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A Special Series on Self Esteem #1

By Rabbi Ephraim D. Becker

Issue No. 12
August 5, 1998

Dear Readers,

Please join in an exploration of the issue of self-esteem. My response follows.



Saul Behr [] wrote:

Rabbi Becker

I was wondering why almost everyone in the world suffers from some form of low self-esteem.

My wife suggested that it may be for the following reason:

We are all at least subconsciously aware of our obligations in this world to Hashem - Jews and non-Jews alike. And similarly, we feel that we are not fulfilling our obligations adequately. This sense of underperformance may be the root of our general sense of inadequacy... we are "no good" at keeping the Torah (on a deep subconscious level), and this is translated into low self-esteem in the more general sense.

I would very much like to know if there is a clear Torah perspective explaining why low self-esteem is such an widespread problem.

Many thanks.

Dear Saul,

Thank you for your question, for your wife's excellent suggestion, and for permission to use your question as an opportunity to explore what seems, indeed, to be a widespread phenomenon. Many writers have addressed the issue, perhaps most notably Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski in a number of books on the subject. I recognize the Chutzpah in my attempt to offer a Torah perspective on the issue, but, perhaps, with G-d's help, we can make a small contribution to the thinking on the matter. You may find that your wife has anticipated parts of what follows.

It seems (and Rav Volbe's writings tend to confirm that) there are two types of self esteem issues. One relates to a deficit of energy or will to move forward, to try new approaches, to rebound (and learn) from errors, and the like. Another, and seemingly opposite manifestation of the self esteem issue is unbridled forward energy and an inability to reckon or cope with the limitations posed by reality, either within the self our outside it.

The first type of self esteem issue is often identified with a lack of self-confidence, difficulty in making decisions, continuous guilt and dissatisfaction with the self. The second type is often characterized by a dissatisfaction with the world, as in irritation with the shortcomings of others, anger and dissatisfaction with authority, and even an inability to accept the realities of (and responsibility for) one's life.

If we could use an analogy of horse and rider, we might think of the horse as the pure forward energy of the person, his drive, his engine. The rider could be thought of as the director, the choices (in Hebrew, the Sechel) which govern (hopefully) the forward movement of the horse. (It is tempting to plug Freudian terms in to our horse and rider metaphor, but I'd like to resist the temptation to do so, with the thought that we can always come back and superimpose those terms on ours, but we may not be able to suggest to ways of thinking once the terms are fixed in place.)

The Yetzer Hara is developed, as we know from Torah sources, in childhood, and there begins the development of a strong (or weak) horse, with a well-established (or unestablished) relationship to a rider. Try to think of the child as pure energy (or horse, or Yetzer Hara) and the adult as the choosing rider. It doesn't always work out so neatly, often giving rise to low self-esteem.

Next time we'll attempt to understand how and why.

Best wishes,


Comments are welcome!

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