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Why “loving thy neighbor” is actually the easy part of the Golden Rule



Calah Alexander - published on 11/05/18 - updated on 06/15/21

It's the other critical part that can be difficult ...

Everyone knows the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For Christians, it’s the second part of the greatest commandment given by Christ: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

What no one really talks about is the problem with the underlying assumption: namely, that we do, indeed, love ourselves and treat ourselves well.

For many of us, the opposite is true. We tend to be far harder on ourselves than on others, even to the point of harshness. This tendency isn’t necessarily a bad one — as the New York Times points out, it’s a trait that has evolved to help us notice our mistakes. What makes it problematic is when we go from noticing those mistakes to criticizing:

“Our brains equip us with a mechanism to monitor our mind and our behavior,” Dr. Davidson said, so that when we make errors, we are able to notice the mistake. “In order to recover, we first must notice that a mistake has occurred,” he said. Just noticing that we’ve deviated from our expectations or goals — whether that’s eating too much or not completing a daily to-do list — isn’t necessarily the same thing as degrading ourselves into a shame spiral. In some cases, like when our safety or moral integrity are on the line, it’s crucial that our brains tell us good from bad so that we learn the right lessons from our experiences.

But sometimes, assigning negative value to our experiences and behaviors can “ensnare” us, Dr. Davidson said, into cycles of unhelpful rumination — like when you lie in bed at night needlessly replaying an awkward interaction or repeatedly revisiting that minor typo. This is where we get into the harmful, counterproductive side of self-criticism.

This was a problem for me for a long time. I must have believed that if I could only make myself feel bad enough, that shame would finally compel me to change my behavior. This mostly played out in the area of weight, where I would take brutal stock of every flaw (real and imagined) and absolutely berate myself for them. I was convinced that the key to real change was making me hate myself thoroughly enough to make the hard choices — put down the chocolate, run an extra mile, etc.

I’m sure you can imagine how well that played out. Unsurprisingly, this shame spiral had the opposite effect. The more I beat myself up about being overweight, the more I self-soothed with food. It was a brutal cycle that took decades to correct.

What finally helped change my mindset was finding a positive goal rather than a negative one, and being proud of the achievements I made along the way. For me, it was taekwondo — I loved the art, discipline, and athleticism of it enough to want to become better at it. I was focused on the positive goal of mastering something I enjoyed, and I started taking more care with my diet to help me get there. Along the way I began to shed fat and build muscle, but those developments were almost surprising to me. They were like bonus points, welcome side-effects that accompanied an entirely new way of living.

I still struggle with self-criticism from time to time, and combating it requires me to flip the Golden Rule — I have to remember to be as kind to myself as would to another person. Honestly, it’s much harder than indiscriminate kindness toward family, friends, and strangers, but it’s necessary. The only way to live a joyful life and love fully is to be at peace with yourself. So the next time you’re tempted to beat yourself up for a mistake you made or a bad habit you can’t quite shake, remember to practice the Golden Rule: be kind to yourself, as you would be to your neighbor.


Read more:
Are we running out of time — or out of love?

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