Distorted Self Image

May 30, 2021

4 min read


Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

“We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes” (Bamidbar, 13:33)

In this unique syntax, the Torah teaches us a psychological principle of the greatest importance: The way you feel about yourself is how you think others perceive you.


Rashi's comment expands upon this concept. The spies said, “We heard the Canaanites say, `Look! There are ants crawling in our vineyards.'” The Torah says that the spies felt as small as grasshoppers, which are still much larger than ants. Furthermore, how could the spies know what the Canaanites were saying? How could they understand their language?

Rashi is teaching us that low self-esteem is progressive and self-reinforcing. If you have a distorted, negative self-concept, it is apt to further deteriorate. You may begin by feeling as small as grasshoppers, but your self-image will shrink and you will eventually think even less of yourself. In addition, you will assume that others are making negative comments about you, even if you are not privy to what they are saying. A distorted, negative self-concept can lead to paranoia.

The Midrash on this verse expounds another important psychological principle.

“God said, `I forgive you for saying, “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes.” But why did you say, “And so we were in their eyes?” How do you know that I did not make you appear to them as mighty angels? For that I do not forgive you'” (Tanchuma).

Why was the second statement a more grievous sin than the first?

Rabbi Henoch Lebovitz explains that a distorted negative self-image is an emotion. I have noted in my books that there is a strange phenomenon. People who are most gifted may have the most profound low self-esteem. Their undeniable, factual achievements seem to make no impact on their self-concept. Whatever the source of low self-esteem, it is an emotion that is not altered by factual reality.

The concept that God is omnipotent is an intellectual belief. The Midrash says that when God told Moses that the Israelites should go into the sea, Nachshon went into the water up to his neck and then the waters divided. It was Nachshon's faith that enabled him to overcome the emotional fear of drowning, and it was this faith that warranted the miracle.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman (Baal HaTanya) says that it is innate within the human being that intellect can triumph over emotion. When we allow our emotions to outweigh our intellect, it is a laxity and dereliction on our part.

The Midrash says that God forgave the spies for having a poor self-concept. That is an emotion which is not easily overcome. Their sin was in failing to exercise their ability to act according to their intellect. Having witnessed the many miracles of the Exodus, they knew intellectually that God could make them appear to the Canaanites as mighty angels. It was not even a lack of faith that was their sin. It was their failure of surrendering to their emotions when they should have followed their intellect (Chidushei HaLev, Bamidbar p. 86).

This is a teaching which we should apply regularly in our lives. As far as our distorted self-concept which depresses our self-esteem is concerned, this is something which we should seek to change by finding ways to elevate our self-esteem. But until we achieve that goal, we should not allow this emotion to determine our behavior. We should be able to act on factual reality.

But how can we know factual reality when our emotions distort our perception? By getting an opinion of ourselves from a reliable objective observer. If we are told that we are good, worthy and competent, we should act accordingly even if we do not feel that way.

Nachshon brought about a miracle by following his intellect rather than his emotion. You can accomplish virtually miraculous things by acting according to intellect rather than emotion.

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