Tag Archives: New York Times

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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The Opportunity of Multiple (Aspects of Our) Personalities

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about our natural desire to want to “create” our identity. The idea is that we want to be the ones in control of how we see ourselves, and when we are denied that opportunity, we’re likely to push back.

In the last few days, there have been several new articles about how Americans don’t want to be boxed in when it comes to our sense of identity. Sunday’s New York Times had an article entitled “More Young Americans Identify as Mixed Race,” and author Susan Saluny notes that

[m]any young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”

But while it’s not a surprise that young Americans want to choose how they present themselves in different situations, what is surprising is that when people do have a chance to embrace multiple aspects of their identity, they end up being significantly more creative. Author Jonah Lehrer explains:

According to a study led by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, people who describe themselves as both Asian and American, or see themselves as a female engineer (and not just an engineer), consistently display higher levels of creativity.

In the first experiment, the researchers gathered together a large group of Asian Americans and asked them to design a dish containing both Asian and American ingredients. In the second study, they asked female engineers to design a new mobile communication device. In both cases, subjects who are better able to draw on their mixed backgrounds at the same time were more creative than those who could only draw on one of their backgrounds. They designed tastier dishes and came up with much better communication devices.

Because their different social identities were associated with different problem-solving approaches, their minds remained more flexible, better able to experiment with multiple creative strategies.In contrast, Asian Americans who felt that they had to “turn off” their Asian background in an American setting – this is an example of “low identity integration” – or female engineers who believed that they had to be less feminine to be effective at work, had a harder time drawing on their wealth of background knowledge. (Jonah Lehrer’s “Frontal Cortex” blog — “The Advantage of Dual Identities”)

I think there’s a clear reason why people with multiple senses of identity were more creative — they had started by needing to create their selves. If we have to think about who we are — a most basic and fundamental question — in new and inventive ways, then we’ll be that much more likely to start thinking of programs, products, and situations in new and inventive ways, as well.

And that provides a great opportunity to the American Jewish community, which by definition, involves at least two aspects of our identity — “American” and “Jewish.” As Rabbi Elie Kaunfer notes in his book Empowered Judaism:

That Jews are increasingly unwilling to settle for a broad definition is a positive. Why? Because someone can no longer get away with telling you “I am Orthodox” (ed. note: or equivalently, “I am Reform”) and assume that you understand what kind of Jew she is. Instead, people are forced to explain why they practice in a particular way or what, specifically, they believe in. A world without convenient categories is a world that calls on people to take more ownership of the type of Judaism they want to practice in the world…It is a major step forward because it leads to a rich discussion about what being Jewish means in our richly textured, highly individualized, twenty-first-century lives. (Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism, 147-148)

Quite simply, creativity leads to ownership. Indeed, at a recent session to learn about community organizing (a process Temple Beth El is going through now), there was a line that stuck with me: “People are not transformed by what they receive. They are transformed by what they create.”

For better or for worse in our society, we get to create our identity. So the question is whether or not that’s the end of the discussion. Do we simply say, “This is who I am,” or do we go further and say instead, “This is who I am…and this is what I want to create with it.”

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