Beginning in 1978, with my book, Like Yourself and Others Will, Too, I have addressed the problem of unwarranted feelings of low self-esteem in books, articles and lectures. I’ve read much on the subject, but I must sadly admit that I do not know any particularly effective psychotherapeutic approach to this ubiquitous, vexing problem. (By the same token, I do not believe anyone else does either.) Therapy may alleviate some contributing factors, but the basic problem appears to be refractory.
There is a story that before Rabbi Dov Ber, the successor to the Baal Shem Tov, died, his disciples asked him whom they should choose as their Rebbe. Rabbi Dov Ber said, “Visit the various tzaddikim, and ask them for a technique to overcome ga’ava (vanity). Anyone who gives you an effective method, you will know that he is not the right person. Only Hashem can relieve you of ga’avah, and you must pray for His help.”
It is of interest that Rabenu Yonah of Geronda said that the feelings of ga’avah are a desperate attempt by a person to relieve the distress of low self-esteem. By thinking oneself to be superior to others, the baal ga’avah seeks to assuage the pain of feeling unworthy, incapable and undeserving (Rabenu Yonah al haTorah p.156)
The Talmud says, “A person’s yetzer hara renews itself each day and seeks to destroy him, and if not for Hashem’s help, one could not withstand it” (Kedushin 30b). Unaided human efforts are futile.
In what way does the yetzer hara seek to destroy a person? By crushing him and making him feel incompetent, undesirable and unworthy. These feelings are groundless, but a person is convinced they are true. Low self-esteem is not anivus (humility). It is not a virtue because it is sheker (falsehood), and sheker is always destructive.
Psychologists have been unable to explain the phenomenon of the “self-esteem paradox,” wherein people who are more gifted are likely to have a lower self-esteem than less-talented people. If we realize that the unwarranted feelings of inferiority are a delusion wrought by the yetzer hara, this is understandable, because the Talmud says, “The greater one is, the greater is one’s yetzer hara” (Succah 52a). A more gifted person is subject to a much greater negative force.
Shaul Hamelech was a great tzaddik who was profoundly humble, but his humility deteriorated into low self-esteem, and his failure to assert his authority as king was disastrous to the nation. Shmuel Hananvi said to him, “If you are little in your own eyes, I have made you the leader of Israel” (Samuel I 15:17). The Talmud says, “The misguided humility of Rebbe Zacharia was responsible for the destruction of the Temple” (Gittin 56a)
The toxicity of low self-esteem is due precisely to the fact that the feeling is a delusion, and like any other delusion is not subject to logical correction. Low self-esteem may manifest itself in a variety of ways, either as frank negativity or as a defense against negativity.
Rav Shlomo Walbe points out that a feeling of chashivut (worthiness) is essential for Yiddishkeit. Prior to mattan Torah, Hashem told the Israelites, “You will be a nation of priests and a holy people. You will be a treasure unto Me from among all nations.” The Talmud says that a person is obligated to feel, “|The world was created for me, and the Torah was given for me” (Sanhedrin 37a). Causing a person to feel inferior and unworthy is the Satan’s way of undermining Torah.
In articles and videos, I have described my struggle with low self-esteem. My book, Life’s Too Short, in which I describe the more common behaviors incident to low self-esteem, is essentially autobiographical. None of the factors that are generally implicated as causative of low self-esteem were present in my case. My parents were loving and devoted, I was my father’s favorite, and I succeeded in everything I did, yet I often felt inadequate and undesirable.
At this point, I must make an important caveat. The low self-esteem that I am discussing is an attitude that a person has about oneself and about people in one’s environment. It is generally a lifelong attitude, not having a sharp onset at a particular point in time. In my case, I can recall low self-esteem behavior when I was in grade school, and it continued into adult life. This should be distinguished from the low self-esteem that is a symptom of a depressive disorder, which has its onset with the depression and leaves when the depression is successfully treated.
Countless people suffer from the delusion of inferiority, developing a variety of psychological symptoms. While psychotherapy is often helpful, it cannot eradicate the problem completely.
My point in writing about low self-esteem is to alert people that they may be suffering from this delusion, and that in addition to therapy, they should utilize the method of the Chafetz Chaim: intense tefillah. The Talmud says that the only One who can save a person from the crushing force of the yetzer hara is Hashem, and we must seek His help in tefillah.