by saying “sin no more”, but He doesn’t condemn her, He doesn’t demean or verbally abuse her for messing up.
Self-compassion isn’t easy. Its contrary to what many in our culture do to try to elicit change or improvement. But by creating a safe environment within yourself where its okay to be imperfect right now, it actually makes it easier to change and improve.
I hope that each of us will strive to be kinder to ourselves, to make change easier by being safe for ourselves, to motivate ourselves with encouragement and patience. Even if we feel like “the least”, we deserve compassion and respect.