Every year on Yom Kippur, Jews in synagogues all over the world engage in a communal chest-beating during the Vidui, to repent, symbolically, for our collective sins. But what about the sin of being too hard on ourselves? As the High Holy Days approach once again, it seems logical to wonder why it is always so much easier to forgive others than ourselves.
Self-affliction, fasting and other forms of self-sacrifice and abstinence are not particularly Jewish notions. That is why we don’t devote more than one day of the year to acknowledging our sins. Judaism teaches that God is a forgiving God. Much more so, it seems, than we ourselves can be. Since when does anyone need an excuse to beat up on oneself? We are all too familiar with our critical voice — the inner critic who is always willing to offer negative comparisons. Regrets. Should haves and not good enough. The refusal to accept that we are all flawed, imperfect and unique.
I know that I am not alone in my self-flagellation. We are all our own worst enemies. However, it turns out that our mental health may depend on our ability to forgive ourselves. Stanford University has begun research into exploring how forgiveness can enhance health and relationships and even prevent disease. As well as depression. Resentment. You get the idea.
As a therapist, I am so often present for extraordinary compassion among people. In my therapy groups, the clients are unfailingly, unconditionally supportive and unstinting toward one another. But when it comes to their own struggles or small triumphs, they minimize their own progress or condemn themselves in harsh and unforgiving terms.
In “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments,” Harold Kushner writes about biblical figures often consumed by powerful, unsavory, yet all-too-human emotions. In one example, he wonders about Moses’ uncharacteristically unsympathetic behavior toward Aaron when the “strange fire” at the dedication of the Tabernacle consumes Aaron’s two sons.
It may have been that Moses was jealous of Aaron for having sons to carry on his legacy as well as the time to devote to his family, while Moses was consumed by his role to be able to have any time to experience ordinary life. The Bible is full of such descriptions of so-called “bad” emotions. Sibling rivalry. Jealousy. Uncontrollable anger. Sexual exploits. If our patriarchs experienced such varied and stormy emotions and were still forgiven by God, why do we try so hard to avoid or deny them?
When we choose to listen to our critical voice, it allows us to avoid “feeling the feelings.” If we felt that we could tolerate the psychic pain, we may actually find that this would lead to greater expansiveness — the freedom to feel genuine regret, acknowledge our losses and move forward with greater awareness of our limitations.
Instead, it is often more comfortable to stay stuck. If we take the risk to forgive ourselves, the next step would be to move forward in our lives while also becoming aware of the unconscious choices that we have made. It can be easier to isolate or disconnect ourselves from reality than to have to negotiate all of the disappointments and unrealized dreams that arise when we decide to live in the present moment.
Like any discipline, becoming aware of, and changing our thoughts takes constant, mindful practice. And lots of gratitude for what does exist in our lives.
Rabbi Naomi Levy offers a prayer for “When We Are Too Hard on Ourselves” in her book, “Talking to God, Personal Prayers For Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration”: “Teach me how to love myself, God. I am so critical of myself. ... I accept shortcomings in others, but I am so unforgiving of myself. ... Teach me how to enjoy my life. ... Show me how to embrace the person that I am. … Soften my heart. ... Fill me with the capacity to treasure my life. Thank you, God, for creating me as I am.”
Roni Susan Blau, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who treats individuals, couples and groups. Her private practice is located in Santa Monica and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.