By Rabbi Ephraim D. Becker, Ph.D. | Series: | Level:

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 alternatives…

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… I’m you!

Best wishes,


Comments are welcome!

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