Once, after I'd talked at my church about finding ways to forgive others, a guy in the congregation said, "Well, I think the person hardest to forgive is yourself."
I've since heard that sentiment from a number of people.
I've met soft-hearted but self-critical folks who cut themselves far less slack than they granted their friends or, sometimes, even their enemies.
Conversely, I've met people unable to forgive others precisely because they foremost loathed themselves. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but if you despise yourself, you might not have much benevolence for the fellow next door, either.
I think a lot of people need to relax.
Now I have social- scientific fodder to reinforce that opinion.
On Feb. 28, in the health blog she writes for The New York Times' Web site, Tara Parker-Pope reported on "a new area of psychological research called self-compassion — how kindly people view themselves."
This research shows that even people who are supportive and understanding of others might browbeat themselves mercilessly when they think they've failed. In attempts to lose weight, for instance, this self-flagellation has been demonstrated to be counterproductive.
Those who are magnanimous toward themselves tend to be less depressed and anxious, Parker-Pope reported. They consequently eat less and drop excess pounds more easily than those who castigate themselves whenever they slip up and have a brownie.
Parker-Pope cited, among various studies, the academic work of Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin.
I followed a link on Parker-Pope's blog to Neff's Web site, Self-compassion.org.
Maybe I'm getting carried away here, but the benefits of self-compassion, as Neff explains them on her site, seem applicable to a lot more than narrowing your waistline.
First, it's important to recognize what self-compassion is not.
Neff warns that it isn't self-pity, the sense that you're the only person in the world who's suffering. It isn't self- indulgence, that mental devil that encourages you to go on while you're at it and wolf down that whole pan of brownies.
Genuine self-compassion has three components:
Self-kindness: Being as warm and understanding toward yourself as you would be toward your child who had similarly erred.
Common humanity: Knowing you're not alone in having fallen short or experienced pain. As a human, you have plenty of company in failing and hurting.
Mindfulness: Taking a balanced approach that neither denies nor exaggerates your feelings. This means learning to stand far enough outside yourself to look at the situation with "a receptive, non-judgmental state of mind."
Neff's site also includes a 26-statement test designed to help visitors determine whether they're self-compassionate.
Let me assure you that I'm screwy in an abundance of ways. If you doubt that, just ask my family, friends or church members, all of whom will vouch for me.
However, I scored surprisingly high on Neff's self-compassion scale. Certainly, being self-compassionate hasn't helped me conquer overeating. With food I'm self-indulgent.
To whatever extent I might be merciful toward myself in other areas, though, I think it's because long ago I embraced the Christian concept of grace.
Grace tells us, in my idiosyncratic translation, that because we follow a God who is truthful, we must try to tell the truth. We must be honest even with ourselves, about ourselves.
Grace says one hard truth about us is that we're but dust. We're all sinners by nature.
Grace's good news is that, despite this, we're forgiven and accepted by a loving, merciful God. He knows us for the boneheads we are, yet adores us anyway — because of who he is.
And because he's God, his is the only opinion that matters. Thus, if he's chosen to love us, we have no right to contradict him by despising ourselves.
I believe in grace. That doesn't make me perfect, or even particularly good.
So, yes, I have regrets. Boy, do I. I've hurt others. I've hamstrung myself.
Yet grace tells me to trust that God is incrementally performing his work in my soul. Improving me is his business. A Christian maxim says, "God loves you just the way you are. But he loves you too much to let you stay that way."
Grace tells me that when I mess up, I need to face my failure. I must apologize and make reparations. I shouldn't commit that same stupidity again if I can help it.
But I don't have to beat my head on the sidewalk and wail on endlessly, driving myself and everyone else crazy. Grace tells me that all my friends and neighbors are as foolish as I am. They, too, have failed. We're all in this loblolly together.
Finally, it tells me to rest assured that the good Lord still likes me anyway and that with his help I can keep moving forward. The past is ... past.
For me, the doctrine of grace co-exists nicely with this secular idea of self- compassion.