Sunday, March 6, 2011

Healthy Self Love Is Critical To Humanity From Conception To Natural Death

Worshiping an inanimate object is a lot easier than developing loving relationships, especially the one with our selves.

One of the things that has consistently amazed me about the teachings of Jesus is how true His insights and advice have proven to be---in a scientific sense.  I've often written one of the most important and yet hardest to implement of His sayings is "Love one another as you love yourself".  Maybe back in His day people really did treat others worse than they treated themselves, but in our day, especially for women,  it's the other way around.  We find it much easier to extend compassion to others than we do ourselves, and that causes all kinds of problems.  

As the following article from the NY TIMES describes,  modern science is once again backing up the teachings of Jesus.

Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges              Tina Parker-Pope, NY Times, 2/28/2011

 Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family?

That simple question is the basis for a burgeoning new area of psychological research called self-compassion — how kindly people view themselves. People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.

The research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.

This idea does seem at odds with the advice dispensed by many doctors and self-help books, which suggest that willpower and self-discipline are the keys to better health. But Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, says self-compassion is not to be confused with self-indulgence or lower standards. (This difference is very difficult for some serious Christians to understand.)

“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent,” said Dr. Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. “They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

Imagine your reaction to a child struggling in school or eating too much junk food. Many parents would offer support, like tutoring or making an effort to find healthful foods the child will enjoy. But when adults find themselves in a similar situation — struggling at work, or overeating and gaining weight — many fall into a cycle of self-criticism and negativity. That leaves them feeling even less motivated to change. (They are actually feeding a downward spiral in neurochemistry.)

“Self-compassion is really conducive to motivation,” Dr. Neff said. “The reason you don’t let your children eat five big tubs of ice cream is because you care about them. With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”

Dr. Neff, whose book, “Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind,” is being published next month by William Morrow, has developed a self-compassion scale: 26 statements meant to determine how often people are kind to themselves, and whether they recognize that ups and downs are simply part of life.

A positive response to the statement “I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies,” for example, suggests lack of self-compassion. “When I feel inadequate in some way, I try to remind myself that feelings of inadequacy are shared by most people” suggests the opposite.

For those low on the scale, Dr. Neff suggests a set of exercises — like writing yourself a letter of support, just as you might to a friend you are concerned about. Listing your best and worst traits, reminding yourself that nobody is perfect and thinking of steps you might take to help you feel better about yourself are also recommended.

Other exercises include meditation and “compassion breaks,” which involve repeating mantras like “I’m going to be kind to myself in this moment.”

If this all sounds a bit too warm and fuzzy, like the Al Franken character Stuart Smalley (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”), there is science to back it up. A 2007 study by researchers at Wake Forest University suggested that even a minor self-compassion intervention could influence eating habits. As part of the study, 84 female college students were asked to take part in what they thought was a food-tasting experiment. At the beginning of the study, the women were asked to eat doughnuts.

One group, however, was given a lesson in self-compassion with the food. “I hope you won’t be hard on yourself,” the instructor said. “Everyone in the study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel real bad about it.”

Later the women were asked to taste-test candies from large bowls. The researchers found that women who were regular dieters or had guilt feelings about forbidden foods ate less after hearing the instructor’s reassurance. Those not given that message ate more.

The hypothesis is that the women who felt bad about the doughnuts ended up engaging in “emotional” eating. The women who gave themselves permission to enjoy the sweets didn’t overeat.
“Self-compassion is the missing ingredient in every diet and weight-loss plan,” said Jean Fain, a psychotherapist and teaching associate at Harvard Medical School who wrote the new book “The Self-Compassion Diet” (Sounds True publishing). “Most plans revolve around self-discipline, deprivation and neglect.”

Dr. Neff says that the field is still new and that she is just starting a controlled study to determine whether teaching self-compassion actually leads to lower stress, depression and anxiety and more happiness and life satisfaction.

“The problem is that it’s hard to unlearn habits of a lifetime,” she said. “People have to actively and consciously develop the habit of self-compassion.” (For many people this means an actual conversion.)


One of the reasons I was disgusted with Cardinal George's observation about God is not just because he is wrong, but because that is exactly the kind of religious thinking which does real damage to real people.  So I was quite pleased to find this article in the NY Times.  The influence of self love is a truth which is taking on more and more scientific validity.  Since humans really do manifest a world around themselves that is a direct consequence of how they think about themselves, Jesus was right all along, self love is foundational in creating a Christian world.  If a person thinks they are inherently flawed, nonredeemable, or predisposed to misery, it doesn't matter how successful a person may appear to be otherwise, they will live in an internal world of misery, unfulfilled dreams, and guilt.  Eventually their external world will mirror their internal world.  Teach millions of people the religious 'truths' which put all of them in the same high stress low self esteem internal state and it's no wonder we don't have the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. What we have instead is both legal and illegal drug pushers assisting us to chemically over come the physiological effects of our religious 'truths'.

One of the really important truths we are beginning to learn about the influence of stress concerns the influence high stress internal states in the mother have on fetal development.  Although we don't currently have many valid studies  with humans, what we know from controlled studies in mice should give us pause.  Mice who undergo pregnancy in high stress environments produce offspring whose brains are very different from peers whose mothers were raised in low stress environments.  High stress offspring show over development in those centers of the brain that control the fight/flight response.  In other words these high stress mothers are producing offspring whose brain development is changed in order to deal with the high stress environment into which the children will be born. Higher functioning centers of the brain are stunted in favor of extra growth in the hind and mid brain centers. So this idea of Jesus's that we need to learn to love ourselves is pretty important from day one in our existence--especially for women who have by far the most impact on our day one and all the rest of our days forward. 

Jesus never talked about reducing stress levels generated from low self esteem, but if He came now I strongly suspect he would.  He might also get far more specific about how this low self esteem thing generates the phenomenon we call projection.  In His day he described it as 'beams in your own eye vs a splinter in your adversaries eye.  That is still a good metaphorical explanation of the whole phenomenon because it also implies the truth that the beam in your own eye is so big it blinds you to it's existence.  This metaphor then also takes into account the whole idea of denial and repression so it's like getting two Freudian defense mechanisms in one metaphor.  Jesus was goooood.

The more we learn about the neurochemical effects of stress and low self esteem the more the teachings of Jesus really are validated.  It is really important for women to maintain as low a stress level as possible both before and after pregnancy. A loving environment is a healthy optimal environment.  Love is not dependent on marriage or economics or any host of other societal validators.  Love is dependent on relationship and the one with ourselves is probably the most important adult relationship we have, and that one of course, is directly dependent on the intrauterine chemical one we had with our mother.  

Jesus must have had a very healthy intrauterine relationship with His mother.  Maybe that's because she was respected enough to be given a choice-- because God knew choices have all kinds of consequences, especially for pregnant women and their developing child.  Maybe that's why Joseph had his dream and subsequent conversion experience, because God knew judgmental condemnatory attitudes would be bad for Mary's intrauterine relationship with Jesus because those attitudes would be bad for Mary herself.  Maybe that's why Mary was so affirmed and welcomed by her cousin Elizabeth where she stayed for three months during a most important stage of pregnancy.  Maybe somehow Mary and Elizabeth knew sharing their pregnancies and stresses at this stage of their pregnancies was important for both them and their babies.  Seems to me there are a lot of lessons in the story of Jesus's incarnation that we have ignored.  Science says we need to take a second look.  Not the least of which is to give our children a real foundation for being self loving healthy adults capable of changing the world.


1 comment:

  1. Interesting.

    Jesus might have addressed this issue after all:

    Luke 10 38-
    13 As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
    14 She had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
    Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me."
    The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
    15 There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."