Tag Archives: Acceptance

The Need for Self-Compassion

We always walk a fine line when we try to create our self-image and examine our own actions. We want to stand up for ourselves, but we don’t want to become a bully. We want to treat our children as special and unique, but we don’t want them to become narcissists. We want to do a good job on a project at work, but we don’t want to be losing sleep over it.

Striking these balances can often feel like walking a tightrope — on the one hand, we want to accept ourselves where we are, and yet we also want to strive to be better. But walking a tightrope is stressful — it is far too easy to fall over one side or the other. So some researchers have wondered: is there a more effective way to help us accept our human failings and be motivated to improve?

There’s a new, emerging field that may actually help in this struggle. It’s called “self-compassion,” encouraging us to treat ourselves with the same level of kindness and understanding that we give to those we love. As a recent New York Times article notes,

[t]he 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. (“Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges“, New York Times, 2/28/11)

What seems so promising about self-compassion is that it’s not about trying to “get what we deserve” or even striving to be happy, because working towards those goals can easily lead to self-indulgence and entitlement. Instead, aiming to treat everyone — ourselves and others — with compassion, kindness and understanding can provide a crucial context of acceptance that is much more conducive to self-improvement.

After all, think about the various methods we use to encourage the people we love when they are struggling with something. Yes, we want to push them to do better, to reach higher, to grow and to learn. But we also know that berating them, putting them down, or constantly criticizing them is not the way to do it. Instead, the most effective way to help someone improve is to place those suggestions or constructive feedback in the context of unconditional love and acceptance for the other person as a whole, simply because we care for them.

And yet providing unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves can often be harder than it looks. As the Times article explains, “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.”

So what do we do? How do we motivate ourselves to improve without lapsing into self-criticism, and accept our failings without becoming self-indulgent?

There’s a debate in Jewish tradition that can help shed light on this issue. Two rabbis are trying to decide on the most important verse in the Torah, and one rabbi, Rabbi Akiva, argues for one of the most famous statements in all of religious literature — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, for many of us, that guideline inspires many of our ethical actions.

But there’s a problem with it — it’s relative. If we do not love ourselves, then we will never learn to love our neighbor – and if we use that model, then how we treat others will be almost completely dependent upon how we treat ourselves.

So instead, another rabbi, Ben Azzai, argues for a different verse: “In the image of God did God create humanity.” In contrast to “love your neighbor as yourself,” this verse implies an objective standard. If we view every person as having been created in the image of God, then we have responsibilities towards both ourselves and others — regardless of how we are feeling at any given moment.

So even more important than having a right to receive compassion, love, and acceptance is our responsibility to create them — for ourselves and for others. Because if we can do that, if we can act compassionately towards ourselves and towards others, just imagine how much more peaceful and more whole our world — and our selves — would be.

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What We Can Learn from Wandering in the Wilderness

Americans are a goal-oriented people. And we tend to hold a belief that once we settle on a goal, a laser-like focus on it is the best way to reach it — if we block out all distractions, put our nose to the grindstone, and work hard, we’ll soon arrive at whatever Promised Land we have been dreaming of.

Yet if we live long enough, we see that that’s not exactly how life goes. Money gets tight. Family members get sick. Jobs get downsized. The journey to the Promised Land is never as easy as we think it will be — if we even make it there at all.

The truth is, we spend much more time wandering in the wilderness than living in the Promised Land. In fact, that may be why the Torah was given in middle of the wilderness — to remind us that while the Promised Land is wonderful, we learn our greatest lessons on the journey along the way.

So what are those lessons? I can think of at least three:

1) Since the wilderness is a scary place (we never know what may come around the bend), the first thing the wilderness can teach us is that we don’t have complete control over our lives.

Sometimes, we invest far too much time and energy decrying how the world is “unfair” and that we “deserve” whatever it is we are hoping to get. Indeed, we occasionally even hope we can be as lucky as the man in a recent Onion article who received an apology from the cosmos because his life didn’t turn out the way he hoped it would. (“Universe Admits To Wronging Area Man His Entire Life“)

But if we are wise, we can realize that despite the obstacles life may throw at us, if we accept reality rather than fight against it, we can learn what we actually can affect. Jon Kabat-Zinn is the Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts, and in his book Full Catastrophe Living, he explains that

…[a]cceptance does not mean that [we] have to like everything or that [we] have to take a passive attitude toward everything and abandon [our] principles and values. It does not mean that [we] are satisfied with things as they are or that [we] are resigned to tolerating things as they “have to be.” It does not mean that [we] have to…give up on [our] desire to change and grow…Acceptance…simply means that [we] have come around to a willingness to see things as they [actually] are. (Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, 38-39)

Life can be hard, and the world can be scary. If we learn to accept that, and not expect the world to revolve around us, we can discover the myriad ways in which we can make a difference, and invest our energy in those tasks.

2) The second thing the wilderness can teach us is that it’s fun, natural, and even important to explore uncharted territory. After all, we never learn or grow if we stay in the same place. So at times, we simply need to be open to new experiences, discover new paths to take, and just see where life may take us, rather than trying to force ourselves along a predetermined course.

I just came back from leading a congregational trip to Israel, where we went to all the usual tourist sites — Jerusalem, Masada, Safed, Tel Aviv. And the congregants had a great time. But one of the high points wasn’t taking pictures of rocks and stones — it was when we went to a restaurant in Jerusalem that was underneath an archway far off the main tourist drag that most of them never would have set foot in otherwise. What they loved wasn’t just the good food and the quirky atmosphere — they were loving the sense of adventure, as well. Think about your own travels, as well — how great is it to wander off the beaten path, meet the locals, and do things that you feel like almost no one ever does?

In fact, we even need to go into uncharted territory every so often, in order to discover new ideas. In the book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson describes an experiment by Robert Thatcher, who found that the brain needs to do two things on a regular basis in order to process information. The first is that the brain needs to go into a state called “phase-locking,” where millions of neurons all fire at the same time, creating a synchronized spike of electricity.

But the brain also regularly needs to go into a state of complete chaos for several milliseconds, and Johnson postulates that “…the electrical noise of the chaos mode allows the brain to experiment with new links between neurons that would otherwise fail to connect in more orderly settings…The chaos mode is where the brain assimilates new information [and] explores strategies for responding to a changed situation.” (Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 104-105)

Because our lives are always in a state of at least semi-flux, we need to be able to respond to new circumstances, and create new responses. And our brain seems to allow for that, forcing it to periodically “wander aimlessly” just to see what may come up. So the second lesson that the wilderness teach us is to celebrate and embrace our natural desire to discover new things.

3) The third lesson the wilderness teaches us is the most crucial one to remember — namely, that the most important goals we strive for are ones that can never actually be reached.

Hopefully, we aim to be decent people, loving spouses, caring parents, and productive workers. But “creating a strong marriage,” “having a fulfilling career” and “raising kind children” are not things we can do and then say, “All right — that’s now checked off the list!”

Instead, it’s in the day-to-day striving for those goals where life is truly lived. We’ll never know if those goals are reached — but we can try to make sure we are on the right path.

Indeed, that’s the great lesson of the Torah itself. Within the Torah’s narrative, the Israetlies are marching inexorably towards the Promised Land. They wander for forty years, a whole generation dies out, they struggle, they rebel, and finally, they set up camp on the other side of the Jordan, ready to arrive at the destination they had been dreaming of their whole lives.

And how does the Book of Deuteronomy end? In the wilderness, with the Israelites never reaching the Promised Land.

What a wonderful message that truly is — to remind us that our goal in life isn’t to reach the Promised Land, it’s simply to keep moving towards it, and hoping that we can learn and grow a little bit along the way.

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