Is Beating Ourselves Up Helpful?
At times, we can be very hard and harsh on ourselves. This can be particularly true for those of us who truly want to follow Jesus and to grow in holiness. There can be a tendency to judge our mistakes very severely, and to “beat ourselves up” for any little slip up.
The question is: is this really helpful? Does being extremely critical with ourselves and internally punishing or condemning ourselves for the least mistake truly aid us in becoming more like Jesus? If a tree is not bearing fruit, does it help to barrage it with kicks and blows?
If it’s not helpful for our spiritual growth for us to be harsh with ourselves, what would be helpful? What would help us to grow closer to our Lord and to become more like Him?
What if, instead of beating ourselves up for every mistake or fault or flaw, we were instead to be gentle and merciful to ourselves? What would that look like? How would that affect our perception of others—who also have faults and flaws—and our relationship with them?
Some people might be hesitant to be merciful to themselves, since they may be afraid of being lukewarm or lazy. And this is a possible danger. However, for those who are truly striving to live the Christian life, a more common attitude seems to be this excessive harshness with oneself. This could be linked with a kind of “perfectionism,” which—if completely unmasked—is really pride.
We can be hard on ourselves, because we’re not perfect. And we often want to be perfect because we don’t want anyone else to see our imperfections or our weaknesses. We want to be—and to be seen as—strong and capable, and well . . . perfect in every way.
Our expectations for ourselves can be extremely high, and we can, furthermore, rely upon ourselves to attain these unrealistic expectations that we have.
In order for us to grow in the spiritual life, we have to be willing to admit that we are not altogether perfect. This is difficult for us, unless we know that we have a merciful Lord who is very compassionate and understanding with us.
Our Father’s Merciful Heart
The Heart of our Heavenly Father is mercy. Unfortunately, we all too often harbor misconceptions about Him. We think that He is hard and harsh . . . that He is watching to catch us at our faults and failings so as to punish us . . . that He is never satisfied and content with our efforts . . . that we’re never good enough, etc.
This misconception of God can often be traced back to seeing in God what we perceived in our earthly parents. Though they did the best they could, all of our parents were human. Thus, they were imperfect; they did not perfectly reflect the mercy and love of the Father’s Heart to us. As children we are so utterly dependent upon our parents and we began (unconsciously) to form our conception of God by the way we were treated by them.
To admit that our parents were imperfect is not so that we can judge or condemn them. It is simply to see the reality: our parents had many good qualities, but also some not so good ones.
Humility is truth. When we are truly humble of heart, we see things as they really are. We see ourselves as we really are: poor, weak, broken, needy. And we see God as He is: merciful, loving, tender, compassionate.
We come to see more and more clearly that our Father is very tender and gentle and merciful with us. We learn that we can trust Him, and we can expose our every wound and our most vulnerable weakness to Him, and He will not harm us, or take advantage of us in any way.
At times, He may have to hurt us . . . the way a doctor sometimes has to use a scalpel to bring a deeper healing. Our Father’s intention, though, is always a good one. We can completely trust in Him.
And as we see how merciful He is to us—over and over again—we can learn to be more merciful to ourselves. This does not mean we freely indulge in sin, since God will forgive us anyway; such an attitude would be presumption. Prior to sin—when we are tempted to sin but when we have not yet given in—this is the time to be firm with ourselves. Before we sin, we can firmly and clearly say, “No!” and call upon Jesus and Mary for help, while doing our part to avoid the sin.
After we sin, however, or when we’ve committed some kind of fault—then is the time for gentle mercy. That’s when beating ourselves up doesn’t work well. A more helpful way is to humble ourselves before the Lord, and not be surprised at our weakness and our falls. With great gentleness, we can admit—in the presence of our Lord Who is Mercy—our deep misery.
Receiving His Mercy
One of the best ways for us to receive the Lord’s mercy is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When we go to Confession, we are humbly admitting our sinfulness and we are receiving the Lord’s generous gift of complete forgiveness and unconditional mercy.
Often, even when we go to Confession and know intellectually that the Lord has forgiven us, we still need to forgive ourselves. By our acceptance of the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy—which includes forgiving ourselves—we are more likely to then be merciful and forgiving to others. On the other hand, when we don’t forgive ourselves, and are not merciful to ourselves, we tend to be unforgiving and unmerciful to others.
This Lent, may we allow our Heavenly Father to pour out His mercy upon us! He can do so in a unique way, when we have the courage and humility to approach the Sacrament of Confession. There we meet our Merciful Savior who forgives and heals and strengthens us. And as we receive the healing and freedom the Lord offers to us in this Sacrament, we are free to go forth and share His forgiveness and merciful love with others.
—By Fr. Francis of the Redeemer