Pursuing the Excellent Life
March 29, 2023

Self-compassion as a moral duty - Why being kind to yourself is a virtue

 Are you hard on yourself? Do you struggle with negative self-talk and self-criticism? If so, this episode is for you. Join host Craig as he delves into the fascinating topic of self-compassion and why he believes it is not only a good idea but a moral duty. Drawing on insights from various philosophical and religious traditions, Craig makes a compelling case for extending compassion to ourselves and treating ourselves with the same kindness, understanding, and dignity that we show to others. He argues that self-compassion is essential for personal and societal well-being and offers practical tips for cultivating it, such as practicing mindful self-awareness, noting progress, and engaging in positive self-talk. You'll come away from this episode with a renewed sense of the importance of self-compassion and how it can help you become a more compassionate person overall. So, tune in and learn how to be kind to yourself in a world that often emphasizes self-criticism and perfectionism. 

Live Well and Flourish website: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/

The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, hazel.crossler@gmail.com.

Production assistant - Paul Robert


Craig 00:02 
Since you’re a good person (or at least trying to be), I’m guessing that you practice compassion towards others. But it’s just as important to be compassionate towards yourself. In this episode, I discuss why I believe that self-compassion is not only a good idea, it’s a moral duty.

Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.

It’s always amazed me how often very good people are really hard on themselves. Maybe the desire to live well and be a good person is related to being contemplative. Good people tend to think about the world a lot, which means that they also think a lot about themselves and their place in the world. Overall, this is a good thing, but it can lead to too much self-criticism. I firmly believe that just as it’s a virtue to show compassion towards others, it’s a virtue to show passion towards ourselves. So, I view self-compassion as a sort of moral duty. Yeah, I’ll admit that “moral duty” may be putting it a bit strongly, but I’m going to stand by my claim. Let me explain why.


Craig 01:36 

The first step for understanding my claim that self-compassion is a moral duty is to understand what a moral duty is. This is actually a pretty complicated topic, but I think it boils down to this: a moral duty is a responsibility you have as a decent person. Moral duties guide what actions are required or prohibited for those of us who are trying to be good people. They guide you in making choices about what is right, good and just. They tell you what to do and what not to do in order to be a good person and contribute positively to society.


Alright, now let’s move on to why compassion towards others is a moral duty. Here’s the bottom line argument. Compassion towards others results from treating others with respect, dignity and justice. In addition, compassion towards others plays an important role in fostering personal and societal well-being by promoting moral values and contributing to social harmony and a sense of community. (That felt like a really long sentence! Sorry about that!) The importance of compassion towards others runs through many philosophical and religious traditions. Aristotle’s virtue ethics is an example. He believed that the goal of life is eudaimonia, or flourishing. Living a flourishing life requires living a life of virtue. Compassion towards others is a virtue, so living a flourishing life means being compassionate towards others.


Craig 03:02 

The Stoics also believed in compassion towards others. Seneca emphasized the importance of performing acts of kindness if we’re to live a virtuous life. He also believed that helping others was a source of happiness and fulfillment. Seneca thought it was important to be empathetic and understanding of the needs of others. Epictetus emphasized that even though the suffering of others may be out of your control, treating others with respect, kindness, and understanding IS within your control and essential to living a good life.


Even utilitarianism, which focuses on maximizing the happiness for the greatest number of people, might consider compassion to be a moral duty because it contributes to overall happiness.


Buddhist ethics places great emphasis on the importance of compassion and loving-kindness as elements of spiritual development. Confucius taught something similar; that we should treat others with kindness, empathy and respect, which fosters harmonious relationships and social order. Christian ethics emphasizes agape as an important moral principle. Agape, or love, involves treating others with kindness, empathy, and understanding. Are you seeing a trend here?


Craig 04:19 

So hopefully, you can agree with all of these great traditions of moral thought and conclude that compassion is an important moral duty. But what I’ve said so far relates to compassion towards others. What about self-compassion?


Let’s use one of Jesus’ central teachings to make that link. Stay with me here. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I’m going to geek out a bit here and get a little mathy. What Jesus said is basically an equation. The love you feel for others should be equal to the love you feel for yourself. So, what if you don’t love yourself? Does that mean you shouldn’t love others? That doesn’t seem right. So it seems to me that properly loving others means also loving yourself. Change love to compassion, and you’ve got my argument. Alright, maybe I’m stretching things a bit, but I think my point stands. In Jesus’ statement, he not only establishes the importance of loving others, he also establishes the importance of loving ourselves. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to apply the same logic to compassion. Put more directly, if you cannot love and be compassionate towards yourself, it’s really hard to genuinely extend love and compassion to others. Practicing self-compassion grows your ability to love others unconditionally. Empirical research from psychology supports this. Studies show that people who are more self-compassionate also show more empathy and compassion towards others, and are also more likely to offer support to friends in need. 


Craig 05:55 

Let me take a different tack on this. I don’t think you can properly take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. Flourishing requires self-compassion, and as you grow in your flourishing, you will grow in your ability to help others. To me, it seems like a lack of self-compassion puts some limits on your flourishing and your ability to be benevolent towards others. If I take further, practicing self compassion grows your proverbial compassion muscles, allowing you to more effectively practice compassion towards others. The opposite is also true. Constantly berating and criticizing yourself saps your emotional and cognitive resources, which may mean that you lack the resources to extend compassion to others.


Craig 06:41 

A lack of self compassion may keep you from seeing others as worthy of compassion. When you fail to practice self-compassion, you are more likely to develop a negative self-image, which can lead to self-criticism and a feeling of unworthiness. This feeling can extend to others. Practicing self-compassion helps you recognize that we’re all imperfect works-in-progress. Recognizing and accepting that in yourself is a bridge towards recognizing and accepting that in others so that you can treat them with compassion.


I need to warn you about something though. Self-compassion doesn’t mean being self-centered. If we think of self-compassion as being a virtue, then Aristotle would tell us that self-compassion is somewhere between a vice of deficiency and a vice of excess. The vice of excess might be narcissism, which involves being self-centered. That’s a vice, not a virtue. But self-neglect is also a vice, a vice of deficiency. So, self-compassion recognizes that you’re imperfect and you’re not the center of the universe, but it also recognizes that you’re worthy of kindness, understanding and dignity.


Craig 07:51 

Here’s something really important to keep in mind. Others need our compassion the most when they’re dealing with difficulties. I think compassion is especially important when someone is feeling down on themselves due to some failure, whether it’s an external failure like missing out on a job, or an internal failure like experiencing regret over acting in some negative way. The same can be said for self-compassion. You need it the most when something is going wrong, especially when you feel like you’ve acted wrongly. Unfortunately, it’s often really, really hard to practice self-compassion in such circumstances. Fortunately, I have some ideas that might help, which I’ll share shortly.


Let me bottom line this for you. Compassion is a mindset and a state of being. Failing to practice self-compassion takes you out of the compassion mindset and keeps you from becoming and being a compassionate person, which keeps you from living up to an important moral duty.


Craig 08:56 

I feel like I’ve thrown quite a bit at you, but hopefully I’ve convinced you that self-compassion isn’t just a good idea, it’s a moral duty. But, even if you don’t accept that moral duty part, self-compassion is still a good thing. So, let’s talk about three things you can do this week to practice self-compassion.

Here’s the first thing to try. Practice mindful self-awareness about your self-talk. Negative, critical self-talk is a huge impediment to self-compassion, and to self-acceptance in general. We all engage in self-talk (everybody does), and unfortunately negativity bias is also common, and I’ve talked about before. Negative bias makes us engage more naturally in negative self-talk. This self-talk often operates at a subconscious level, which makes it really hard to manage. To deal with this, I recommend setting aside five or ten minutes during the day to be quiet and consciously attend to self-talk. In other words, pause, be silent and listen to your inner dialogue. When you experience negative self-talk or a lack of self-compassion, challenge the thought by reminding yourself that you are, as I mentioned earlier, an imperfect work-in-progress and that you are growing and getting better, even when there are setbacks. If possible, do this out in nature when you can. Along the way, notice the beauty of the nature and its imperfections. I’m just going to leave that thought here for a few seconds. 


Craig 10:33 

As a bonus suggestion, try to practice this same awareness whenever you’re feeling strong negative emotions. When you experience such emotions, take a few deep breaths and listen to your self-talk. If it’s negative and counterproductive, consciously remind yourself of some of your many strengths and of the good you do in the world. Even if it’s just scratching a pup’s head or smiling at someone, you DO make the world better; remind yourself of this fact.


Another regular practice that can help is to note your progress. You can do this by setting a small goal each morning. Maybe you want to smile at three people, or hold the door for two people. Maybe you want to spend 10 minutes reading something worthwhile. It really doesn’t matter what it is. Write your goal down. Then, some time around the middle of the day, remind yourself of the goal. At the end of the day, just before bed, once again remind yourself of the goal that you achieved that day. If you didn’t achieve the goal, develop a plan for doing so tomorrow. Do this every day and you’ll start to see what a great person you are (but remember to stay humble! That's a challenge for me sometimes). 


Craig 11:47 

Finally, when you experience some setback, remind yourself that failure is a temporary condition, not a state of being. Engage in some self-talk in which you take the role of a trusted, compassionate friend. Talk to yourself as such a friend would talk to you. Acknowledge the setback or mistake and remind yourself of a couple of things, the inherent imperfections of human beings, and your infinite capacity for growth. Remember flourishing is a journey, one that isn’t always smooth and straight. Just keep going and keep growing.

Craig 12:23  

I’m going to close with a quote from Alexander Pope and a comment on that quote. So here’s the quote (you probably heard it before): “To err is human; to forgive, devine.” Here’s my comment: This doesn’t just apply to others, it applies to yourself as well. You’re going to err, be devine and forgive yourself.


Until next time, be well my friends.

I produce Live Well and Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com

Until next time.