One of my favorite conversations I had with my daughter when she was in college was regarding the reality of adulthood. She and I were reminiscing about her childhood – the good old days. After remembering days of sleeping in, an ignorance of how expensive life really is and a schedule that had a lot more wiggle room, she summed up her experience by saying, “Adulting is hard!”
Adulting Is A Time of Anxiety. Even though my daughter’s days of college are over, as a college professor, I interact with college students on a regular basis and most of them would sympathize with the angst of adulting. For some, the angst grows into a disabling anxiety. Unsurprising, the majority of directors of university counseling centers report the number of college students with significant psychological problems is on the rise and the most commonly diagnosed mental health illness across colleges (and the US) is anxiety; a recent study showed over 40% of college students considered anxiety more of a problem than their relationships.
What causes this disabling anxiety? This is a tough, complicated question! There are many factors that contribute to a diagnosis of anxiety- biochemical, environmental, psychosocial, spiritual, cognitive – but there is one common theme that rises to the top over and over again. Overly self-critical people are much more likely to suffer from anxiety than persons who have a more balanced assessment of themselves and handle their self-criticisms with self-compassion.
Anxious persons, including college students especially, demonstrate a significant lack of self-compassion. This lack of compassion can result in obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, general anxiety disorder, and is even a possible precursor of PTSD, more so than those who have survived a war. Not only do larger doses of self-criticism without self-compassion result in pathology, but it also can be a predictor of how well someone will respond to help. Self-compassion is key to overcoming problems, dealing with negative and erroneous thoughts, and is especially key to minimizing anxious feelings.
What helps? Self-compassion is an unfamiliar word to many. To clarify its meaning, it is not really any different than compassion expressed to others. Compassion (translated, “to suffer with”), whether for others or to ourselves involves:
- an acknowledgment of suffering (admit when you are sad, hurt, stressed or have reached your limit)
- an honest evaluation of pain which results in empathy (it matters that I feel emotional pain and I should extend kindness to anyone in pain (Gal. 5:22,23) even myself)
- an understanding that all of us will fail at times (we are not super humans; we are merely human; we are saved by grace and kept by grace. We don’t become perfect until we reach heaven. This is truth to live with daily.)
The myths about self-compassion produce unnecessary fears. To allay any fears, self-compassion does not promote self-love, worry, narcissism or pity parties. Research clearly shows there is no cause for alarm here and that these fears are a myth; it may feel uncomfortable initially, but we need to look at what is helpful or right more than what “seems” godly. But even as we understand what self-compassion is and is not, self-compassion is still typically an uncomfortable topic for some Christians.
Why is self-compassion so problematic for Christians? I believe it is because we usually understand compassion exclusively in terms of our response to others more so than how we engage with ourselves. Some may suggest that self-compassion be limited to secular psychology and it should be disregarded in biblical counseling as it is just another term for selfishness or our flesh; we are called to give compassion to others, but not to ourselves.
Why self-compassion should not be a problem for Christians. This type of thinking creates problems for believers as it is antithetical to Christian beliefs. We are called to live consistently with scripture so we demonstrate what we believe in all areas of our lives. Paul exhorts others to follow him as he follows Christ (1 Cor. 11:1) and Paul tells us we are to look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2:4); notice this does not say disregard your life without a thought for yourself as you serve others. Paul also encourages responsibility for self in Galatians 6:4,5 and 1 Thessalonians 4:11,12. It is incorrect for Christians to say compassion is meant for everyone else, but not for themselves.
Martin Luther’s self-compassion changed history. Martin Luther believed that Satan’s attacks of condemnation against a believer’s soul were to be expected. Our enemy attacks us relentlessly and would encourage our despair and hopelessness which we also heap on ourselves, then handle, in wrongful ways. Martin’s self-condemnation without hope led to despair from which God in His good grace rescued him. Like Luther, as believers, we are wise to admit our suffering and take pity on ourselves as we embrace Christ as our Savior and Lord. Coming to salvation is the ultimate act of self-compassion.
Self-compassion…so what now? If we begin our journey with an act of self-compassion, then why would we live the rest of our lives doing the opposite? As we practice self-compassion, we then possess a peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4;7); the anxieties of this world are put into eternal perspective and diminish. What a witness this is to the watching world! And especially to our young adults who are just beginning to get the world of “adulting” under control.
Dear Reader, remember to practice what you preach. As you extend compassion to a needy world, don’t forget to extend it to yourself as well. May the peace of God be yours in abundance.
With His grace and compassion, fondly yours – Elizabeth