A reader asks:
Dear Rebbetzin Feige,
I sometimes struggle with the issue of trying to accept myself for who I am versus trying to change myself for the better. What is the happy medium? This often occurs after being criticized or when I feel like I should be better in some way.
I know that good self-esteem is a prerequisite to being able to be happy and to perhaps even grow. How do I keep my self-esteem strong when I feel criticized or sense within myself something left to be desired?
I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this matter.
Rebbetzin Feige responds:
Your quest for balance speaks to all of us. Self-rejection is never a good stance to take. Neither, however, is unqualified self-approval. Accepting who we are is positive ground only if it consists of a clear assessment of both our strengths and weaknesses.
For starters, we need to understand that the unique characteristics that make up our person are not arbitrary, but are deliberately conferred upon us by the Author of our being. They are thereby geared to the work that each of us individually needs to do in our lifetime.
The blend of both positive and negative trait can be, if we are aware and sensitive to them, the substance of both the challenge and achievements of our life. It is thus not at all paradoxical that accepting oneself and trying to change for the better are not contradictory or mutually exclusive paths.
Recognizing a fault can be seen as a summons within oneself to discipline and self-perfection. Getting in touch with one's higher Godly soul provides a reservoir of strength to help one combat their lesser self.
Consider the following scenario:
Debby, a lovely woman in her 40s, sat in my office teary-eyed, as she first recounted the heart wrenching story of abandonment by her ex-husband, followed by the trials and tribulations of trying to adjust to life with her current blended family.
After much painful soul searching, Debby concluded that her strong personality, outspokenness and firm opinions were not always an asset to achieving marital bliss. She realized that if she were to succeed this time around, she would have to work at tempering her tough demeanor with gentleness and tolerance.
Most significantly, she was convinced that while the Almighty had indeed blessed her with formidable intelligence and competence, He had orchestrated the events of her life to draw her attention to the internal work that she still had to do. She felt very strongly that she was being urged and encouraged from Above to access her as-yet-undeveloped traits of humility and patience.
The warts and blemishes that need to be dealt with do not negate the great power of the soul to reach for the stars.
First and foremost, we need to assume ownership of the vast potential that is legitimately ours. The warts, blemishes and demons that need to be dealt with do not diminish or negate the great power of the soul to reach for the stars.
It is important that we distinguish between recognition and resignation. Resignation writes us off and denies the exalted human capacity for growth.
Recognition serves as a point of departure, a reality check, an accurate picture of where we are at this given moment and where we would like to be down the road.
Every human being comes into this world imperfect and deficient, and it is our life's task to repair the void -- the lack in our person -- and thereby move on to "shelaimut," a state of wholeness.
This existential state of imperfection, of a deep sense that something within us is not whole, dare not be interpreted such that it leads to self-deprecation and feelings of inadequacy. Our self-esteem should acknowledge the fact that we are incomplete and we should stand up with all the dignity inherent in our being proclaiming, "I assume responsibility to fill this void and to deal with the shortcomings in my character, by drawing on the majestic endowment given to me by my Creator."
An instructive anecdote is told of a man who came into possession of a large uncultivated field full of weeds and wild growth. He set about the task of weeding, plowing, planting, and persistently tending the field until it bloomed and became a verdant garden of great beauty.
Proud of his hard work, he invited his friends to view his impressive accomplishment. A cleric in the group exclaimed, "What a magnificent garden the Almighty has here."
To which the owner replied, " Oh really? You should have seen it when the Almighty had it to himself."
Similarly, our sages point out that the name "Adam," assigned to the first human being on earth, shares a root with "adama," which means "earth" in Hebrew. According to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsh, the inherent message is that just like the earth, which with the care and investment of time and energy, yields products that are both nourishing and pleasing to the eye, so too does "Adam," the human soul and psyche of man, respond to dedicated input and efforts towards growth.
The hallmark of "Adam" is the capacity to grow and become, to look back at yesterday and see that bit-by-bit, we have progressed. We didn't anger as easily today; we were able to withstand an opportunity to gossip; we ate in a more disciplined fashion; we put a smile on our face for no special reason; we didn't get undone in stressful situations; we interacted cordially with people who are not necessarily our favorites.
These may appear to be small steps, perhaps, and few and far between, but they nevertheless represent positive movement up the mountain of self-growth.
Confronting our flaws is an exercise in humility that should not be confused with unworthiness and self-derogation.
Confronting our flaws is an exercise in humility that should not be confused with unworthiness and self-derogation. Humility is positive, constructive, affirmative and honest. Humility is a product of comparing ourselves exclusively with what we are capable of bringing into our lives. In stark contrast to the despair of self-deprecation, it fills us with joy at the prospect that every moment affords us the opportunity to access a better self.
Concurrently, every step towards realizing the potential that waits to be tapped builds our self-esteem. The journey that leads to lasting self-respect must, of necessity, be a dynamic one, of doing, moving, growing and becoming.
We need to look at the people that we admire and seek to emulate their behavior. We need to observe how they conduct themselves, i.e. how they interact with their Creator, their families and their friends. Our sages exhort that every person should ask himself or herself daily, "When will my deeds approximate those of my ancestors?" It is noteworthy that they do not suggest that we demand of ourselves to be like our ancestors, but rather to do as they did. To be is static. To do is dynamic.
If my goal is to be a scholar, a righteous person, a sage, an accomplished person in any field, I set myself up for ongoing frustration and disappointment. Because every moment that I fall short of that static goal, I am a failure.
But if I wish to do what a scholar does -- to learn, or do what a righteous person does -- good and meritorious deeds, their every act of emulation identifies me as a success. Success breeds success and builds self-esteem.
In a tribute dinner to my husband many years ago, our then nine-year-old son, Yanke, stood up and shared what he thought was the most powerful lesson his father had taught him. Yanke related that he would often come home downhearted, complaining that someone had criticized him. His father's counsel would always be "If the criticism is true then do something about it and if it's not, then ignore it."
The wisdom of that advice applies to you, my dear reader, as well. If the criticism of others is on target, then let it be a call to action. Do something about it. Change does not require an overhaul of one's life. Change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. A small step in the right direction will boost your self-esteem like nothing else. It will make you feel alive and healthy. It will confirm the fact that you are choosing your God-given strength to fill your particular "void" and every acquisition, however modest, will bring you closer to your wholeness.
In the final analysis, just as physically our cells are constantly shedding and regenerating, so too, should we be changing and growing in the spiritual realm. Our character and our knowledge base should ever be increasing. The human condition was never meant to be a fixed status quo.
Human beings are referred to in Jewish sources as "holchim," walking and dynamic, in contrast even to the heavenly angels who are referred to as "omdim," beings that "stand" at a fixed level from the moment of their creation, unable to ascend beyond their station.
Pursuant to this thought, when going on a journey, the proper blessing to the traveler is go "l'shalom," towards peace, and not "b'shalom," in peace. The message conveyed is that as long as we live and breathe we are moving towards peace, wholeness and fulfillment. "In peace," a state of having arrived with no work left to be done, is a departing statement reserved only for the final departure of a deceased person.
If one is on a productive and constructive path, one's self-esteem will not be threatened.
For all of us, change, movement and growth are the marching orders for our lives. And if we are imperfect and limited today, as we all are in one way or another, our self-esteem will come from the fact that we have identified the behavior that we value and are moving, step-by-step, to integrate and incorporate it into our lives.
And for those who criticize the fact that we are not there yet and who think that we are not what we should be, we need to remember the words of Eleanor Roosevelt who said, "Nobody can make me feel inferior without my permission." Indeed, if one is on a productive and constructive path, one's self-esteem will not be threatened.
Quite the contrary, the response that will resonate within your innermost being will be, "I am moving towards wholeness." And that is the best anyone can do.