I've puzzled over the advice to "be kind to yourself." It is delivered so sincerely, but it makes me wonder if it isn't apparent how much we do prioritize ourselves, even if in mundane ways. I recognize when I'm thirsty, for example, sooner than I know of this condition in even my children.
Of course we also talk about being "hard on ourselves." I think I have a better sense of what if involved in doing that. But these expressions make it clear to me that we need some underlying account of what exactly this relationship... to our self... is.
Philosopher Robyn Gaier has been developing a contemporary account of what it would mean to be in a proper relationship with one's self. I hope to feature it here soon. In the meantime, her work has got me thinking about the various ways we might think we relate to our own self.
1) Is it a relationship, similar to other relationships?
If our self-relationship were like our other relationships, like a friendship, how would this go? Would the parts of ourselves engage in the way we engage with friends? Like conversationalists? Barbara Walters once said this about good social ability: “A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of any functioning human relationships, and that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception.”
Are we ever this kind to ourselves? It’s fascinating to think we should be. But it seems to me, rather, it’d be a different situation, for many of us, if we were this encouraging to all of the sides of ourselves. Would we ever get anything done? What would explain guilt and shame?
Some philosophers have suggested we are quite a bit less gentle to ourselves.
2) Like a parent correcting a child?
Aristotle once wrote that our reason is like a parent directing orders to a child. We may instruct ourselves and fail to follow through, for explanations as myriad as those that explain why a child has to be reminded 2,000 times to say please and thank you.
If this is the right kind of explanation, the kind of recrimination we often feel may be more easily explained. But would Aristotle's approach make sense of the way we actually think of ourselves through time?
What if it isn't a relationship we should picture, but an ongoing assessment of ourselves, as if we are outside observers rather than inside participants?
The philosopher Adam Smith is helpful here. He points to how hard we can be on ourselves if we just imagine some non-moral transgression (leaving the house without doing the dishes is my update) that no other has even seen. So he suggests that we monitor our own behavior not because someone else is actually keeping track of all of it, but because that's how we maintain ourselves.
If we have this type of relationship to ourselves, being extra "kind" might mean lessening one's standards. And you know, it appears that on any of these proposals "being one's worst enemy" can be made sense of. Maybe that should be avoided even before we decide what explains the ability to be that.