"The Solution to Your Problem is Self-(Fill-in-the-Blank)!" ???
One of my favorite songs was sung by Whitney Houston with the chorus:
"Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all!"
(Prior to the Seventies, American society emphasized self-discipline and self-respect as the key to being a happy, good, and successful person.)
"Low self-esteem" was deemed the root of many destructive behaviors.
(It is indeed part of a destructive behavioral pattern, but the solution is not praise, positive self-image, and to hyper-focus on self-esteem—as well-meaning researchers insisted at that time, only to backtrack more recently.)
Then as time went by, psychologists and other social scientists realized that loving and esteeming yourself doesn’t necessarily make you a better person or help you live a better life. So in recent years, the term “self-compassion” has been popping up more and more with, yet again, extremely convincing explanations as to why THIS is the key to happiness, goodness, and success.
And still, there is still a lot of talk about accepting yourself, loving yourself, appreciating yourself, developing a positive self-image, and so on.
Self, self, self, self.
Additionally, any frum psychologist, coach, adviser, or any other frum professional in the field will tell you the same thing.
And as far as I can tell, all the people writing books, articles, or offering therapy along these lines are truly well-intended. They genuinely want to help people and the guidance they offer does often helps to a certain extent - particularly if the professional offering the method is a truly caring person.
Will the Real Solution Please Stand Up?
It's just not there as far as I can tell.
True, I'm no expert. But if the whole emphasis on self-(fill-in-the-blank) was so crucial to healing and self-improvement, I should have come across it by now within the centuries of Jewish writings on this topic.
Yet all these writings just don’t use terms or describe ideas resembling that of Western psychology described above as far as I’ve ever seen.
(The exception seems to be the idea of a positive self-image. While the Sages don't use that particular term, they do emphasize the fact your neshamah is pure and that you have exalted potential, and that you can succeed in reaching that potential if you really try, and that you are obligated to see yourself in that light.)
And when well-meaning frum professionals discuss all this, they tend to focus on one sentence within Rabbeinu Yonah’s book Gates of Teshuvah. (I think it’s the part in which he explains how low self-esteem leads to a superiority complex because a person puffed up with arrogance got that way because he or she felt compelled to cover up his feelings of low self-worth with lots of fake superiority.) What about the rest of Gates of Teshuvah? In Breslov, Rebbe Nachman recommends that a depressed and despairing penitent find at least one positive trait within himself and of course, the story of The Prince Made Entirely of Precious Gems symbolizes the jewels of goodness hidden within every Jew.
(This is in line with the idea of positive self-image based our Sages' stipulations, and not that of Western psychology.)
But what about the rest of Breslov's Likutei Moharan and everything written therein?
There is a lot more to Rabbeinu Yonah's teachings and Breslov than what is cherry-picked by well-meaning advisers and therapists.
Or they insist that the recommendations by Western psychology are the same as in mussar literature, but that Western psychology presents it in a language we can understand.
(Again, there is some truth in this, but not as much as they like to think.)
Or frum advisers fall back on ye olde favorites:
- “That was then, but we can’t do that now.”
- “That’s only for tzaddikim, not regular people like us.”
Yet taking one sentence out of the vast treasury of mussar doesn't justify the solutions offered by Western psychology. What about all the other hundreds of thousands of sentences of mussar?
Furthermore, taking the idea of the hidden beautiful potential we all possess is still very different than the hyphenated “self” that keeps popping up (however well-intended) all over the science of self-improvement.
With the vast literature Judaism possesses regarding teshuvah (the main form of human self-improvement), could it be that the answer is only in one or two paragraphs in a couple of traditional sources that "happen" to jive with modern-day psycho-science?
All You Need is Love - No, Really!
- the love that Hashem has for you and the love that you should ideally feel for Him.
Many mussar books dedicate entire chapters to the idea of Love.
Yet rather than emphasizing how to love and accept yourself, they focus on loving and accepting God.
Not surprisingly, loving and accepting God leads to loving and accepting both yourself and others, it leads to compassion for all creatures - and not the other way around.
This is what all the Sages seem to be saying.
Yes, you can work on self-compassion (or self-love or self-esteem or self-acceptance or self-worth or your self-image) and you can also work on general compassion (or love or esteem or acceptance) for others.
But it seems like doing so can only take you so far.
Trusting in Hashem’s Love and Omnipotence roots you in the knowledge that whether your bad traits are innate or whether they are traumatic reactions to traumatic experiences, they aren’t your fault because HASHEM designated you and your faults that way.
So good-bye toxic shame!
However, while your bad traits aren’t your fault, they are still your responsibility to fix—a holy assignment directly from Hashem Himself with which He is both Happy and Willing to help you as much as you need.
Everything is about Hashem, everything is from Hashem, and everything He does is beneficial, so you might as well throw yourself on Him and start to love Him back.
(And yes, this is difficult and painful if you’ve had a lot of pain and abuse in your life.)
The problem is that by focusing on self, you’re not getting to the root of the issue.
A lot of people walk around today with crushing feelings of toxic shame. Toxic shame prevents you from being a decent person. All that inner toxic waste comes leaking out in a variety of ways: cutting comments, sneers, smirks, passive-aggression, verbal attacks, self-harming behaviors (cutting, addictions, eating disorders, etc.) and even violence.
Is a sneering, mean, manipulative, or violent person particularly loveable?
Should we accept them as they are?
Should they accept themselves as they are?
And believe me, I used to be convinced that you could love, accept, and nurture another person into a state of better emotional health.
I used to believe that people who behaved badly didn't really want to behave that way, and that if you showed them an alternative, they would change. (This is sometimes true, but often not.)
I found out the hard and painful way that you can’t. Regardless of how much goodness they possess underneath it all, you just can’t bring it out of them no matter how much you try to love and nurture their hidden—unless they actively want it.
However, you can pray them into a better state, if God wills it. But in most cases, you can never love and encourage that person enough to heal them, no matter how much you focus on their good qualities and their very real potential.
And therefore, I’m not sure whether you can nurture or love yourself into a better state either. (Literally, I'm not sure.)
But you can pray yourself into a better state.
And the most powerful kind of prayer comes from a loving heart.
So maybe in your current state, you aren’t so loveable.
Maybe you really are acting like a selfish, uncaring, arrogant, and nasty person.
(And again, if you are acting this way, please remember that all your selfishness, callousness, arrogance, and nastiness came from Hashem—either He planted those traits as innate within you OR He designed you to respond that way to traumatic experiences in order to overcome them. Why? Something in the experience of fixing those traits repairs past-life mistakes, cleanses your soul, and earns you spiritual reward you wouldn’t otherwise deserve. Yay!)
So this is the truth as written throughout Chazal.
But in order to love Hashem back, you need to get to know Him better and develop a close relationship.
In a nutshell, giving God lots of compliments, focusing on the Good in Him, and having heart-to-heart talks with Him, and sharing yourself and letting Him share Himself is what develops your relationship with Him (as with any relationship), and increases both your love for Him and your awareness of His Infinite Love for You.
But that's in a nutshell. Practically speaking, there’s a lot more to it than that, which I’ll be addressing in upcoming posts.