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Learning Self-Compassion

Personal Perspective: The concepts of love and self, up for theoretical grabs.

Key points

  • Love is a complex, slippery subject matter that easily eludes mastery both as a concept and in everyday, practical application.
  • The Buddha reasoned that the quality of love offered to others hinges upon the quality of love one has for oneself.
  • Identifying one's needs, recognizing their validity, and actively representing them addresses questions about how to love oneself.
Source: G4YYZSAXAT/StockSnap
Source: G4YYZSAXAT/StockSnap

I grew up in a very religious, Christian home where Sunday's activities were strictly predetermined and enforced. Like so many of my generation, come Sunday, our parents faithfully saw that we were dressed in our best clothing and dutifully marched off to church like unquestioning automatons. With unswerving obedience, we reenacted this liturgy week after week, month after month, year after unrelenting year—seemingly ad infinitum.

However, as I grew into adolescence, I began asking questions—many of them—but one took center stage: What exactly were we trying to accomplish? Certainly, showing unbending devotion to God seemed commendable. But it became increasingly apparent to me without much, if any, real sleuthing that the Sunday school lesson materials repeated the same well-worn themes of love and compassion. While it might have been obvious to other churchgoers, to me, the proverbial light bulb suddenly blinked on one Sunday when I thought, "That's it! We're learning to love, to become more compassionate!" And, unsurprisingly, we weren't learning quickly.

A Difficult Subject Matter

Apparently, we would be life-long learners--never fully perfecting the art of love--because love is a complex, slippery subject matter that easily eludes mastery both as a concept and in everyday, practical application. Doubtless, we wouldn't get our arms completely or tightly wrapped around it by attending a single church meeting. Again, it would require many, if not indefinite attendance. But neither would there be an end to my curiosities—the question spigot would not be turned off. So, I continued but at this point, somewhat facetiously: Is there no end to our schooling, no stopping point? Is there a final exam perhaps, and, if there is, will I be awarded a certificate, a diploma, as is done at other schools?

The answer, of course, was no—there would be no certificate, no diploma, nor an endpoint—the subject and practice of love was too complicated and made lofty demands of its aspirants. I drew some consolation from thinking of the countless poets, theologians, philosophers, authors, songwriters, psychologists, and so on, who, throughout the ages, have defined love in myriad ways. For example, in his pastoral comedy As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote, "Love is a madness." Indeed, sanity itself can flounder and even sink altogether into love's vast emotional quagmire. Further, as shocking proof of the Bard's insight, one study found that, globally, 35 percent of female homicides were committed by someone who claimed to love the victim. Tragically, love's consort sometimes gets perverted, over-impassioned, then totally derails, convulsing a horrifyingly lethal form of conflict wherein lovers actually kill one another. Less tragic, but still painfully sad, I thought of the high-soaring divorce rate—love's conundrums definitely include a "dark passenger."

The Greeks and the Inuit

Later, as a young adult taking a philosophy class, I learned the ancient Greeks boldly packaged love into three neatly wrapped bundles: Eros, referring to passionate love; Philos, or brotherly love; and Agape, a spiritual, godly form of love. As antiquated as it may be, this encompassing "love-trio" has weathered the centuries, yet it still helps unpack a complicated description of an often difficult to navigate, and even inhospitable "lovescape," which contains life's most powerful emotion.

Curiously, the Inuit also inhabit an inhospitable environment—albeit a physical one—and do so successfully. Their success may lie in part to having more than 50 names to describe snow's fluctuating characteristics. With this strange, cultural juxtaposition of Greeks and Inuit in mind, my question-raising meandered over this possibility: Given love's own varied, kaleidoscopic characteristics, what if there were 50 ways to define it; would this help us more successfully navigate the roller-coaster ride over love's often challenging, rugged, and sometimes inhospitable emotional landscape?

Back to Sunday School

Some of my oldest, most favorite maxims on love come from the Sermon on the Mount: "Love thy neighbor as thyself....Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But as much as I value these venerable, lodestar guidelines, in my usual manner, I questioned them. What is the best way to love my neighbor? What form would it take? What is the best way to love myself? What would that look like? And what would I have others do unto me?

I began reflecting on these questions when I was roughly 16 years old, and, at that same time, I was madly in love with the Jaguar XK-E. I thought no other car had its sleek, sophisticated lines, its sexy appearance. So, had someone gifted me an XK-E, that would have answered the question of what to "do unto me." Of course, no one gave me an XK-E, fortunately; had I been given one, I probably would have destroyed myself in it. This glaring caveat eventually led me to conclude that, certainly, there must be huge qualifiers connected to doing unto self and others that would demand considerations of age, experience, and maturity, along with any number of other situation-specific concerns. My questions continued to germinate.

The Buddha and the Self

The Buddha both complicated and enriched the meaning of love by reasoning that the quality of love offered to others hinges upon the quality of love one has for oneself. While this thinking greatly appeals to me, naturally, I'm still left with some unanswered questions, such as these: What is the self exactly? And whatever its form, how might it best be targeted with affection, an affection derived from the very self doing the loving? Also, how exactly is this self-directed affection generated? These seemed important questions since their answers, as per the Buddha, precondition the quality of love for oneself and others.

Up for Theoretical Grabs—A New GPS

Source: andrea-piacquadio/Pexels
Source: andrea-piacquadio/Pexels

To propose answers to these perplexing questions, I humbly but eagerly jumped into the theoretical fray—along with an old friend and fellow theorist—to develop interfacing theories of the self and love. In our reach for the scientific ideals of simplicity and elegance, we broadly define the self as a composite of circulating needs of varying types and magnitudes that vie for expression and/or gratification. We reason that one's ability to more fully define or identify their personal needs helps to construct a healthy sense of oneself, which, in turn, is key to promoting affection for oneself. Then, extending our reasoning, we assert the recognition of the legitimacy of one's basic needs "crowns" them with a positive status, which elevates the probability of proactively managing them. In skeletal summation, and applied in a relatively simple, stepwise fashion, identifying one's needs while recognizing their basic validity, then actively representing them, effectively addresses the quintessential questions about the nature of the self, as well as the specific steps by which to love oneself.

We've named this approach, "Need Management Therapy," and its goal is to provide a new GPS for learning self and other compassion, a precondition for successfully inhabiting love's intimate, complicated, but promising terrain. Questions anyone?

More to come.


Neff, K., (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, New York, NY. William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers

Johansen, R., T. Gaffaney, (2021). Need Management Therapy: A New Science of Love, Intimacy and Relationships, Blomington, IN. Archway Publishing from Simon & Schuster.

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