Self-Compassion: Stronger Than Self-Criticism

Notes on the Sunday address by Dr Francis Macnab, 20 September 2015.
By John Abbate.

Purple Mountain Majesty

Can we let our self-compassion be stronger than our self-criticism? That is the question at the heart of this address. “We can love ourselves in a very determined and narcissistic way,” said Dr Macnab, “but do we really love the gifts that we’ve been given?” What is a true expression of self-compassion?

To answer these questions, Dr Macnab returns to a familiar theme: the seven factors of the healthy personality. Openness, Caring, Expansiveness, Acceptance, a New way, Inspiration, and a commitment to good Causes—these are the traits of the OCEANIC personality. “Because the alternative to those words makes the world a very small and fearful place,” said Dr Macnab.

Three modes of self-criticism

Dr Macnab first identifies three main forms of self-criticism:

  1. Comparative – we see ourselves as falling short compared to other people.
  2. Internal – we fail to measure up against self-imposed demands and expectations.
  3. Social belonging – we see ourselves as inferior through belonging to a certain group (“I’m just a so-and-so”).

Self-compassion as an answer to self-criticism

Self-compassion means to accept our own vulnerability, rather than to project it onto others or to live defensively. It is “to develop a positive view of ourselves, strengthened by our values, beliefs and psychological and emotional strengths.” It means being kind and gentle to yourself.

Jesus is thought to have said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What is that truth? For Dr Macnab, it is openness, caring, expansiveness, acceptance, newness, inspiration, and the commitment to a great cause—the 7 factors of the OCEANIC personality.

The most profound truth that Jesus spoke is that we are accepted in spite of everything. In contrast with the vision of a fundamentally flawed humanity mythologized in the Old Testament by the original Fall and expulsion from Eden, Jesus of Nazareth brought a new idea into focus; the liberation that comes with self-acceptance.

Why do we fight against ourselves?

Dr Macnab identifies five major motivations for our excessive self-criticism:

  1. Fear; we are frightened of being free, open, caring and compassionate. We are frightened to be OCEANIC personalities. It is much easier to revert, to regress to a position of smallness.
  2. Because we have been damaged; the compassion that we needed in childhood was lacking. We might be damaged by people, losses, experiences, and the absence of good models. Those brought up in a “desert of deficits” are damaged. They can choose to live in that desert, as many do, or they can attempt to make themselves new in mind and spirit.
  3. Because we depreciate our own worth. We succumb to an under-development of the self, of our own worth and value.
  4. Because we distance ourselves from those environments that would enhance us. “Such are the distortions in our self-determination; we are inclined to say we don’t need [those environments].”
  5. There is a part of our makeup that can be very punitive. Freud called it the superego—that tyrannical, censuring part of the self that grinds us down with guilt and doubt. When we allow the over-scrupulous conscience to take us captive, we become “excessively managed by our guilt.”

How to be free?

“We need to respect the importance of discovering and developing those influences and environments that are forgiving, that are affirming, that open the personality to a constructive, balanced freedom, so that  we can move through the past, the harshness of the self, to a genuine harmony of the self…that will then flow through to others,” said Dr Macnab. Through self-accepting and self-enhancing behaviours and environments, we can begin to foster a more relaxed comportment toward ourselves and others.

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