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Getting self-esteem right

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Admittedly written to encourage Jews to become fully Torah observant, in his book Let us make man, however, noted psychiatrist and rabbi Abraham Twerski speaks to everyone. In his many years of psychiatric practice he has observed that if we exclude those emotional disorders that are primarily of biochemical origin, a substantial majority of emotional or behavioural problems are due to one common underlying factor: an unjustified and unwarranted feeling of low self-esteem.

“There are many, many people who believe themselves to be much less capable and competent than they are in reality, and it is this mistaken self-concept that produces a myriad of problems.”

Let us make man is one of four books that Dr Twerski has written on the subject of the role of low self-esteem in mental health and illness. Like Yourself and Others Will, Self-discovery in Recovery and Generation to Generation, all address this topic. Fortunate we are that Dr Twerski is a prolific author. As Jewish Press columnist Arnold Fine sums it up in his blurb on the back cover: “This is one of the most common sense volumes I have ever read…really a guide to the perplexed generation of today…this positive approach to life and his down-to-earth suggestions are real and vital…This book is a must.”

Founder and medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Centre, a leading treatment centre for persons with alcohol or chemical dependency problems, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, as well as a Torah scholar, Dr Twerski says Torah teaches us how extremely cautious we must be to not overstep the very fine dividing line between anivus (humility) and self-depreciation. While Ethics of the Fathers (4:4) teaches us to “Be very, very humble”, the Bible proper teaches us to “Distance yourself from falsehood” (Exodus 23.7).

“What I have termed as a negative self-image is not a feeling of anivus, but rather a feeling resulting from a distorted self-perception, wherein the person is in denial of his positive assets and sees himself as being much less than he is in reality. The negative self-image is not humility but a delusion, a false perception.” Self-esteem and humility are complementary rather than mutually exclusive, he goes on to say.

At the other extreme is gahva (pronounced as in “diver”) or vanity, which is singled out as a great abomination. “While we should appreciate the inestimable value of our souls and should not have a negative self-image, we should not resort to the obnoxious defense of gahva. Both are unacceptable heresies which G-d does not countenance,” he says.

In his chapter on Self-Esteem and Stress he says there is a type of adjustment consequent to the negative self-image which may at first glance appear to be constructive, but is really no exception to the rule that any behaviour based upon a distortion of reality is likely to be destructive. “I am referring to people who try to escape their low self-esteem by doing things which prove to themselves and to others that they are indeed worthwhile people.”

In this regard, it is important to distinguish between people who are high-achievers and people who are over-achievers. High-achievers are those with abundant talents who are driven to action by healthy ambition. Over-achievers are quite different. “These are usually negative self-image people who feel poorly about themselves even though they are abundantly qualified. While their communities may indeed benefit from their achievements, over-achievers are motivated because they are never satisfied with what they have accomplished.

“Driven by the ever-present need to compensate for their negative self-perception, they rarely enjoy a sense of accomplishment for what they have done, and most often find it impossible to relax. Thus, the negative self-image plays a major role in stress conditions. This is an extremely important point, because many of the diseases that are disabling or lethal are to some degree stress related…Overcoming the perceptual distortion that leads of a negative self-image is thus vital to physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.”

self esteem2 resizeDr Twerski tells us that throughout history man has engaged in various searches. He has searched for ways to improve his environment. He has searched for ways to increase his productivity. He has searched for ways to overcome disease. In a more sublime attitude, man has searched for G-d.

“The Rebbe of Kotsk once confronted a young man who come to his court. “Why have you come here?” he asked.

“I have come to find G-d,” the young man replied.

“Too bad you wasted your time and money,” the Rebbe said. “G-d is everywhere. You could have found him just as well had you remained at home.”

“Then for what purpose should I have come?” the young man asked.

“To find yourself,” the Rebbe answered. “To find yourself”.

Dr Twerski explains, of everything in the world, man is closest to himself, yet is most distant from himself. This remoteness results in distortion of the self-perception, and such distortion may cause further alienation from the self, resulting in a self-reinforcing vicious cycle.

“This book endeavours to bring one closer to true self-awareness, and to positive self-esteem, which should result from self-awareness. It does not promise to remove the distresses of life, nor to provide an escape therefrom into some transcendental state.

“Rather, it tries to elaborate on some of the psychological insights inherent in the Torah, and how living a profound Torah life can strengthen one’s personality and help maximise one’s potential. Indeed, maximising one’s potential is an extension of the work of creation, and the bringing to fruition of the Divine statement, “Let us make man” (Genesis1:26).


Book Review: Let us make man. Self-esteem through Jewishness

Author: Abraham J. Twerski

Available: Kollel Bookshop, Glenhazel, Johannesburg


Alison Goldberg is the former property editor of Business Day (1985) and the Financial Mail (1991-99). In 1995 she won the Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year Award. She has edited such titles as National Constructor and The Miner in Australia and has freelanced for The Star, The South African Jewish Report and The Jerusalem Post.

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