From a sense of self to success in life

If you diligently work on the steps in Ten Steps to Being Your Best, you can arrive at a more correct self-awareness and boost your self-esteem.

Moses Shows the Elders the Tablets of the Law by Marc Chagall, 1966 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Moses Shows the Elders the Tablets of the Law by Marc Chagall, 1966
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

It goes without saying if you have negative feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, unlikability and worthlessness, you must get out of that rut in order to assert yourself. To put it simply, if you have those negative feelings, you have no “self” to assert. Essentially, you are what other people want you to be. If you make yourself into a doormat, you can expect that others will wipe their feet on you.
Your first job is to become a “self.” If you were beaten down in your childhood, you should try to climb out of your “victimhood.” If you feel that your parents were belittling, you need not develop resentments against them. Most parents love their children dearly but some simply do not have the best parenting skills. Your parents were once children and their attitude was formed by the way they were raised and by circumstances they experienced. You should love them and, of course, the Torah requires that you honor and respect them.
In my case, I developed negative-self feelings in spite of the fact that I had wonderful, loving parents. In my book, Angels Don’t Leave Footprints, I explain why a person may develop low self- esteem even with ideal parenting. I believe this to be the work of the yetzer hara (evil inclination), of which the Talmud says its goal is to crush a person. (Kiddushin 30b) The point is that if you have negative-self feelings you should get help to overcome them and feel positive about yourself.
As I pointed out, assertiveness means “I have a right to my opinion and I have a right to express it.” Of course, a person may be in error and should be open to constructive criticism. Ironically, a person with low self-esteem is often resistant to criticism.
When Korah accused Moshe Rabeinu (Moses) of having ga’avah (pride) and taking the leadership for himself, the Torah states Moshe “fell on his face” in prayer, and then rebuked Korah. One of the commentaries says that Moshe’s first reaction was to reflect, “Maybe this is a message min hashamayim (from God). Maybe I do have ga’avah.” He fell on his face to do a thorough soul-searching and only when he felt he was free of self-interest did he rebuke Korah.
If Moses was willing to listen to criticism, we should certainly be. “I have a right to my opinion” does not mean “My opinion is right.” We should listen to the opinions of others and weigh them carefully. We may have to consult someone for advice.
Ultimately, a person chooses what is most comfortable for himself. Strangely, “victimhood” can be comfortable in a way. “Poor me!” Some people seem to enjoy a pity party. Furthermore, if they can feel themselves to be a victim it absolves them from all responsibility to do anything about themselves. Again, you have a right to do so, but be aware of what you are doing. You don’t have to be a victim if you don’t want to. Weigh the positives and negatives, consult with someone, then decide.
If you haven’t been an assertive person, don’t expect to change in one day. Habits take a while to change, but you can change, slowly and gradually. Remember, other people have their rights, and you have yours. Other people have a right to their opinion, and you have a right to yours.
Because unwarranted feelings of inadequacy and inferiority are often at the root of non-assertiveness, you must work on improving your self-esteem. Remember, most of the reasons people have low self-esteem is because they have an erroneous self-concept that needs to be corrected. If you diligently work on the steps in Ten Steps to Being Your Best, you can arrive at a more correct self-awareness and boost your self-esteem.
Keeping a journal is extremely important. Record the incidents where you should have been more assertive. For example, you were standing in line at the checkout and someone pushes himself ahead of you and you decide it isn’t worthwhile to make a fuss over it. Write it down. Or, at a family affair, Uncle Martin, who is a braggart, says about your father, “I was the one who put Elliot into business.” You know that wasn’t true. You didn’t want to call Uncle Martin a liar publicly but you could have called him aside and said, “Uncle, please don’t say that. You know it’s not true,” but you said nothing. Later you thought, “I should not have let him get away with it.” Write it down.
Here’s the first step. Sit back in an easy chair in a quiet room and relax for a few moments. Take a few deep breaths. Now put your imagination to use. Recreate the scene. When the person pushes himself ahead, you say (loud enough so the people in line can hear you), “Sorry, sir. I respect your turn, so please respect mine,” and place yourself ahead of him. Or, recreate the scene at the family affair, and see yourself calling Uncle Martin aside, and saying, “Uncle, please don’t say that. You know it’s not true.” Repeat these imaginary scenes several times.
Even though it was only in your imagination, you’ll find that you feel better about yourself.
Keep recording things and imagining how you could have reacted. Do it enough times until you feel comfortable with it.
Some people say that they cannot conjure up such scenes. That’s OK. Some people do not have visual imagery. It is sufficient to think about the incident, and think about how you could have reacted assertively. Repeating this exercise a number of times will make it easier for you to assert yourself in reality.
It is important that you are relaxed for this exercise, because that’s when the thinking or visualization can have impact. Don’t forget to write in your journal both the incident and also how you reacted in your imagined scene or thought.
Acting out the scene can also be helpful. Remember Uncle Martin, who boasted that he had set up your father in business, which was a lie, and you said nothing? Get someone, your spouse or a friend to role play for you. Have him or her be Uncle Martin, and say what he said, and you can respond differently. Go through this act several times.
If you keep a journal faithfully recording the incidents in which you were not assertive, you will have plenty of material for taking corrective action in your relaxation exercises or in the role playing.
Give yourself enough time to practice how you would assert yourself. If you have been non-assertive for years, don’t expect three weeks of practice to reverse your reactions. It may take months, and it will also depend on how frequently you practice the exercises or role playing.
After much practice, try it out in reality. If you’ve been assertive in reality, congratulate yourself. This is starting you on a new and constructive lifestyle. If you aren’t able to assert yourself, don’t fret and don’t feel disappointed. It just means that you need more practice.
Don’t make your first try a heavy challenge, like with your boss. Take on something easier at the beginning. Like any change, it takes time and effort. Eventually you will succeed. ■
The writer is a scion of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty and a psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse, who lives in Jerusalem, and is the author of 87 books, the latest being Growing Up (Menucha Publishers, 2019)