We are often encouraged to reflect on and be mindful of how we relate to and treat others. We also, quite naturally, are very mindful of how others treat us. However, we very often pay little attention to how we relate with ourselves or how we treat ourselves. This aspect of our spiritual lives is almost entirely overlooked. Some of us might have an aversion to being mindful of how we relate with ourselves. Perhaps it conjures up fears of being ego-centric or self-focused. However, as we shall see, making sure we are relating with ourselves as Christ would want us to, has huge ramifications for all areas of our spiritual life.
First, let us start with the question, “what does it mean to relate with ourselves?”. It means how we perceive ourselves, how we respond to ourselves with our thoughts, how we dialogue with ourselves when we are alone or have quiet moments, and how we respond and feel about ourselves when we make perceived mistakes. We tend to see that there are certain themes to how we relate with others or ourselves. Do we tend to be more peaceful, gentle, and positive or do we tend to frequently be combative, defensive, and harsh? How we relate with others or ourselves comes from our disposition of heart or our inner disposition. Do we tend to have an easy-going, peaceful disposition or one that is easily irritated, defensive, and critical? Do we have a more merciful disposition or a more punishing disposition? It is the goal of every Christian to make sure our inner disposition is that of Christ’s; one that is merciful, patient, kind, gentle, affirming, and loving.
For some of us, there may be a dramatic difference between how we relate with others and how we relate with ourselves. We may be very easy and merciful towards ourselves but very harsh and demanding on others with our expectations. Then some of us might be very easy and merciful with others but too harsh and demanding on ourselves. Many would say of the latter; isn’t this how we are supposed to be as Orthodox Christians? We are indeed called to be merciful with others and firm with ourselves, but that does not mean being merciless or shaming towards ourselves,
We are called to show ourselves the same mercy and love that Christ Himself shows us. It is not spiritually self-indulgent to be merciful towards ourselves, if that mercy is applied and practiced appropriately. We all sin and make mistakes and when we do, we must go through the process of repentance. However, some of us are constantly and forever punishing ourselves and feeling badly about ourselves. We sometimes confuse this with humility. Living in a state of shame is not humility. Many of us relate with ourselves in a very harsh, demanding, and critical way; always feeling bad about everything we do. This is because ultimately, we feel bad about who we are. This is not what God wants. We are children of God and made in the image of God. We must show ourselves the same mercy that Christ would show us and affirm ourselves in the same way Christ affirmed all others. It is okay to forgive ourselves once we have repented. It is okay to relax. It is okay to enjoy something. It is okay to let others do something for us. It is okay to allow ourselves to be loved. it is okay to come to the conclusion, when appropriate, that we are being too hard on ourselves. For many who have been abused, learn to relate with themselves in an abusive way. Long after the abuser has left their lives, they continue the abuse without realizing it and unconsciously, by relating with themselves in a harsh and shaming way, just as the abuser conditioned them. If this is not addressed, it will be an obstacle to spiritual growth and healing. It is amazing how much more efficiently someone heals and grows spiritually once they cease having a harsh and merciless disposition towards themselves.
If we continue to relate with ourselves in a shaming way or in a way that is too harsh, we will become burned out spiritually, be inclined towards depression, and feel alienated and distant from God and others. Our harsh and critical disposition towards ourselves can actually cut us off from accepting and receiving the love of God. It surrounds our soul with dark clouds that block out the love of God. When those of us who are too hard on ourselves learn to ease up on ourselves, it is as though rays of light suddenly start to break through, as God’s love begins to reach our soul. Orthodoxy is all about balance. We are firm with ourselves, never accepting sin; but also merciful and kind to ourselves. Having this balanced disposition only means we will better be able to show love to others and grow more efficiently spiritually.