Written by Jared Michonski
A few weeks ago, Becky approached me about contributing a post for the church blog, one that would offer thoughts and tips for how to navigate the emotional and spiritual challenges that accompany this bizarre season of life under COVID. I agreed to give it some thought, hoping that eventually I would be caught up by some wind of inspiration which would result in having something useful and clever to say. Of course that never happened. My rambling, often tangential, communication style is inaptly suited to translating recommendations into memorable sound bites. Plus, this far into our social hibernation, I’m not sure what more I could say that hasn’t already been said by other voices in the mental health community.¹
But a few days after Becky’s invitation, I attended a continuing education talk discussing self-compassion in psychotherapy. In the days that followed, I found myself coming back again and again to the notion of self-compassion, wondering whether it is within this practice that we find the remedy to the emotional and spiritual woes germinating in COVID’s soil.
Although it’s becoming a bit cliché to discuss, the reality is that COVID has come with many challenges, especially as the pandemic persists.
Job losses, social isolation, reduced recreation, heightened health anxiety, increases in domestic violence, and grappling with our own mortality—to name just few. For myself, an additional challenge has been a recurring sense of failing to meet expectations. Life seems slower now: I have more time with the kids, I’m spending more time at home, I have less meetings to attend. And yet, I find it even harder than the pre-COVID era to make progress on extracurricular tasks and aspirations. It doesn’t seem to add up, but somehow COVID’s calculus has me feeling less productive. The cloud of oughtness seems never passing. For my clients, the challenges are even greater: increases in depressed mood, exacerbated by shrunken access to those tools instrumental in combatting the social withdrawal and reduced activity levels that regularly accompany depression; increases in trauma symptoms, as increased time alone precludes access to activities and experiences which disconfirm the unhelpful beliefs forged in trauma’s furnace; rising use of alcohol to counter increases in boredom and loneliness engendered by deceased responsibilities and opportunities for social contact.
Self-compassion. Could the antidote to COVID’s emotional challenges be found here?
The developers of this treatment approach state that self-compassion “involves being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating a desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness.” The person strives for a “nonjudgmental understanding [of their] pain, inadequacies, and failures, so that [their] experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.” As a prerequisite for self-compassion, one must exercise mindfulness. Rather than ignoring or minimizing the extent of one’s pain or preoccupying oneself with solving the precipitating problem, the person must bring present-moment awareness and openness to their experience of suffering.²
Such a practice, I would argue, represents the convergence of Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychotherapy and mindfulness practice. Rogers (you may recall from your freshman general psychology class) was a founding voice in the person-centered, humanistic approach to healing. Rogers departed from his Protestant upbringing to adopt a view of human nature whereby each person is regarded as essentially good and possesses an innate tendency to move toward self-actualization. The task of the therapist is to facilitate such growth by providing three conditions: genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and accurate empathy. With self-compassion, we bring Roger’s facilitating conditions to bear upon the pain or insecurity that we are experiencing in the current moment.
Let’s consider one common exercise for cultivating self-compassion—the loving-kindness meditation.³
These guided meditations generally begin by directing you to sit comfortably and observe how your body feels as you are sitting—e.g., the sensations of your feet on the floor, of your body being supported by the chair in which you are sitting, etc. You may be directed to observe additional sensations, such as the sounds you can hear around you. You’ll be directed to observe your breath, the sensations of the air passing through your nostrils or of the rise and fall of your stomach—sensations which accompany the natural rhythm of your inhalation and exhalation. Up to this point, the instructions are typical of many guided mindfulness meditations.
However, the next step introduces the practice of self-compassion: Think about an aspect of your personality or a recent mistake you’ve made about which you are feeling ashamed or are prone to criticize. Observe the associated emotions that arise as you bring to mind this mistake or aspect of your personality. You may be instructed to place a hand over your heart, a gesture which perhaps symbolizes that you are holding your emotions or perhaps to increase your awareness of your heartbeat, a key physiological sensation that changes in conjunction with emotional experiencing. Eventually your meditation guide will direct you to repeat several phrases designed to evoke feelings of loving-kindness toward yourself, ones aimed at embracing your fallibility: You’re an imperfect being. You try your best, but no one on the planet is perfect. We’re all inadequate and make mistakes in some way. This is the human experience. It’s okay. So repeat silently [the following well-wishes to yourself]:
May I be safe.
May I be peaceful.
May I be kind to myself.
May I accept myself as I am.
And in so doing you’ve just transmitted warm, loving vibes to yourself, an act aimed at cultivating positive self-regard. It can be a powerful meditation, one which moves the participant from emotional avoidance into emotional awareness and experiencing, from self-criticism into self-acceptance, from suffering into calm. The empirical evidence to support such a practice is striking. Meta-analytic studies (i.e., statistical investigations that summarize outcome data across multiple studies) have reported substantial effects for decreasing rumination, anxiety, depression, self-criticism, disordered eating behavior, and parenting stress.¹¹
Any yet, I cannot ignore the emptiness inherent to such an approach.
I’m not doubting the data that reveal its effectiveness with regard to outcomes like those noted above. But rather, eternally speaking.
Take another look at the mantra quoted. Should we not regard this mantra as effectively…a prayer? But, a prayer to whom? Not to God. To some impersonal force behind the universe? I don’t think so. It functions, rather, as a prayer to oneself. Such a striking example of the zeitgeist of our late-modern era: It’s not only truth that is self-authorizing; love and acceptance is here also granted by the self. Our culture has long forgotten the lesson of Job such that in the midst of pain and suffering we put ourselves in the judge’s seat and God in the dock. We question His goodness and conclude that, because we cannot formulate a sensible reason for why God would permit this tragedy, He must not exist—or, if he does, He is not worthy of our consideration, let alone our submission.
Within this paradigm—with God stricken from our worldview—we look to ourselves for salvation: for safety, peace, mercy, and acceptance.
We’ll return to a critique of self-compassion in a moment, but first let’s consider how I might apply the practice to myself.
As noted above, one of the emotional struggles I’ve encountered during life under COVID is a paradoxical experience wherein life feels both slower and as though I can’t find enough time and space to do the things I ought to be doing. The result is a nagging sense of underachieving, of being inadequate, associated with low-grade shame. Self-compassion comprises three facets: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. Let’s consider each in turn. To begin applying compassion toward myself, I must first turn toward my suffering, bringing mindful attention to my experience of it: “I am noticing looming, incompletely articulated expectations that I should be achieving more. This doesn’t feel good. I’m also aware of worries about what others may think—my wife, other leaders in the church, my colleagues. The emotion feels like shame.” I observe such internal observations openly, without becoming entangled in the thoughts, and with curiosity: “Oh, I remember these. These are those judgmental thoughts that frequently make their way into my mind—the ‘You’re not good enough’ thoughts. Isn’t it interesting, this recurring pressure I feel to perform?” Mindfulness: check.
Next, I could reflect upon my common humanity. Drawing loosely upon Buddhist teaching, self-compassion would instruct me to consider that all people suffer. Thus, I could turn my mind toward the realization that many people are suffering right now: “COVID has made life challenging across the globe. Quite literally, this experience of hardship is universal. Although the specific manifestations vary, pain is a part of life. I’m not alone in this.” Such reflection offers validation (Others are struggling too; this is normal) and decreases a sense of isolation (I’m not alone in this; others are hurting with me).
Lastly, as depicted in the loving-kindness meditation quoted above, I might offer (pray?) kind words to myself: “May I be kind to myself. May I accept my shortcomings, and regard my efforts as enough.” Additionally, I might inquire of myself what I need in this moment. For myself, this answer might be: a long bike ride; good conversation over a beer with a friend; a date with my wife without the kids; an afternoon at the park with the kids, fully immersed in playing with them—all examples of participating in life with no expectations to perform. I’m not preoccupied with doing. I’m just being.
In spite of the skepticism I will soon bring to this approach, I think we have to acknowledge its merits.
First, awareness of pain is an important ingredient in self-growth. Not just in the humanistic account toward self-actualization, but in gospel-centered sanctification. As Keller often says in his sermons and as Pastor David echoed when preaching through the Psalms: Don’t waste your tears. As Christians, we all too often, mistakenly, assume that spiritual maturity looks like being stoic and unaffected by life’s trials because our trust in God’s provision is so secure. But in reality, this thin version of “security” represents a denial of life’s challenges and suppression of the accompanying emotional pain—often done under the veil of adherence to biblical truths: Don’t be anxious, direct your requests to God. He clothes the lilies of the field; he’s got my back, too. All things work together for good for those who love Him. In so doing, we fail to take to heart the description of the great poet king and his fellow songwriters who wrote emotionally-charged, God-inspired psalms—psalms that invite us to reckon honestly with the injustices, disappointments, and heartaches of this world (e.g., Psalms 22, 39, 42, 88). My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest (Psalm 22.1-2)
But, notably, the psalmists don’t stop there. They don’t simply give ventilation to their distress.¹² They face their pain AND reflect upon the character of God—his sovereignty, his holiness, his goodness, his faithfulness, his justice, his mercy. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame (Psalm 22.3-5). The psalmists believed fiercely in His “for-ness” toward them. And so it would seem that by bringing awareness to and feeling their pain, their understanding and appreciation of who God is grew in ways they would not have known otherwise.
In the emotional furnace, our functional theology is revealed: we can see more clearly what or whom we really turn to when things get hard and what we really believe about God.
With this increased awareness of our distortions about God and of how we’re failing to love and trust Him, there is opportunity for growth. We can check our functional views of God against the reality of how He has revealed Himself in scripture; we can experience his mercy and goodness afresh; and we can redirect our affections away from lesser gods and toward the true I AM. As a helpful byproduct of this deepened trust and affection, our distress is likely to lessen.
Second, there is great value in recognizing the importance of connection to others. This point probably requires the least elaboration. Our trinitarian God exists as a community of persons. He invites humanity into relationship with Himself—a relating which, though marred by the fall, is restored through faith in Christ. We are adopted into his family as His sons and daughters (Rom 8.14-17; Gal 4.4-7; 1 John 3.1-3). Additionally, God’s pronouncement in the garden that it was not good for Adam to be alone, highlights the significance of human relationship. The call to love neighbor is second only to loving God. We are built for relationship, and we do well to reflect upon this basic orientation.
Regarding the third facet of self-compassion, I’m not aware of any passage in scripture that calls us to be unkind or to dislike ourselves. Jesus calls the disciple to love your neighbor as yourself, not to love the other while despising the self. And while Paul may counsel us to count others as more significant than ourselves (Phil 2.3b), he doesn’t appear to have in mind treating ourselves poorly, as evidenced by his exhortation that follows: let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2.4). Moreover, the Israelite sages also warned the coming-of-age youth against disadvantaging oneself (Prov. 6.1-5), despite their call to care for those in need (e.g., Prov. 14.31; 19.17; 22.9). As God’s image-bearers, we all carry an inherent dignity and worth, undoubtedly that value also extends to the self.
So what’s the problem with self-compassion?
In Part 2, we will consider answers through our Biblical lens.
From the American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19
From Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF): https://www.ccef.org/anxiety-waiting-and-the-coronavirus/?mc_cid=ce309ee12d&mc_eid=2d8b0be0bb
² (p. 371) Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2017). Self-compassion and psychological well-being. In E. M. Seppälä, E. Simon-Thomas, S. L. Brown, M. C. Worline, C. D. Cameron, & J. R. Doty (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of compassion science. (pp. 371–385). Oxford University Press.
¹¹ Ferrari, M., Hunt, C., Harrysunker, A., Abbott, M. J., Beath, A. P., & Einstein, D. A. (2019). Self-compassion interventions and psychosocial outcomes: A meta-analysis of rcts. Mindfulness, 10, 1455-1473. Jefferson, F. A., Shires, A., & McAloon, J. (2020). Parenting self-compassion: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 11, 2067-2088.
¹² The exception being Psalm 88, in which the psalmist gives voice to his loneliness and despair from beginning to end of the psalm.