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The Choice of Self-esteem

June 4, 2015 | by Dr. David Lieberman

Our constant struggle between reality and denial.

An endless stream of decisions flows through our lives from the beginning until the end, but not all choices are created equal. Whether we wiggle our right finger or left finger, or pick a red blanket over a blue one, is a matter of preference. It is a choice, yes, but without moral significance. Regardless of the outcome, we will neither beam with pride nor experience pangs of shame.

Of course, life is filled with hard choices that have real consequences, and as we know, making the right choice is not always easy or comfortable. Self-esteem helps. It stimulates the desire to invest in ourselves and provides the energy for self-discipline, pushing us toward responsible behavior. Moreover, each and every time we rise above our nature, we bolster this key ingredient to psychological and spiritual health.

To the extent that we do not love ourselves, though, our willingness to endure short-term pain for a long-term gain wanes. Who wants to put in effort – enduring heartache and hardship – for someone whom they do not even like?

This mindset is understandable but quite problematic. When we shirk our obligations and shun new opportunities, we lose more than we might expect. Findings show that the tendency to avoid the pain inherent in taking responsibility is the primary basis of all mental illness and is central to nearly every emotional issue, including anxiety, depression, and addiction.

This is how it happens:

Live Or Let Die

Within all of us exist three inner forces that are often at odds with one another: the soul, the ego, and the body. In short, the soul seeks to do what is right; the ego wants to be right and see itself in the optimal light; and the body just wants to escape from it all.

Doing what is comfortable or enjoyable is a body drive. Examples of indulgences of this force are overeating or oversleeping – in effect, doing something merely because of how it feels. An ego drive can run the gamut from making a joke at someone else’s expense to making a lavish purchase that’s beyond our means. When the ego reigns, we are drawn not to what is good, but to what makes us look good.

The ego is drawn not to what is good, but to what looks good.

Over time, these choices erode our self-esteem, because when we succumb to immediate gratification or live to protect and project an image, we become angry with ourselves and ultimately feel empty inside. (This means that a single egregious act can infect our belief system, and the unwillingness to face the resultant guilt or shame may stain our entire worldview.)

When we do not like who we are, we punish ourselves with activities that are disguised as pleasurable: excessive eating, alcohol or drug abuse, and meaningless diversions and excursions. We long to love ourselves, but instead we lose ourselves. Unable to invest in our own well-being, we substitute illusions for love. These ethereal delights mask our self-contempt, and since the comfort sought is rewarded instead by greater pain, we descend further into despair.

As our behavior becomes increasingly reckless and irresponsible, the ego swells to compensate for feelings of guilt and shame. Our perspective narrows, and we see more of the self and less of the world. This makes us ever more sensitive and unstable.

Perspective = Mental Health

The clearer our perspective, the more reality we allow in, and the more objective and rational are our attitudes, thoughts and behaviors. As the ego grows, the seedlings of emotional instability take root because any distortion of our true self produces a misrepresentation of the world; and if our grasp of reality is flawed, then our adjustment to life will suffer. (To the degree that we cannot accept our imperfections and limitations, we shift fault elsewhere. In other words: If there is nothing wrong with me, then there must be something wrong with you. In order for us to remain unblemished, we are forced to distort the world around us.)

When a person loses his sanity – the ability to see, accept, and respond to his world – he has lost all perspective.

The Talmud states that Adam HaRishon (“Adam, the first man”) could see from one end of the world to the other. Before eating of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam had no yetzer hara (“ego”). This entity was represented by the serpent and was external to Adam. So his perception was unfettered.

The yetzer hara entered only when Adam ate of the tree and became alert to the difference between good and evil, which shifted his perspective. Man’s awareness was reduced from the objective world of “truth and falsehood” to the subjective view of “good and bad.” After the sin, human beings would forever see their world through the cloudy lens of “I.”

Emotional instability is, fundamentally, a lack of moral clarity – the degree to which the ego infects us. To this extent, we are all somewhat sick. At whatever point we have clarity that a given behavior is wrong, bechirah (“free will”) emerges, and it becomes a genuine choice. That is, to choose good over evil. To the degree that we fall short, we are all… well… somewhat evil.

Roots of Unhappiness

On a conscious level we cannot easily admit to ourselves that we are selfish or lazy, much less a failure or flawed. The ego is thus equipped with an elaborate array of defense mechanisms to thwart the harshness of reality. As these defenses emerge, instability, which can be seen as the chasm between the truth and our ability to accept it, develops.

Defense mechanisms are categorized based on how they affect an individual’s functioning:

  • Level III: Neurotic defenses – e.g. intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression, rationalizing. These neurotic mechanisms are fairly common and cause greater challenges for those who default to them regularly.

  • Level II: Immature defenses – e.g. fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out. These mechanisms temporarily lessen distress and anxiety provoked by an uncomfortable situation and, with constant engagement, lead to serious problems in a person’s ability to develop genuine coping strategies with minimal distortion of the facts.

  • Level I: Pathological defenses – e.g. psychotic denial, delusional projection. These mechanisms are severely pathological and effectively recreate external experiences to do away with the need to cope with reality.

We airbrush reality, producing the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.

Our ego colors the world, so that we are not tarnished. Before we airbrush reality, however, a collision occurs in the unaccessed caverns of the unconscious, between truth and falsehood – producing the psychological phenomenon cognitive dissonance: the feeling of uncomfortable tension and stress that comes from holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. From a Torah standpoint, cognitive dissonance is the by-product of tension between the yetzer tov (“soul”) and yetzer hara (“ego”) – a choice to either accept reality or reduce dissonance by any of the above-mentioned mechanisms. The most common of these are (a) avoidance, (b) denial, or (c) justification.

Smoking offers a classic illustration of cognitive dissonance. The smoker may acknowledge that cigarettes cause a wide range of negative health effects, but he probably also desires to be healthy. The tension produced by these inconsistent ideas can be reduced by:

  1. not thinking about it
  2. disputing or denying the evidence
  3. justifying one’s smoking (“A bus could come and hit me tomorrow,” “I need to smoke, or I’d gain too much weight”); or
  4. accepting the truth, and taking steps to quit.

Physiologically speaking, research shows that “reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when we are confronted with dissonant information; and the emotion circuits of the brain light up unreservedly when consonance is restored.” Similarly, our Sages say, “There is no happiness like the resolution of doubt,” which is why the ego seizes any opportunity to reconcile the internal conflict. The following anecdote from “The Path of Least Resistance” typifies this process, particularly when our self-image is on the line.

There was a man who woke one day convinced that he was a zombie. When he told his wife he was a zombie, she tried to talk him out of this outrageous opinion.

"You are not a zombie!" she said.

"I am a zombie," he answered.

"What makes you think you are a zombie?" she asked rhetorically.

"Don't you think zombies know they are zombies?" he answered with great sincerity.

His wife realized she was not getting anywhere, so she called his mother and told her what was going on. His mother tried to help.

"I'm your mother. Wouldn't I know if I gave birth to a zombie?"

"You didn't," he explained. "I became a zombie later."

"I didn't raise my son to be a zombie, or especially to think he is a zombie," his mother pleaded.

"Nonetheless, I am a zombie," he said, unmoved by his mother's appeal to his identity and sense of guilt.

Later that day his wife called [a psychiatrist].

The wife was given an emergency appointment, and within the hour the husband was in the psychiatrist's office.

"So, you think you are a zombie?" the psychiatrist asked.

"I know I am a zombie," the man said.

"Tell me, do zombies bleed?" the psychiatrist asked.

"Of course not," said the man. "Zombies are the living dead. They don't bleed." The man was a little annoyed at the psychiatrist's patronizing question.

"Well, watch this," said the psychiatrist as he picked up a pin. He took the man's finger and made a tiny pinprick. The man looked at his finger with great amazement and said nothing for three or four minutes.

"What do you know," the man finally said, "zombies do bleed!"

Slave for Approval

The length to which people will go to avoid facing the truth is nothing short of staggering and, as we noted above, denying reality does not come without a price.

Exhausted and on edge, our ego edits our world to ensure that we leave in nothing that will hurt us or reveal us, either to ourselves or to others. Preoccupied with potential threats to our self-image, we are on guard 24/7.

We hide behind a carefully crafted façade, and the identity that we build to shield ourselves soon becomes a shell that encases us. Over time, we fall into a hellish gap of unrealized potential, our true self weakens, and our inside grows hollow. We no longer live for ourselves. We exist only to protect our image. This includes all the games we play and the masks we wear to provide the rest of the world with what we believe is the right persona.

We may not even realize how much of our attitude and behavior – indeed, our very identity – is self-styled to avoid self-reflection, to compensate for self-hatred, and to project an image that betrays neither.

Someone who craves approval will enslave himself to those who flatter him.

In the exchange, we lose ourselves, contorting to the images demanded by others to win their praise. The great mussar leader Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv writes, “If you observe people carefully you will see that someone who loves the approval of others will, as it were, sell himself as a slave to those who flatter him. He will not even realize what is happening to him, however obvious it may be to an outside observer.”

Unsurprisingly, we are never truly satiated. When we do not love ourselves, we cannot give love and we cannot feel loved. Even when the supply is plentiful, with adulation beyond measure, we experience a different reality – an endless flow of tainted love. Ultimately, we remain empty inside.

Imagine pouring water into a cup that has no bottom. As someone pours in the water, the cup feels and looks full. As long as the cup is constantly being filled, we are content. But the minute someone stops filling it (with undivided attention, respect or adoration), the cup quickly becomes empty, and we are left as thirsty as ever. A shattered cup will never be full, and our thirst can never be quenched, no matter how much we receive.

Herein lies the basis for many failed relationships. When we lack self-esteem, we push away the very people we so desperately want in our lives – because we cannot fathom why anyone would love someone who is so unlovable. And whatever affection or kindness forces its way through to us is hardly embraced. Such overtures do not serve to comfort, but to confuse.

To compound matters, the less self-control we have the more desperate we are to manipulate the events and people around us, especially those closest to us – either overtly or passive-aggressively. Since self-control leads to self-respect, we need to feel as if we are in control of someone, something, anything, to gain a sense of traction. Low self-esteem can thus trigger a powerful unconscious desire to usurp authority, to overstep bounds, and to mistreat those who care about us.

Free Will Works

When we do not like ourselves, we suffer. Our relationships suffer. Everyone suffers.

Excerpted from Dr. Lieberman’s newest book, “How Free Will Works,” available at Jewish bookstores everywhere and at and To receive a free “eBook sampler” with six full chapters, email

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