When I wrote about self-care in When We Were Eve, it was my desire to give women permission to plumb the depths of what they really need, both at bodily level and a spiritual one, and to pursue meeting those needs with the understanding that loving yourself well is a path to health and wholeness. It leads not to an excess of self-love, but to a freedom to love Christ and others more.
My therapist has introduced me to a new word over the last few months that expressed that concept even better than self-care: self-compassion. And do you know what my response is every time she brings it up, cocking her head to the side as my triggered anxieties and trauma-based stress spill out, and quietly asking, “So how can you practice self-compassion while you deal these emotions?” I sigh dramatically, roll my eyes, and refuse to answer.
Last week I asked if we could explore why the concept of self-compassion makes me so uncomfortable when I can so readily accept promoting a deeper version of self-care. She listened, and I talked. She asked probing questions and I didn’t back away. I went to work, really the only way to make any progress.
I talked about what it means to have compassion for someone else and how easily that comes to me. Why am I unwilling to offer myself the same thing? I went back to my research on the roots of the word compassion. Passion comes from the meaning “to suffer,” and the prefix “com” indicates with. To have compassion literally means to be willing to suffer with someone.
And there it was.
Bearing My Own Suffering
In my Christian mindset, I find it easy to value the sufferings of another as I value the sufferings of Christ. Standing at the foot of someone else’s cross, while not always easy, feels like the right response to their pain. Doing what I can to relieve, console, and comfort someone else when she is suffering is a perfectly Christian response to pain.
However, being willing to sit with myself in my own pain? It feels less natural, and, quite frankly, less Christian. After all, aren’t we supposed to embrace suffering, to be willing to bear our pain for Jesus and for our own salvation? Isn’t the truly Christian response to just “offer it up”?
Truth flooded in quickly as I followed that line of thinking under the watchful gaze of my therapist. After many months of working together, I can intuit which question she will ask after a statement, and simply follow the path to the next answer, curious to find out where my own thoughts will lead me. And this day they led me to realize that I need to be a firm and passionate advocate for the practice of self-compassion as the most Christian act of love we can offer.
Self-Compassion Is True Self-Care
We are supposed to “offer our suffering up.” So when we recognize our own suffering and enter into that place with ourselves, we offer ourselves up to Christ, “an offering holy and acceptable” (Romans 12:1). When we don’t turn away from our own suffering and declare it unworthy of compassion, consolation and love, we learn to recognize pain rather than run from it. We are, in fact, engaging in the process of embracing that suffering rather than wishing it away by pretending it does not exist, does not hurt, or is not worthy of comfort or consolation.
When we practice self-compassion, we are digging to the depths of true self-care. There are times when self-compassion looks like desperately reaching out for help when my pain is much to bear alone. And there are other times when it simply allowing myself a “self-compassion sweatpants” day where I bypass the urge to value productivity over a genuine need for rest and comfort. Sometimes it looks a pedicure and sometimes it looks like a long, honest confession.
But the heart of it is a non-judgmental “entering in” to my own pain, lifting myself up to the cross, offering myself to Christ in his own passion as a servant of love who knows the value of my own pain.
Self-Compassion Is Charity
When I care about myself, I give myself permission to have compassion on my hurting heart. And that is an act of true Christian charity that I have come to see as a delight to my Savior’s heart.
What might it mean if you took the time to ask yourself my therapist’s favorite question today: “How can you practice self-compassion while you deal with those painful emotions?”