Do you remember that girl in your class who was really pretty, whose hair was always perfect? Did you compare yourself to her and feel ugly? How about the girl who always had a witty response? Did being around her make you feel as if you were just so dull? Do you still find yourself thinking like that? Does your super-clean sister-in-law make you feel like an incompetent housekeeper or your stay-at-home neighbor make you feel like an incompetent mother? Do you ever feel that you are boring, that you always mess things up, that you’re not so smart or talented or just a complete failure?
Guess what? You are normal. Probably many of the people you think are better than you look at others and also feel inferior in some way. It’s almost as if this is a mandatory qualification for being a woman.
I know a tenth grader who is on top of her class academically. She has a wonderful personality and lots of friends, and her middos are extolled by many of her teachers. Yet when I asked her why a teen who has everything going for her would have low self-esteem, she looked at me as if I was crazy and answered, “Isn’t it obvious why?”
Low self-esteem doesn’t stay behind in a classroom. If it isn’t worked on, it follows us straight into the workforce, marriage and motherhood. But no matter our stage in life, it’s never too late to work on improving the way we feel about ourselves.
In פרקי אבות, פרק ב: משנה ו, it says, “.ולא הבישן לומד” What does this mean? One can’t learn because of embarrassment? Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes that if a person has a question in learning but won’t ask because he feels that he should know it, or he must not be smart because no one else has this question, then he loses out on very important learning opportunities. How can a person learn if he always feels embarrassed? This is not a good embarrassment, nor is it humbleness. It comes from feeling bad about one’s self and the repercussions are not positive.
With these kinds of feelings it is hard to achieve anything. How can you accomplish if you always feel that if your ideas had merit someone else would have come up with them or that you’re just not capable of carrying them out? Nowhere in the Torah does it say that you should feel incompetent or unqualified. And as the Mishnah says, your shame will stop you from understanding, learning and accomplishing.
There is one kind of embarrassment that is praiseworthy. This comes from anivus, true humbleness, like Moshe Rabbeinu displayed. We all know that Moshe Rabbeinu was an ענו מכל אדם. Yet, Moshe was the leader of Klal Yisrael. He knew his strengths and used them for עבודת השם.
We are all mirrors reflecting tiny pieces of Hashem’s various middos. Therefore, we must be careful to acknowledge when a talent exists within us. It is not egotistical to know that you are a great organizer, a wonderful listener, a talented party planner or a very patient, loving mother. Rather, realize that you are a reflection of Hashem’s attributes. When we can acknowledge that the strengths we have are from Hashem and we are ready to use them for our own growth or for the sake of those around us, then we are acting in a G-dly way. This is a positive kind of “embarrassment.”
So let’s say you are the typical mother and wife fighting those nasty voices in your head telling you that you aren’t good, that you are inferior to others. You don’t know how to handle this child’s issue. You aren’t sure that you are showing enough support to your husband. And maybe in general you are doing something wrong because your children almost never show responsibility. What are practical applications to help you like yourself?
You can know that like every living person, you are perfectly imperfect. Your flaws were given to you by Hashem, Who wrapped them all up together in a box for your life’s journey. (You can imagine what color your box is, the size of the box and whether it has a bow or not.)
Accept your limitations – they are from Hashem. But don’t become complacent about them. Work on them with Hashem. Ask Him to help you make changes to turn your negatives into positives. And don’t forget to recognize your strengths. Find them. Remind yourself every day about the qualities that are specific to you.
Talk back to your negative voices. You can tell them, “Listen here, Voice, I know you are trying to making me feel bad about my flaws. But guess what? Everyone has flaws. I also have strengths. That’s what I am trying to focus on. So you can keep telling me that I am not good enough, but I will keep telling you about all my strong points.”
Consider the following quote: “It’s not what you are that is holding you back, but rather, what you think you are not.”
Learn what you are so that you can use your kochos fully.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.