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I have a portrait of me on the wall in my home office when I was four-years old. It is an old portrait, hand colored, and the child pictured there has precise, shiny ringlets topped with a large turquoise bow. This was a little girl, well and perfectly cared for by her mother—and I keep the picture where I see it every day to remind me of her.
I remember the day that photo was taken. I sat nervously in the studio, worried about how to smile just right. Worried at four years old because I wanted to do well! But my mother was there to reassure me and the world was always right wherever she was.
Yet, there has been a bonus at having the four-year old me sitting on the wall near where I write, because she has stopped me quick whenever I am tempted by any shadow of self-disdain. I am still the girl who wants to do well—and notices painfully when I don’t live up to my impossible standards.
It is so easy for the natural men and women that we often are, to mourn over our weaknesses, to rue that we cannot be more excellent, to fret over our failings—which we must admit with clear eyes—are many. It is easy to travel with an apology in our soul for what we haven’t yet become.
Oh, how comforting it would be to be praiseworthy and virtuous in every way. That’s where the photo of this little girl who was me comes in. When I am tempted to criticize myself or scold myself for my failings, I stop and look at her and I say, “Would I ever consider being unkind to that child, who sits so hopefully on the wall? Does she deserve dislike, unachievable standards, or berating? Would I make her cry?”
Oh, no, I would never do that to that child or any child. But this child is me. My four-year old hopefulness has taught me self-compassion. Because I do not want to be mean to her, I am no longer critical of me—this older version of the little girl who works in this office each day.
Some of us write New Year’s resolutions and some of us don’t, but whatever shape we determine the new year will have, let one thing be clear. We are on a mortal journey—and it is a tough one, full of pitfalls and surprises that test us to the limit. We have in our minds a vision of what we might be, but our aspirations rarely meet our realities.
Too often, we judge ourselves against standards only an angel could meet. We expect to be a finished product while we are still in the formative school of our learning. We take a commandment like “Be ye therefore perfect” to be a command for perfectionism which is only a sure formula for discouragement.
When the Lord told us to be perfect, that word means to be whole. It means the end point of a process—and that process is the atonement working upon and empowering us. On this journey, we walk, we stumble, we fall, we change, we try again. It’s a process that we don’t get to short-circuit. We learn because we taste the bitter in our own beings—and then with new knowledge we change.
We have to be patient in the journey of our self. It’s a worn parent that hears her child ask a hundred times on the family vacation, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” None of us are there yet. We haven’t arrived in the Lord’s presence. We haven’t yet acquired His attributes. They are still in embryonic form inside of us.
We say instead, “I am on a journey of a thousand, thousand steps. I am learning. I am growing, but I have not arrived. I can be OK with that.”
Self-compassion is a critically important spiritual trait. It is not just the child we once were that we should have compassion for, but all the earlier versions of ourselves. Just as we wouldn’t yell at a child who was learning to walk for their inability to dance yet, so we should not disdain or be unforgiving to our yet unformed self—the earlier versions of you and me whether they be last year’s version or the version we were a few minutes ago.
Sometimes my husband will say, “Don’t be mean to the girl you were last year. I love her.”
We can’t fault ourselves for not having today’s knowledge, yesterday. We didn’t know then what we know now—and, those of us who are trying to live our covenants—usually do the best we can. We can’t fault ourselves for not having the strength yesterday that we have now. It was having to stand with faith and with the Lord to overcome our weaknesses and problems that gave us today’s resilience.
We can’t fault ourselves for not seeing yesterday, what we see now. The Lord is expanding our vision. Tomorrow we’ll see farther still.
We must be quicker to forgive ourselves for yesterday’s follies and today’s weaknesses. When we think about what qualities we want to develop for the future, we have to put self-compassion on that list. There’s a good reason for that.
The fact is, when we are judgmental toward ourselves, a shadow enters our soul. Self-criticism and self-consciousness are just other words for self-absorption. To be unkind to oneself takes up a share of your mind and heart that then cannot be given to other people or productive pursuits. Mortality is a linear experience where we can have only one thing at a time on our minds. Even if we flit back and forth between many things, only one thing can dominate our thoughts at any given moment. If it is ourselves and our failings, it certainly can’t be others and their needs.
When the Lord said to “love thy neighbor as thyself”, He gave a world of ideas in five short words (Mark 12:31). Compassion for others begins with compassion for ourselves. We learn the very act of love by being willing to accept with love and forgiveness the vulnerable and fragile in us. Disdaining ourselves leaves us bound in fetters looking for love instead of giving it. It leaves darkness on our soul.
Perhaps we assume that condemning ourselves for our weakness is a Godly thing to do. We might suppose that despising ourselves for our weakness moves us closer to Him. This is not true. The Lord’s voice is never a condemning one. “Neither do I condemn thee,” He said to the woman taken in adultery (John 8:11). He says the same to us.
As long as we don’t consciously rebel against Him and His commandments, far from condemning us, he encourages us, lifts us, and paints a larger vision for us, secured by His love. He loves the version of ourselves that we are right now, all the time seeing the much better person we will become.
What a friend we have in Jesus.
You can feel the shadow in your soul when you disdain yourself. The Lord says, “And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light” (D&C 88:67). The shadow that self-disdain brings is not of Him. This year decide to be self-compassionate.