Is self care selfish?
Updated: Mar 12
It is a truth universally acknowledged that being kind to others is a good thing. Jesus modelled it plenty of times so that makes it a no brainer. The Bible makes it clear that we are to treat others as we would wish to be treated (Luke 6:31). But what happens when there is no one around showing us that kindness we desire?
Is it okay, or even biblical, to be kind to ourselves?
One form is kindness is compassion. It is a deep gut level reaction which feels empathy but is also practical, aimed at relieving the distress of a person in need. What if we are the person in distress? Maybe we had a bad day at work or a disagreement with someone. As a highly sensitive person it doesn’t take much for me to feel distressed, try as I might to pretend to be calm.
Validation is another form of kindness. Maybe we did something well, whether it is learning a new skill, handling a tricky relationship or just putting out the right bin each week for collection. Jesus was validated by his Father in heaven before he even started out in ministry. How much more do I want a sense of him being well pleased with me when I have tried my hardest.
Often though as adults, there is a void in those moments. Much of my energy at work goes in catching young people doing well or consoling and encouraging them when they are struggling. Often, I come home emotionally spent, or frustrated at the system in which I work. How lovely it would be in those moments to hear a word of compassion or validation. To hear the words that I give out all day long.
No Grid for Change
When I first came across the notion of self-compassion it threw me a curve ball. I found it fascinating on an intellectual level but had no grid for applying it to my own life.
As a faithful, Bible believing Christian, I had absorbed the message that the term ‘self’ is very possibly of the devil: self-centred, self-absorbed, selfish and of course the selfie. In this individualistic, self-focused Western society, anything associated with ‘self’ was to be avoided at all costs.
However, when I read about the neuroscience behind self-compassion, I came to realise the benefits of it. For too many years I have been led to believe in the value in mental self-flagellation, a virtue in church history. This culture prevented me from taking hold of and embracing 'being kind to myself'.
Last autumn, all that changed.
I enrolled on a course at Trent Vineyard Church, called Power to Change. It is based on the steps in recovery programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The third week was on Powerlessness. A regular theme in my life.
During the talk, God told me that I was addicted to approval. It wasn’t like this was new news to me. I had been working on my people pleasing tendency for years. Still, it was painful to be told I was addicted to approval. Despite all my best efforts to be less bothered by other people’s opinions or words, I felt trapped by my insatiable craving for affirmation.
I was upset. God had highlighted a problem which I was aware of. But I had run out of strategies to deal with it. So, I asked him what the solution was and straight away He replied with the phrase ‘self-validation’. I needed to learn to approve of myself rather than looking for external validation.
A pleasantly surprising answer, but also a challenge.
God had given me permission to embrace a ‘self’ phrase wholeheartedly. A life of being totally dependent on other people’s opinions meant that I didn’t have an inner sense of self-worth. I had spent my life trying to fill the leaking bucket of validation from others. Now I was free to lavish (or at least sprinkle lightly) a sense of well done on myself.
I not only had permission to be kind to myself, but it was a necessary part of breaking my addiction. When I am upset it is okay to self-soothe. When I have done well it is okay to congratulate myself. Our Heavenly Father delights in us, his children, and we are to embrace that.
Practising being kind to myself felt weird at first, and at odds with my beliefs. But over the months it has become more of a habit and a way to counter the myriad of negative thoughts buzzing round my mind. (I am so envious of those who don’t live with a constant inner dialogue.)
It also revealed that mentally beating myself up was my most regular form of exercise. It is a form of self-harm impacting me and my relationship with others. This notion of speaking kindly to myself has helped me to move from constantly ruminating on my many weaknesses and failures to believing that it isn’t prideful or vanity to think about my strengths. I am now able to focus on developing them rather than always and only trying to cure my weak spots. I can even congratulate myself when I do something good in a day, whether it is getting out of bed rather than hitting the alarm’s snooze button, or remaining patient with a person despite them pressing all my inner buttons!
For some, self-compassion is another term for self-pity. Woe is me. My life is so awful. But surprisingly self-compassion is the antidote to self-pity. It doesn’t deny the reality of a situation or our feelings. But through kindness to ourselves, it helps us to acknowledge those feelings, whilst also recognising we are not alone in this. In this way, we staying connected to the rest of humanity. We acknowledge the pain, process and move forward rather than stay stuck on how bad things are.
Practising saying kind words to myself is helping to diffuse thoughts and feelings which can overwhelm me. Because I am allowed to self soothe and be kind to myself, I no longer feel so ashamed of myself and so powerless to defeat my negative thoughts. I am learning emotional resilience.
Compassion is an action designed to relieve distress. For those of us struggling with our mental health, distress is definitely what we experience. Why wouldn’t God want us to relieve that?
If you want to find out more I recommend these links:
· Kristen Neff: The pioneer of the Self Compassion https://self-compassion.org/