Many people struggle with issues of self-worth. The reasons are varied, but it often seems to derive from a childhood experience of being ridiculed or disparaged by a parent or other adult in authority. It can also come from experiences in adulthood once again from being denigrated by an authority figure, or through a devastating personal failure that leads to shame or hypercritical self-judgment. Regardless of the source of our feelings of lack of self-worth, it is our response that can be most telling.
A few have the kind of disposition which allows critique to roll off them like water off of a duck. I heard the story of a child who had, in typical child fashion, spread toys all over a room. A passing adult said, “You are a mess.” The self-possessed child responded, “I have made a mess but I am not a mess.” Oh, that we could all be so confident when confronted by criticism.
For some people the response to hurtful criticism is to go through life on tiptoe as if the next step could set off a landmine. Every moment is fraught with the possibility of more criticism, more negative judgment, and more destruction of what little perception of personal value is left. This person might be meek and deferential. This person might also fight back by denigrating others overtly or covertly. This person finds some respite from critique by criticizing others, even if it is under their breath. They think, “Well who do they think they are they can’t even [insert jab here].” Tearing down another helps them to feel like the playing field is a little bit more level.
Another strategy is to fight back aggressively. This person responds to critique by inflating his/her own sense of self. They put on armor to deflect criticism. They are also always ready to shoot back with even more critique than they receive. They are always on combat footing ready to repulse and return fire.
Yet another strategy is the bully. This person does not wait for criticism, but is always criticizing. This one figures that if he/she fires a devastating blow first the other will not be able to criticize. He fires before being fired upon. She doesn’t give the other a chance to criticize by getting in the first blow.
None of these stances really addresses the issue at hand. As Br. David Vryhoff writes, “It is not usually helpful to point out another person’s sins and shortcomings.” It may help us feel better for a moment, but it does not cure our feelings of worthlessness. At the end of the day whether we mumble criticism, take it on the chin, fight back, or make a destructive first strike, we are still left feeling worthless.
What can heal us and others is compassion. It starts with compassion for our wounded selves and continues as compassion for others. The best response is neither offense nor defense. Rather it is the radical acceptance of ourselves as wounded but worthy. That extends to seeing others in the same light. As Br. David wrote, “What people need far more [than criticism] is a loving acceptance and affirmation of their worth, a kindly forbearance towards their weaknesses. This compassionate acceptance we must exercise not only towards others, but also towards ourselves.”
When we can show compassion for our self and for others the healing can begin. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” When we are compassionate we are able to feel another’s suffering and respond kindly and lovingly to that suffering. A compassionate response is one that seeks to relieve hurt and begin healing. Often the ability to be compassionate comes from having suffered our own hurts. Those wounds remind us of what it feels like to suffer. Our response is to want to relieve the suffering of another.
That is what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That is what the Samaritan did that the priest and scribe could not. The Samaritan could feel the suffering of the man beaten and robbed and treat him like he would want to be treated. For the Samaritan nothing mattered once he had compassion for the victim. That is what Jesus calls us to this day and every day.