Self-Criticism, Self-Compassion and Self-Indulgence, Reconsidered

A number of insights to be gleaned from the report in Monday’s NY Times, “Go […]

David Zahl / 3.2.11

A number of insights to be gleaned from the report in Monday’s NY Times, “Go Easy On Yourself.” Not just in the sense of horizontalized Law (discipline/criticism) vs Grace (compassion) – though that too – but in the clearly universal discrepancy between head knowledge and heart knowledge, and most remarkably, in the immediate objection that self-compassion will lead to self-indulgence. An objection known in Christian terms as the fear of antinomianism or licentiousness, which crops up whenever freedom is being proclaimed. In fact, I’ve rarely heard it voiced so clearly in the social science realm. Now, if the “self” part of this equation causes some unease/sets off New Age alarms – which it probably should – perhaps things become more palatable to think of self-compassion as the process of internalizing the Gospel (i.e. at the end of the day, do you really believe God’s grace applies to you?). Meaning, I don’t think the article is endorsing auto-suggestive nonsense; Christians need not reflexively steer clear altogether. In other words, just because we see the basis of personalized compassion in Calvary, and not some pie-in-the-sky Stuart Smalley sense of intrinsic goodness, doesn’t make it any less real or concrete, ht CR:

People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.

The research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.

This idea does seem at odds with the advice dispensed by many doctors and self-help books, which suggest that willpower and self-discipline are the keys to better health. But Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, says self-compassion is not to be confused with self-indulgence or lower standards.

“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent,” said Dr. Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. “They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

A positive response to the statement “I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies,” for example, suggests lack of self-compassion. “When I feel inadequate in some way, I try to remind myself that feelings of inadequacy are shared by most people” suggests the opposite.