One concept I have been pondering the past couple of months has been self-compassion. You are likely familiar with the second greatest commandment as told by Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). I think Brene Brown strikes at the foundation of this commandment by saying “we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.” Yet, I feel like the importance of self-compassion and how to first love yourself are often overlooked. We have the Ten Commandments to show us how to love God and others. When we do not act that way, we have confession to help us become right with God again. Yet, where is the guidance on how exactly to love yourself?
The second greatest commandment shows us God’s desire that we love ourselves and see ourselves as he sees us. We have countless examples in the Bible showing we are children of God, made in his image, and are very good. You would think that would be enough to love ourselves, but part of being human involves a point in our lives when we doubt that innate goodness graced upon us by God. We live in a society focused on perfectionism and individualism. We can always do and be more. It is easy to get caught up in the thirst for more, even when the “more” we seek is something positive like self-growth.
I also think it is easier for us to focus on the task of loving our neighbors rather than ourselves. In countless movies and books, we see examples of people selflessly jumping in front of their loved ones, or even strangers, to take a bullet for them or pull someone out of danger. Yet, if we look at the other side of the story, the person being saved is often frozen in fear, unable to save himself. Why is that? We can respond in love to save others but it seems so much harder to extend that love to save ourselves.
So how do we first love ourselves? Similar to flight attendants telling us to put on our oxygen mask before we help others, Jesus told us “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). Lack of self-compassion might be less like having something painful in your eye that clearly has to be removed and more like having blurry vision. It is only after you put contacts in your eyes for the first time that you realize how blind you really were. I think it is similar with self-compassion. Once we recognize our level of self-compassion, we see ourselves clearly and can spread that love to others.
A good test of your baseline can be looking at your self-talk. When you make a mistake or are misunderstood, what do you tell yourself? Now, pretend you are saying that same thing to a child or a loved one. Is that something you would tell them or does it make you recoil? If it’s the latter, then what do you do about it? You start by catching and then shifting that self-talk to something you would say to others in comfort.
We can also look at ourselves through the lens of someone we care about. We do not need acceptance from others to feel worthy, but this perspective shift may give some clarity. I think the movie “Encanto” gives a great example of how to do this in its final song as family members sing to the one struggling to love herself: “We see how bright you burn. We see how brave you’ve been. Now see yourself in turn … open your eyes … what do you see … I see me. All of me.” Remember, no matter what your relationship with yourself is like, God is saying: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
(Jenna Ebener, a graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, is a social worker at a school in Colorado for students with a combination of medical, cognitive and behavior disabilities. She relies on God every day to aid her on this wonderful, yet intense journey.)