When it comes to a person working toward improving themselves, whether it be in a specific task or their mental health journey, is that you have to have "grace for yourself." It's a fairly common saying among faith communities. Throughout my life, I heard it referenced in the context of forgiving yourself for your shortcomings, mistakes, or even hurtful behaviors, because "no one is perfect." The implication was that we all make mistakes, so you ought to be kind to yourself and forgiving yourself when you do.
This is an important truth, for life in general, that allows you to live into and out of your humanity. It recognizes that we're all humans and teaches us the ability to practice and then apply that same principle to others. But, while that's true and important, it's too narrow a view of grace. It focuses too much on the aspect that you messed up, or at least that you're bound to. If there's one thing I know for sure about forgiveness, self-forgiving is often the most difficult. In addition to that, it puts grace as an afterthought for your journey.
Grace Before You Start
What if you started with grace as part of the planning for your journey? What if grace was how you prepared your mind and heart for the trip ahead? What I mean by that is, what if we began viewing grace for ourselves as space and time?
I'm talking specifically about allowing yourself the freedom and scope to live, think, and develop in a way that suits you. On the journey toward better mental health, the only right path is the one you're on. Having grace for yourself, at the onset of that journey, means that you give yourself space, or freedom, to figure out what works for you. An important aspect of that is accepting that you're allowed to change things that aren't working for you. While it's important to have some expectation or hope that you'll make it to your destination, it's equally important that you allow yourself the permission to change unhelpful things.
The other aspect of grace that is important is time. There are no quick fixes, especially when it comes to mental health. Healing from trauma, grieving the loss of a loved one, or working through anxiety or depression takes time. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. Grace on the front end allows you to set up appropriate expectations for how long your journey may take. If you're driving from Seattle, WA to Los Angeles, CA, first off fly - no one should ever drive through Seattle (it's horrible) and round trip tickets are only a couple of hundred dollars - so do yourself a favor, you wouldn't plan it for it to only take a few hours. That drive is almost 19 hours long. If you fail to give yourself adequate time, by 6 hours in you'll be angry and frustrated that you aren't even close. Grace for yourself allows you to see that it took a long time to end up where you are and will likely take a long time to get to a more whole or healthy version.
Grace also helps you adjust the time expectations when you change course because something isn't working. Like with driving, unexpected issues arise and add to the time it takes to reach your destination. Working toward good mental health is the same. There may be times that something comes up in therapy that adds a whole new dimension to your journey. In those cases, it would be easy to become angry or retreat from the progress you've made. Grace helps you manage your expectations to give yourself the additional time you might need.
I grew up in an Evangelical Christian home. Whenever I heard the word "grace" it was always accompanied by "mercy." Grace was always pitched as you receiving something that you didn't deserve, i.e. the gift of forgiveness from God, and mercy was the withholding of something you did deserve, i.e. punishment for your sins. This article isn't meant to argue the truth or mis-contextualization of those words, only to point out the definitions that I grew up with. The whole premise of mercy was that I did something wrong, I deserved a consequence, and someone in authority would come in and withhold either part or all of the intended consequence. Pretty simple, right?
And while that is a real definition of mercy, and certainly has biblical and real-world applications, that isn't the only definition. It certainly isn't the one that Jesus expresses in a number of his stories. Instead, what if we started viewing mercy by its other definition, "the compassionate treatment [or care] of those in distress?"
While working toward healing and wholeness, remember that one of the most important aspects is having self-compassion. Self-compassion allows you to care for yourself while you work through the part of your life where you are experiencing distress. In other words, be kind to and pay attention to how you're caring for yourself in the process.
As your preparing for your journey, pack generous amounts of grace and mercy.
*First published on Growinghopecounseling.co