Self-Compassion is a Spiritual Practice

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For a long time, I assumed that self-acceptance and self-compassion were contemporary pop culture concepts that would help us feel better about ourselves, but they weren’t tools that would help us on our spiritual journey. But I recently saw a quote from Thomas Merton that made me reconsider this stance.

Finally I’m coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself. And if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself. For it is the unaccepted self that stands in my way and will continue to do so as long as it is not accepted. When it has been accepted it will be my own stepping stone to what is above me because this is the way man has been made by God.

Merton came to this conclusion over 50 years ago, so this was long before self-compassion became a hot topic of psychological research. In these few sentences, he offers insight into why we should pay more attention to developing self-acceptance as a spiritual practice.

He acknowledges that on a spiritual path, our ultimate goal (or “obligation”) is to “surpass ourselves.” I think this means our goal is to develop the gifts and abilities that God gives us and become the best possible version of ourselves. It means we shouldn’t get caught up in purely worldly pursuits that our culture relentlessly encourages nor mindlessly respond to situations and other people (often with unhelpful conditioned behavior).

Merton says his highest ambition is to be who he already is. He then explains that we’ll never become the person we want to be unless we first accept ourselves just the way we are because the unaccepted parts will continue to stand in our way. We not only have to objectively see our flaws (finding my failings is the easy part for me!) but be willing to accept them “because this is the way man has been made by God.”

Merton concludes by saying that we don’t have to be perfect (because God didn’t make us to be perfect), but accepting our flaws is what allows us to transcend them – it’s the stepping stone to becoming someone better.

Although Merton doesn’t explicitly say this, I believe self-acceptance acts as this stepping stone in two different ways. First, having self-compassion makes it easier for us to change our own behavior. I’ve never been able to change my behavior by berating myself for the behavior. That just puts me in an anxious, emotional state. Instead, once I accept myself, I can unemotionally see different approaches and techniques to help me change. Second, once we accept our flaws, it’s much easier to have compassion for others and accept their flaws. Recognizing where we struggle to be a better person helps us see that struggle in others. And that helps us love our neighbor in a way we can’t do if we demand perfection from both ourselves and others.

A Closing Prayer

God, I could really use an extra measure of grace in my efforts to develop self-compassion. Help me find self-compassion rather than falling into my usual pattern of either self-indulgence or self-criticism. Give me insight to accurately see my weaknesses without going overboard on melodrama or self recrimination. Help me let go of my expectation of eventual perfection and let me respond with loving compassion when I see similar struggles in others. Amen.


Resources

Dr. Kristin Neff is one of the leading researchers in self-compassion. For more info, see her website. Her site has information on her books, definitions of what self-compassion is and isn’t, and free self-compassion exercises/meditations.

5 comments

  1. It’s such a conundrum to find that line between acceptance and improvement. How do we know if we should try to improve? Did God make me who I am and He actually wants me to be this way? Or should I accept myself and my many flaws THEN try to improve myself? Which me is the me that God wants me to be? Hamster wheel at times. And what about those people who don’t reflect at all upon themselves and therefore aren’t on the hamster wheel? Many of them seem perfectly content to be blissfully ignorant. No answers from the peanut gallery. Just lots of musings.

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    1. Many good questions. I’m still trying to understand it all (and probably never will!) But I do believe that we can both accept who we currently are AND still try to make ourselves better. Although it sounds contradictory, I don’t think it really is. So much in life seems to fall into this mind twisting category rather than being clearly black or white.

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  2. “we’ll never become the person we want to be unless we first accept ourselves just the way we are” – I’m wondering if by accepting our self we likely change the “person we want to be”, and therefore we grow in a different direction (surpassing our self) than had we not…

    I’m glad I’m not in charge of the “master plan” but just have to be open to the gentle nudge of the Spirit He has sent to each of us. I have enough issues with just trying to follow “the plan” :> Your Wednesday blog reminded me how much I treasure Jeremiah (29:11) – God does indeed have a plan for each of us!

    “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. When you call me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, and I will change your lot”

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    1. Interesting insight about how accepting our self is likely to change the “person we want to be.” I agree that it could very well happen! I hadn’t thought of it that way (although maybe Merton did…) I agree about the Jeremiah verse – this one always gives me hope when I feel like I’m not doing a very good job of planning my life!

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