According to author, researcher, and psychology professor Kristin Neff, the self-esteem movement was a bust. The issue with self-esteem, Neff says, isn’t in having it but in seeking it. “The problem is we're constantly comparing ourselves to others. We try to puff ourselves up.” Because boosting our self-esteem is based in comparing ourselves to others, it’s fundamentally transient and potentially harmful. Constantly seeking to build our own self-concept can lead to bullying and narcissism. When our self-esteem is based on being better than others, it quickly deserts us when our performance shows we’re not better after all.
So, if self-esteem doesn’t work, what does? Self-compassion. It turns out this is a real struggle for many women. “It's a very small difference,” Neff says, “but it's consistent: Women tend to be less self-compassionate than men.” According to her research, this is especially true for women who strongly identify with traditional stereotypes. “Women are told they should not take care of themselves; that they should always be outwardly focused.” In my experience, this can be a serious struggle for women in ministry.
When we lack self-compassion, we are quick to criticize ourselves in ways and at times we would never criticize someone else. We routinely say things to ourselves we would never say to others: You’re a failure. You can’t do anything right. You’re hopeless. We might tell ourselves we’re stupid when we would never consider saying such words to our children. Telling ourselves these words, however, is just as devastating to us as it would be to our kids.
So what does it mean to have self-compassion? It means we allow ourselves to be imperfect, treat ourselves with kindness, validate our needs, and speak to ourselves with respect. We recognize that other people experience the same things we do and that we are not alone. Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity, wallowing in despair, or developing a victim mentality. It does not mean convincing ourselves we didn’t fail when we really did or minimizing the importance of our struggles. Simply put, “Self-compassion is what you’d show a loved one struggling with a similar situation.”
How God Sees Us
Self-compassion also gives us a more accurate view of the way God sees us. When we pursue self-esteem—often comparing ourselves to others or trying to convince ourselves we are way above average, even if we’re not—we get distracted by our own judgments. We lose sight of the compassion that comes from God, who is in the rightful position to judge each and every one of us. When we offer ourselves compassion, we agree with what God has already given us:
God has no illusions.
He is our Creator; he doesn’t admire or look up to us. In fact, he knows better than we do how much we fall short of perfection. That means we have nothing to prove. We are free to acknowledge the truth about ourselves, as well, without believing it makes us worthless (Psalm 103:13–14).
God cares about what matters.
He isn’t interested in how good-looking, charming, talented, or successful we are. We don’t need to live up to any preconceived notions of what it means to be good enough. He is interested in what is in our hearts and whether we are receptive to his transformation (1 Samuel 16:7).
God identifies with us.
He does not tell us we are the only ones, our failures isolate us, or we deserve to be alone. Instead, Jesus acts as a high priest who knows exactly what it means to be human and empathizes with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).
God does not play favorites.
In the body of Christ, everyone has a gift to offer and a role to play. We cannot say anyone is more important than anyone else because ultimately it’s not about us—it’s about what God does in and through us (Romans 12:3 – 8). That means our comparisons are meaningless.
God offers undeserved compassion.
God loves us and cares for us, even though we don’t deserve what he offers. Self-esteem says I have to deserve love; Jesus gave it to us regardless of the fact that we didn’t earn or even ask for it (Romans 5:8).
God is the author of compassion. His compassion is great news, and it absolutely transforms life for those of us who recognize when they have received it. But God goes way beyond simply showing compassion for us. He gives us grace.
Compassion cares for us and wants to rescue us in our distress. Grace makes rescue possible.
Compassion enters our suffering. Grace ends it.
Compassion sees the value in each of us. Grace transforms us.
God’s grace is available to transform us into people full of compassion—not only for others, but for ourselves as well. God’s view of us is not dependent on elevating us above others, nor does he have to overlook our faults in order to love us. He offers us not only compassion and love, but grace. And when we view ourselves through the lens of grace, we welcome the transformation that makes us into gracious people.
Amy Simpson is a life and leadership coach, a popular speaker, and the award-winning author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (both InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter @aresimpson.