It can be hard letting go of certain aspects of your self-image that you feel define you, aspects in which you may have always taken pride.
For example, there are people who take a lot of pride in the fact that things roll off their back, that they let things go, and avoid confrontations. Usually on the quieter side and often passive, their steely pride in their vatranut can take others by surprise.
But what if they do end up holding a grudge?
What if they experience a flash of rage?
Because they unconsciously refuse to be aware of their anger or resentment, it could come out in other ways. Because such people tend to disassociate easily and frequently, they can snipe out nasty comments or even yell at someone, but "pretend" they didn’t even moments after the outburst.
So even if you gently inform them of their hurtful behavior, they may just look confused or laugh it off. This denial prevents them from doing true teshuvah and fulfilling their God-given potential.
(It also compounds the hurt they've caused their victims by making their victims feel belittled or crazy.)
Because they cling so tightly to their self-image as a vatran or an easygoing person who avoids conflicts, they actually end up being obstinate (i.e. not being mevater) and causing conflicts via the hurtful and manipulative behavior they exhibit while in a disassociated state.
Others feel that being highly intelligent, an efficient homemaker, the shpitz of the yeshivah, being very put-together, a baal or baalas chessed, a successful businessman/woman, wonderful with kids, or able to take the lead in any situation is what defines who they are.
Every person has at least one aspect to which they cling because they feel it defines them. Without it, they feel lost. (And I'm no exception.)
In fact, if that aspect is ever ripped away from them, they can even feel like a part of them has been killed off.
So this kind of cheshbon is very, very difficult to contend with.
Hermit Crabs and Bed-Ridden Old Ladies
The old one pinches, but that phase of being shell-less and exposed to predators and the blistering sun is terrifying and fraught with very real dangers.
Out of desperation, hermit crabs rush to stuff themselves into inadequate plastic bottles or even laundry detergent caps. They dash toward the perfect shell only to suffer frustration when another hermit crab snags it first, forcing the first hermit crab to either fight the other (if the other hasn't yet entered the shell) or remain completely vulnerable with no immediate alternatives.
He can’t go back to the old pinching shell, yet he can’t remain with no shell either.
So like the hapless hermit crab, you just sit there in your life, feeling exposed and anxious, hoping that you’ll find a suitable shell before the sun roasts you or before something big and hungry eats you.
But the dilemma is...you really can’t stay in that wrong-sized shell forever. Eventually, you’ll be deformed by the poor fit and then it’ll kill you. So once you’re out of the too-small shell, you can’t really go back either (although many still try).
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote of her mother’s need to avoid being a receiver in any way. Even after she had triplets, any favors she received were immediately returned, no matter how difficult this proved to be. If someone sent her a pie, she immediately went to work making a pie from scratch give back. This kind of insistence is mind-boggling because she faced the challenge of newborn triplets before disposable diapers and dishwashers and many other conveniences we take granted today.
In her old age, Elisabeth's mother became bed-ridden, which forced her to be dependent on the favors of others. Upon seeing her mother’s profound emotional suffering from this dependency, Elisabeth initially felt very angry at God.
But eventually, Elisabeth realized that it was good for her mother. Her mother’s resistance against any kind of dependence on others was so extreme, it wasn’t coming from a good place and her mother needed to fix this. Because this was such a deeply entrenched part of her self-image for her whole life, letting go of this was extremely painful. But ultimately, Elisabeth saw how it was good for her mother, which transformed Elisabeth’s rage against God transformed into gratitude.
But what if Elisabeth’s mother had faced this middah, this obstinate pride and false self-image, much earlier?
Would she have needed the nisayon of being bed-ridden in order to rectify this middah before she died?
(I’m not saying this is the reason why all bed-ridden people suffer. I don’t know the reason. But according to Elisabeth, this seemed to be the reason in her mother’s case.)
Discovering the Real You
But it is a process and it’s neither easy nor painless. Ultimately, it is rewarding and it saves you pain later. Yet depending on where you’re holding regarding spiritual and emotional health, it can initially cause a feeling of fragmentation and a painful loss of identity.
This is why it is so important to cling to Hashem throughout the process. You can also find a lot of comfort in Tehillim, especially the chapters in which David Hamelech describes emotional and spiritual pain.
It’s a well-known tradition that when Tehillim mentions “enemies,” it also refers to the enemies within us: our negative yearnings and tendencies, the traits that drag us in the wrong direction.
Personally, I really abhor dealing with the “between” stage, with no shell to wear and no suitable shell in sight.
But I just don’t see another option.
The transformation needs to occur. And if I don’t do it myself, it will still happen, but in another and even more uncomfortable way.
Perhaps this is the reason why Judaism stresses the attitude of gratitude and hope so strongly, and why Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in particular emphasized the importance of being happy, even when you’re just an unappealing pathetic vulnerable hermit crab stuck between shells.