Jennifer didn’t start life with much confidence, but through several struggles she learned important lessons on self-confidence & compassion.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Why You Really Need Self-Compassion
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is a wife, mother of three, as well as a licensed clinical professional counselor in the state of Illinois. She has a PhD in counseling psychology. Her teaching and coaching focuses on helping members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, both individuals and couples, achieve greater satisfaction and passion in their emotional and sexual relationships.
Jennifer teaches online relationship and sexuality courses, workshops and retreats designed to foster self and sexual development and create happier relationships and individuals. She’s a frequent guest on podcasts and writes articles for blogs and magazines on the subjects of sexuality, relationships, mental health and faith.
Growing up, Jennifer was no stranger to hard work. With eight children in the home, there was never very much extra money. The basics were taken care of, but if she wanted anything she had to pay for it herself.
Jennifer was born legally blind and had many eye surgeries. At 12-years-old, she wore very thick, coke bottle glasses. She wanted to get contact lenses. So she started making Christmas decorations to sell. The first year she made around $150. Jennifer saved that money and did the same thing the next year, as well as adding gingerbread house sales on top of her other decorations. That year she made $400, allowing her to buy her contact lenses.
Jennifer was able to stay on top of the upkeep costs by continuing her Christmas decoration business. She also started doing exterior and interior painting in the summers to add to her growing income. At the time Jennifer saw this challenge as a burden. She usually didn’t have as much money to spend as her friends with allowances, but now she recognizes the lessons she learned.
She learned that she could attend to her own suffering and wants by working hard to make things better.
Despite all of her hard work, Jennifer always felt very awkward. She typically only had two pairs of pants and two shirts for the year.
She hit adolescence very late, so she was always very small compared to her peers. Jennifer wasn’t very interested in the things her peers were interested in, and felt that they were immature. She was more connected to her family than the social world. She struggled to find a group where she fit in.
Jennifer felt misunderstood by her peers, which made her very self-conscious. She didn’t think she was very pretty either. She was a little afraid of being in a relationship with a boy because she felt that meant she had to be a step down from them. Jennifer acknowledges that many teens and even adults feel the same way she did.
Knowing what she does now, Jennifer says that it is developmentally appropriate to have some self- doubt during the teenage years. It’s ok to be uncertain about who you are and what you’re really about, because you haven’t lived long enough to sort it all out.
The challenge is when we get stuck worrying about how other people feel about us and trying to keep other people happy as a way to feel good about ourselves. While it’s normal to start out with referencing other people to make sense of ourselves, if we keep doing that then we will struggle to have a solid sense of self.
If you need other people to make you feel good about yourself, you’re either going to need people constantly telling you that you’re ok or you’ll be very demanding and always trying to get other people to yield to you. While being bossy may seem like it comes from a place of self-confidence, it’s actually a weak position because it requires control of other people.
Jennifer says there are two important parts of developing true self-confidence.
- First, you have to live up to your own value. This means you have to be free of other people’s judgments. If you are constantly catering to what other people want and ignoring what you desire or believe, you can’t live up to your own expectations.
2. The second thing is to recognize the things you do well, or even the things that you fail at, and learn from those experiences. Failure allows you to make adjustments in order to thrive. You have control over how you face challenges. You gain confidence by subjecting yourself to challenges, learning from the, and mastering them in a way. We often look for the easy way out, but there’s no growth along that path.
The Art of Desire
Jennifer teaches a class called the Art of Desire which helps people learn not to hide from their desires. Jennifer often finds that women look for ways to be in a more dependent position, giving them shelter from having to think about their own desires.
Jennifer explains you can get a sense of self through supporting someone else’s desires. But when you don’t attend to your own desires and develop yourself in the world, you deprive others of your gifts and you hide pieces of yourself out of fear. As women we tend to be very attuned to the needs of others. We take care of our kids, our husbands, and everyone else, but never ourselves.
A Relationship with God
While Jennifer struggled with those feelings of self doubt and being misunderstood as an adolescent, she felt in her heart God knew her and loved her. She had actively pursued a relationship with God and she leaned on that during the difficult times. Jennifer asked God if she deserved a better life and if it was ok for her to pursue a better life. That relationship and those questions and answers helped her feel that it was ok for her to become stronger. It was ok to lean into her desires and lean into the woman she wanted to become.
Growing up, Jennifer’s family had never valued education for women the same way they valued it for men. Her mom had only attended one year of college while her dad had a PhD. No one was telling her she couldn’t get a college degree, but the emphasis was on marriage and family. Jennifer wanted more. So in going against what she felt was her cultural duty, and facing pushback from others outside of her family about her educational pursuits, she really had to rely on her relationship with the Divine to push through.
A Child with Autism
All of Jennifer’s insecurities started flooding back when her oldest child, Graham, was about two years old. Jennifer had noticed that his development was starting to seem atypical. Something just wasn’t quite right. People kept telling her that she was just being overly concerned and that he was fine.
Jennifer wanted so badly for them to be right, but she knew something was off. Graham was assessed and diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. This played directly into a core insecurity of Jennifer’s. She had married into a very educated, very intelligent family. Because of how she grew up, Jennifer was always kind of insecure about education and where she came from. Her in-laws had never done anything to make her feel this way, but Jennifer carried with her this sense of being less.
She hates to say it now, but Jennifer felt a sense of embarrassment when Graham was diagnosed. It felt like a very uncertain piece of her was exposed.
Life is Deeply Imperfect
Just a short time after the diagnosis, Jennifer’s husband was laid off from his job, adding to the uncertainty she already felt. Then she found out she was unexpectedly pregnant. They had planned to wait to have more children, worried that they were genetically predisposed to having another child on the spectrum.
So now Jennifer was completely overwhelmed, worrying about having another special needs child, worrying about her husband finding a job, and trying to get her dissertation finished. There was a lot of crying during that time.
Finding Strength in Trial
But Jennifer’s relationship with God was the pillar she needed, once again. She was not someone who tended to look at hard things and think that God had done that to her. Many people told her that God had something for her to learn, which was never helpful. Jennifer simply accepted that this was the hand they had been dealt.
Life is deeply imperfect. It’s just part of the human experience. It’s ok that it’s painful, that’s normal. She never shamed herself for the fact that it was painful nor for the uncertainty or grief she experienced.
Helpful Questions to Ask
Eventually she asked, not what God wanted her to learn from this, but “God, what can I learn from this? What can I learn about what it means to love? What can I learn about what it means to be human? What can I learn about who I want to be as a person in the face of this challenge?” Not framing her challenges as some hidden message allowed her to subject to reality and let it teach her about God and goodness.
How to Help? Just Listen
Jennifer also was lucky enough to have people who were willing to just listen, not give advice. There are always well-intentioned people who give advice, but often they don’t have any basis for it. They aren’t experiencing what you are.
But there are also people who will just sit and listen to you or cry with you. Just being there for people you care about makes all the difference in the world. Knowing you are cared about can really help. Jennifer’s mother-in-law would send care packages. It wasn’t that Jennifer needed new pajamas, but it was nice to know that her mother-in-law was thinking of her and wanted to do something kind for her.
Lesson #1: Suffering is Normal
Throughout all of the difficulties she faced, Jennifer says that one of the most important lessons she learned was to normalize suffering and normalize the fact that life is hard. This allows you not to make your challenges so personal.
All too often we think that if we bump into the hard lessons of life it’s because we are doing something wrong. But Jennifer believes that the more you live by true principles, the easier time you’ll have with the challenges. It’s not a guarantee of happiness because you don’t have control over all the variables that come with living in an imperfect world.
But when you recognize that we are all human and we’re all in this together and sometimes it’s just a bit tough, failure feels a little bit less catastrophic. We are all living imperfectly. Accept the mistakes you did make, recognize what you could do better in the future, and move on. Don’t allow the locus of control to be outside yourself. The cost of getting wiser is stepping in the holes and learning from it.
Lesson #2: Step Into New Behaviors
We all have the capability to change, but you can’t dwell on the past mistakes that you’ve made. Maybe there were things you could have done differently, but you probably didn’t know any better at the time. Jennifer works with couples all the time who have grown up and learned different ways of relating to people and, predictably, they are now having problems. But how could they have known anything else? The key is to now learn from it, and change what you can. Step into new behaviors. We work our way into more compassion for others and ourselves is by living through life.
We are creatures of habit. It’s easy to reinforce those choices in our mind. But if you know what the problem is and you’re determined to stay awake to the fact that you need to change, you have so many opportunities to do so. It all depends on how motivated you are to be better. The more you choose differently, the more you develop the capacity in your mind and soul to be a more refined human being. But it’s a process of repetition, just like anything we learn.
Lesson #3: Find Your Higher Self
Anchoring into a sense of the Divine also helps you to find your higher self. Jennifer believes a relationship with God is the one that matters the most.
Often we get caught in the line of thinking that if we do A, B, and C then God will grant us with D, E, and F. Jennifer discourages that kind of thinking. She thinks God is a loving, relational presence. He’s there to give us courage to do hard things and to stand up in the face of difficulty.
Knowing God sees you and cares about what you’re doing and that you’re part of creating a better world is helpful to drive that courage. It also drives your sense of accountability to both yourself and to God. The more you’re in line with your higher self, the less you’re concerned with how other people view you. You’re at peace with who you are.
Lesson #4: Have Self-Compassion
One of the best things that has come out of all of Jennifer’s difficult experiences is a deeper sense of self-compassion. Jennifer has learned how important compassion is to living life with less suffering. She is better able to extend grace to herself–even and especially for the things she didn’t know or understand yet. Looking back she can even have compassion for disappointing herself. This is so important!
The amazing blessing of learning self-compassion is that by learning that compassion for herself, it’s easier to extend compassion to others as well. Then we can all accept that we are all in this imperfect life together.
God is good an extends us grace or compassion because he knows exactly where we are and what we have been through. It is important to look at our lives with this more godly, honest, and true view of ourselves.
Lesson # 5: You Can Change
Jennifer explains that as she works with people she has found this great truth, “People are always changing. Sometimes we’re not changing as fast and as dramatically as we might want or we might want someone in our life to change dramatically.” But life is always giving us the opportunity to refine, improve, and become better.
We often tend to want to say in a routine or in our habits, but life always gives us many opportunities to choose differently. “And the more you choose in better way, or hit closer to the mark, the more you develop capacity both within your mind and your soul to be a more refined human being. But it is a process of repetition, just like anything that we learn,” Jennifer concludes.
Favorite Bible Verse
Jennifer’s favorite Bible verse is John 8:32, which says, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Jennifer likes to add that sometimes the truth will make you miserable at first, but then it will make you free. Sometimes the truth tells you that you need to change, that you need to stretch beyond your current understanding. But if you’re going to be free, you have to master the terrain of life.
Connect with Jennifer
Jennifer’s website is www.finlyason-fife.com. On her website you’ll find her podcast archive where there are lots of different interviews she has done on relationships, sexuality, and faith.
You can also access her online courses created with a Latter-Day Saint audience in mind, but are also applicable to Christians.