A Special Series on Self Esteem #2
By Rabbi Ephraim D. Becker
Issue No. 13
April 8, 1999
Given the plethora of e-mail to which many of us are subject, I appreciate
the comments of many of you who wrote looking for follow-up on the first
installment of the Self Esteem series, and of those who wrote to share
their views on the subject. I trust that we will address some of the
issues that you have raised in this and subsequent postings. Again, my thanks.
We introduced the concept of healthy self-esteem as deriving from a
well-nurtured yet well-trained child. Using the image of a horse and
rider, we suggested that challenges to self esteem result when the adult
discovers that he/she has either a poorly fed horse (with, perhaps, a
highly demanding rider) or, conversely, a well developed horse (with,
perhaps, an insufficiently defined rider). Worse case scenario is the
poorly fed horse with an insufficiently defined rider.
From a Torah perspective, we refer to the child and its development as the
Yetzer HaRa (the horse), and to the adult capacity for reasoning and choice
as the Yetzer HaTov (the rider). A child is born pure Yetzer HaRa, without
the capacity for reason, with the responsibility for choosing on behalf of
the child being placed upon its parents. Upon reaching the age of Jewish
majority (12 or 13 years of age, with signs of its imminent arrival
appearing somewhat earlier) a child is granted his/her own Yetzer HaTov,
which absolves the parent of the exclusive obligation to choose on behalf
of the child, transferring that obligation onto the shoulders of the
youngster, who now has decision-making capacity. The full development of
the child's decision-making capacity will be more fully recognized at age
20 (age of liability for divine punishment), and at other landmarks through
the person's life marking further stages of the development of that
capacity (40 for the study of Kabalah, representing a congregation, etc.).
Let's take a look at a common manifestation of low self-esteem, habitual or
addictive behavior, and analyze it according to the above, using a
conversation between the two parts of the self, the Yetzer HaRa and the
Yetzer HaTov: We've compressed alot of issues into this little dialogue...
you'll likely pick up on more of these each time you go through it.
Self: I know that I should not be (fill in the blank with some habituated
behavior, over-drinking, over-internetting, overeating, overspeaking,
oversleeping, etc), but I find that I am more often plagued by feelings of
guilt than with feelings of success because I so often fall prey to my
tendency to (fill in the blank, again).
Yetzer Tov: You know that you should not be doing this, you've resolved to
stop more times than we can count, yet...
Yetzer Ra: I know, I know, I'm horrible, just, plain bad.
YT: But taking that label just feeds into your habit, since "bad" people
are "allowed" to do these things!
YR: But it's the truth, I'm just bad, and what you are saying only serves
to confirm that.
YT: Let's take a look at what happened when you were a child, and there was
something you were inclined to do that your parent thought you should not
do... what happened then!?
YR: It's a little cloudy, but I think what happened was that I was given to
believe (or maybe I just picked it up from my mother, father, teacher's
expression) that it was a bad thing to do.
YT: Makes sense, I suppose.
YR: Yes, except that I think that they wanted ME to not WANT to do the
thing that they disapproved of. I didn't know what to do with the part of
myself that DID want to do it! I still don't know what they wanted from
me! They wanted ME to already be YOU!!
YT: They didn't want to have to be the rider on your horse; they wanted
you to control yourself.
YR: But I didn't know how, then, and I'm really not at all confident in my
ability to do so now! I have no idea *what* the voice of the rider is
supposed to sound like!
YT: It's my voice, er, your adult voice, your capacity to choose, to weigh
YR: I hear you, sort of... but I'm still suspicious... I'm so used to doing
this stuff... I don't believe that you really know (how could you, after
all) how hard it is to give this stuff up. I always feel like you're
standing there saying that I'm bad for doing this!
YT: What causes you to question me?
YR: Simple logic, my friend. Why, after all, would my parents, good people
that they were, have shirked their responsibility to be the rider on my
horse? They are, to my thinking, my early example of YOU!
YT: Good question... sounds like the sorta thing *I* should've asked.
YR: Well, I take it that they were uncomfortable with their dual roles as
nurturing my horse and being its rider. I sense that their mandates were
not clear enough in their own minds for them to impose them on me without
losing their sense of love for me. When I complained that I didn't want to
do what they wanted, they were forced to consider imposing a mandate on me
and adding to my stress. It's a tall order to add to someone's stress and
love them at the same time... that sounds like your job!
YT: It sure is... but not doing so leaves you with the inability to
encounter me, your own decision-making voice, in a healthy way, as an ally
who both understands the stress that restraint involves as well as dictates
the terms of that restraint.
YR: I hate you for being so logical. But, does that mean that I hate me,
since you are me? I don't really hate you, actually, I'm in awe of you,
afraid of you. I want you to approve of me, and I'm not sure you ever will!
YT: It comes in many forms, but this habituation and your inability to
accept your addictive side as part of yourself and in need of my guidance
is called low self-esteem. It means that it is hard for you to encounter
me in a healthy way. I'm really sorry you sense that I don't share the
difficulty of making this change... try to remember, I'm not your parent...
Comments are welcome!