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The Case for Self-Compassion

We’re prone to being a little hard on ourselves, and we have centuries of practice.

Friends, as I began thinking about the words I wanted to share during this difficult year, rather than talking about how we as individuals and as a society have missed the mark, I felt we needed a gentler message, because we are all mourning something right now.

Our lives have been upended, our human connections disrupted, and our sense of normalcy challenged. This year, we need to tend to our souls, to care for them, to heal. We need compassion, for others yes, but first and foremost, for ourselves, because by tending our own souls, we’ll be better able to tend to others.

Once I came to the realization that my theme this Kol Nidre would be self compassion, I went to my study to gather books on the subject. I expected to find many, but it turns out that while I have books on sin, repentance, and forgiveness, I didn’t have a single one on self-compassion.

I thought about what that says about our tradition. We’re prone to being a little hard on ourselves, and we have centuries of practice. Maimonides teaches that “all people, throughout the year, should regard themselves as half-innocent and half guilty. . . . Thus, if they commit one sin, they press down on the scale of guilt against themselves.” He adds that if we do one mitzvah, we turn the scale of merit in our favor, but still, that’s a lot of pressure. One wrong step, and we’re sinners in the scale of Divine judgment.1

Another teaching also sets a high bar. It was said of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, “Each night before going to bed, he would make a list of all he had done wrong that day. Reciting it over and over, he would be overcome with regret and remorse, so much that he would begin to cry. Only after his tears had wiped the paper clean of ink was he able to face the night and the day that followed.”2 This is cited as an exemplary practice. And while it probably proved useful to the rabbi’s growth, it seems like a hard way to go through life. I imagine that for many of us, similar teachings have sunk in, making us analyze and regret routinely.

It’s as if it is a badge of honor, in Judaism and in contemporary American society, to obsessively examine our imperfections. I recall sharing with my temple president in Pennsylvania, that at the end of each day I would replay the whole day and focus on every meeting and service and think about what I could have done differently, so that I would continue to grow. And I remember replaying that conversation years later thinking, “What a miserable pursuit that must have been.” While being self-aware and striving to be better is essential, perhaps there was a way that would have been gentler on myself.

Kristin Neff, a professor of human development, describes self-compassion, not as a way to judge ourselves positively or to overlook the ways we’ve missed the mark, but as a way to relate to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.3

On this Yom Kippur day, I’m suggesting that I want us to do our work of honest introspection, but with gentleness. This is an important day to acknowledge how we can do better, how we can work to heal our world, and how we can find deeper meaning in our lives. While it may sound counterintuitive, in order to best do the real work of teshuvah, of turning, let us start from a place of self-compassion.

This means treating ourselves with kindness versus harsh self-judgment. To give to ourselves the same patience, empathy, and encouragement that we give to others. As a community, we’re very familiar with the central teaching in the Torah—love your neighbor as yourself. But perhaps we need to reverse the pattern we’ve internalized and treat ourselves the way we treat our good friends and neighbors.

We often say things to ourselves we would never say to another person. “How could you have done that?” “How could you keep making the same mistake?” And in many smaller ways throughout our days, we chip away at our own souls.

Self-compassion is about self-worth, not self-esteem. It’s not contingent on how you measure yourself against others or about your successes, it’s how you value your whole self. We may think that self-criticism motivates us and that without it we would be self-indulgent and lazy, but Dr. Neff says that research actually shows the opposite. Self-criticism undermines our motivation, because we are both the attacker and the attacked.4

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is strongly related to mental well being and to positive states like life satisfaction, connectedness with others, and healthy interpersonal relationships. When we engage in self-compassion, our brains release the hormone oxytocin, reducing fear, anxiety, and stress—which for many people is high right now—and increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. So self-compassion, rather than making us self-centered, actually can make us more compassionate toward and understanding of others. And can help us see ourselves the way God sees us.

The key message of our biblical creation story comes at the end of chapter one: “God created the human beings in the divine image . . .” We each have the spark of the divine in us, on both our good and our bad days. After finishing the creation process, God considers all that has been created, “V’hinei tov m’od—and it was very good!” God delights in our creation, blesses us, takes pleasure in us, and is invested in our journey.5

We often think of chesed, or kindness, as something we bestow on others but not upon ourselves. However, chesed is not contingent on our self esteem or accomplishments, it is bigger than that. Another way of thinking about chesed is as God’s lovingkindness—“that sure love which will not let us go,” as we read in our Yom Kippur prayer book.6 God’s love is like a parent’s love of a child. If God’s love for us is that strong, just for being who we are, then surely we are deserving of our own love.

Our prayer book includes this passage: “Infinite Source of goodness, help us to see the good in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us.”7

My hope for you this year is that each day, you will find and honor the holy spark within you. Each day, see yourselves as I see you—imperfect but holy, worthy of self-compassion and love, and capable of great acts of kindness and graciousness.
Be kind to yourselves so that you can grow in compassion toward others. Our world needs all of us to be a source of love and healing.

May God’s light shine on you and may you feel God’s grace. Amen.

1 Kerry M. Olitzky and Rachel T. Sabbath, Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996) 88

2 Olitzky and Sabbath, Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days, 50

3 Dr. Kristin Neff, “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion,” February 6, 2013, https://self-compassion.org, (accessed September 21, 2020)

4 Neff, “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.”

5 Genesis 1:26-31.

6 Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, Rabbi Janet Marder, Rabbi Sheldon Marder, and Rabbi Leon Morris, eds., Mishkan HaNefesh,Yom Kippur: Machzor for the Days of Awe (New York: CCAR Press, 2015) 358.

7 Rabbi Goldberg et al., eds., Mishkan HaNefesh,Yom Kippur, 318