There are people that suffer terribly from self-hatred. Many even can hear or imagine an inner voice tormenting and criticizing them. For some, there are words that go along with the self hatred, even full sentences ring in their head such as:
“You're a loser!”
“You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“You are unlovable”
“Hashem hates you”
“You don't deserve to ________ (fill in the blank “
What is the origin of such inner critical voices, and what can a person do about it?
Although belief in reward and punishment is one of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, it is still psychologically suspicious when a person is overwhelmed with fear of divine retribution of doom instead of balancing such fear with a sense of love and guidance from Hashem. Hashem, like any good parent, wants what is best for His children, and while there are times in life where we can feel the threat of Divine wrath, there is something unhealthy if we cannot feel the Divine love. Children misbehave all the time, and we may even lose our temper for brief periods of time, but normal parents are quick to reassure the child, especially after a punishment. If a person is not feeling that love in his or her relationship with Hashem, then something is out of balance.
Healthy and Unhealthy Guilt
The best indicator of whether your guilt is healthy or not comes by evaluating if you are ultimately growing and improving, or not. The person who makes excuses for his behavior does not grow, but neither does the person who is paralyzed and depressed by his guilt. It is unnatural for a person to stay at the same level. If that is happening, there is either too little guilt or too much guilt. If you are not able to see yourself objectively, then it is time to talk it over with someone whom you trust so you can get out of your rut and take steps to enrich your life.
Depression and Being Overly Harsh on Oneself
There are some people whose feelings of melancholy are so strong that they feel utterly hopeless and unable to accomplish anything. Individuals who are suffering from severe depression may have difficulty getting up in the morning, davening, learning or performing other mitzvos. Depression was considered an illness equal to any other illness by our sages. It was not considered laziness or malingering (see for example, Chapter 5 of the Rambam’s Shemonah Perakim where he discusses cures for mara shechorah, a medieval Jewish term for depression). Even though in general, the Rambam cautions against frivolity and indulgence, in order to cure depression he encouraged listening to music, taking strolls and gazing at beautiful artwork.
The Steipler Gaon ZT'L spoke of the spiritual danger of excessive and unreasonable stringency in a letter and advised the following:
"If a person worries about more than is written in Shulchan Aruch, he deludes himself into thinking he is dedicated to the Torah and a zealot. However, in truth he is breaking the fences of the Torah. It is the tactics of the evil inclination to make observance a burden until it eventually, G-d forbid, pushes him to completely shirk the yoke of the Torah. It is known and we have seen many such instances, G-d should have mercy. Surely, whatever is not a problem in accordance with Torah law, one must not pay any further attention to. A person who is subject to such irrational and nervous thoughts regarding Torah behavior, must put aside his own concerns and only act under the guidance of whatever a Torah sage permits, without trying to investigate the reasons why he has issued a particular ruling...If he does not follow this advice, he is in danger of...completely falling from Torah observance." (Eitzos Vehadrachos Meyosad Al Michtavei Maran Baal HaKehilas Yaakov, p. 54. Translation from the Hebrew is ours.)”
Guilt Versus Shame
One way to define the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is regret for having done something bad, while shame is feeling that you ARE bad. Of course, this is a major distinction as the Torah requires authentic guilt as one of the steps of repentance. However, guilt and regret is not the same as crushing self-hatred and shame.
Additionally, even though one may certainly find mussar writings that speak of extreme shame and even self-punishment to expiate sin, it is questionable whether such an approach is helpful in our generation. It is worth noting, the halacha has recognized that over centuries, even the biological realities and makeup of humans are subject to variation and change. (See for example, Magen Avraham, OH, 179:8.) Certainly then, it is a reasonable conjecture that our cultural, social, and emotional realities are also subject to variation from previous generations. Therefore, even if we find prior poskim and mussar authorities who indicate one should seek stringencies, one should consider that this may not always be a helpful attitude for today's times. As one small example, For example, while it is virtually unheard of to fast for more than 25 hours today, there were minhagim to fast for two days consecutively – on the 9th of Av and the 10th of Av (Baer Heytev, Shulchan Aruch, O.H. 558:3) Apparently, we consider ourselves too morally and physically weak to live up to this standard, which when you think about it, is bewildering since we are probably the most well-fed and nutritiously rich generation in the history of the world. Yet, emotionally, we are too weak to fast for more than one day.
Tzidkas Hatzaddik’s Extraordinary View on Sin
Chazal declare: "Teshuva is so powerful that it can turn sins into merits." (Yoma 86b) It is one thing to be forgiven, but how can we accept that the very sinful deeds one has committed morph into good deeds? Putting it bluntly, a murderer might be contrite enough to achieve forgiveness, which in and of itself is a tall order, but how could the act of murder be turned into a mitzvah?
Tzidkas Hatzaddik (40 and 43) suggests a radical approach, which frankly, can be misunderstood in dangerous ways: His position is that although one must make every effort to resist sin, and even at the time of what feels to be a temptation that cannot be overcome, he must struggle valiantly to resist. Nevertheless, ex-post facto, it is quite possible that he was facing an urge that was beyond his ability to manage.
While one can never use this as an excuse to duck out of resisting sin, since one must always try his best, Tzidkas Hatzaddik posits that indeed it is possible to be presented with a compulsion to sin that cannot be managed, and effectively be considered an oness (a person under force and not liable). He goes further to deduce that in those cases, since the person cannot resist it must effectively be G-d's will, and then for all intents and purposes, a mitzvah! According to this almost reductio ad absurdium tautological analysis, in hindsight, the only thing that was actually sinful was that the person's intent was for self-gratification instead of carrying out G-d's will. Therefore, Rav Tzaddok suggests, when one does full and sincere penitence, he restores this final step and aligns himself with G-d's will, turning all his acts into mitzvos. Clearly, this is a radical position and can easily lead to rationalizing sin and also make morality seem precariously relative, however it also is comforting and redeeming.
When a child experiences parenting that is overly critical and harsh, he or she may internalize that parent’s critical voice as a psychological defense mechanism. While at first it may seem bizarre that a person who was abused would internalize the qualities of the abuser instead of rejecting him, there are psychoanalytic and instinctive factors that support this and explain why this is internally logical, though perhaps externally maladaptive. From an instinctual basis, it is not unreasonable to assume that there is a degree of hard-wire imprinting, whereby the brain is primed to record parental values, attitudes and morals. Such an instinct would ensure an overall efficient and healthy assimilation of a family and tribe’s social values, allowing for continuity and cohesiveness. Like all instincts, they work generally quite well, but in specific circumstances can lead to failure. Consider the basic trauma response. If a person experiences a dangerous or damaging situation, the body and mind record the incident in a much more forceful manner that routine information. That is how a child learns how to keep away from a hot stove rather quickly. Even the momentary pain of the heat is enough to create a strong aversion, let alone if G-d forbid, a child was burned. Therefore, certain phobic reactions and fears may be a product of an original trauma. For example, one might become afraid of driving after having been in a car accident. Thus, a child who is exposed to harsh and critical attitudes, may by virtue of the the generally helpful instinct to incorporate and emulate his family and community, unfortunately incorporate a hateful and self-critical voice. The good news is, that similar to research in Trauma, even long-standing neural networks can be rewired through specific kinds of therapy, such EMDR among others.
The psychodynamic reason why a person may internalize a harsh parental voice is that he or she may come to rely on this voice for constructive purposes. That is, the person may have come to believe that the only way to be motivated or to keep on the straight and narrow is by internally cracking the whip, as it was done for so long externally. Additionally, other psychodynamic defenses may also support the subjective value of an internally harsh and critical voice, such as a wish to bolster a sense of self by adopting the beliefs and values of the oppressor. In other words, much as long term hostages become brainwashed and start to adopt the beliefs of their captors as was famously played out in the 70’s with the Patty Hearst kidnapping, a child who is raised in a harsh and critical environment will internalize this critical voice, ironically as an unconscious way of maintaining a semblance of control and mastery. Another deeper psychodynamic defense may be an internalized defense against rage. The young child who is being abused may feel homicidal rage toward his abusive parents, but then be frightened of this impulse and repress it by developing an opposite reaction. Even as an adult, and long after the abuse is no longer a real threat, the person may still have a vestigial reaction to suppress the rage by siding with the enemy, as it were, and internalize the self-torment. There is a kind of therapy called IFS (Internal Family Systems), founded by Dr. Richard Schwartz, which has a particularly creative and helpful ways to learn how to neutralize and redirect harsh internal critics. Those more interested in learning about this modality can learn about it from the website: www.selfleadership.org.
We can't give you a full IFS treatment in a column, but to give you a taste of what it might be like try the following exercise:
Imagine a face and personality to attach to this harsh internal critical voice . Instead of fighting with it, imagine engaging it/him/her in an adult dialogue. Ask it to tell you more about itself, why it does what it does, how it feels about you, and get into a discussion with it. Sounds crazy, right? Talking to yourself ? Consider this: you've been hearing his voice in your head for a long time anyway, so instead of fighting with it, perhaps you'd like to negotiate with it and find out a little more about what it wants and also tell it a little bit more about you.
Shame Caused From Perversion
There are individuals that may feel a deep shame because of a compulsive, sexual, addictive or even perverse behavior that they do. They think to themselves, “If only people knew what I really did, then they would despise me.”
Such behaviors roughly fit four possible categories:
Seriously Illegal and immoral behaviors such as pedophilia via pornography, actual abuse, voyeurism, exhibitionism.
Moderately illegal and Immoral behaviors such as inappropriately predatory and seductive behavior, and inappropriate subtle physical contact with persons who are unwilling participants such as brushing up against them etc
Bizzare behaviors such as extreme or degrading fetishes and compulsive, Internet or other addictions,and secretive behavior that is not in accordance with expectations of family / marriage obligations and community
Subjectively shameful behaviors due to cultural or religious standards though not particularly immoral or illegal.
For individuals that fit categories one and two, who truly feel ashamed and despair, listen closely and we aren't going to sugarcoat it : You have committed illegal and immoral behavior. You probably have hurt some individuals terribly, and if you have not been caught yet, your family, your career and your community are in terrible danger. Number one, you must stop what you are doing. It is almost impossible to do so without help. Do not get inexperienced help. You will need a therapist who is specifically trained in your disorder, a competent attorney to protect your legal rights, likely a good twelve step fellowship and sponsorship, and if you care about what happens to your soul a rabbi who can advise and work with you on how to make moral restitution. Yes, this will be emotionally and financially costly. However, it will be cheaper than waiting for all this to blow up in your face. No matter how bad it is, (and you aren't imagining it -- it is bad), continuing down your path will be worse. It takes courage but as long as you are alive there is a chance to make meaningful changes in your life and repair some of the damage.
For individuals in category three, it is important to keep perspective. You may feel ashamed of your behaviors and troubled that you cannot control or manage your compulsions. Shame is not particularly useful in your situation as it hasn't helped you stop, and in truth what you do is your private business so you might as well forget what others think. However, if you truly want to stop for your own sake, consider getting counseling help and or joining a twelve step fellowship. Keep in mind, some people and compulsive / addictive behaviors do well with twelve step work, others with therapy, many with both, and hardly anyone can spontaneously recover without outside assistance.
If you belong to the fourth category, the most important principle is to accept your need. Accepting your need doesn't mean that you agree that it is within the accepted standards of your community and family, however there is no reason for you to feel immoral or shamed. People often have different needs and wishes, and even if those wishes or desires may be at odds with a person’s family or community standards, that does not make it shameful or immoral. Excessive shame clouds and paralyzes thinking. It is important to accept and understand your personal needs as they are without repressing them or beating yourself up. Once you do that, you can rationally decide how important this need is to you. Perhaps you are willing to refrain from it in order to feel more connected to your family and community or perhaps you need your spouse / family / community to accept you as you are. Often when a need is not acknowledged it becomes irrationally obsessive and powerful, but when it is accepted it loses its power. This reminiscent of the prophetic story in Gemara Succah (52a): “In the future the wicked and the righteous will see the evil inclination (for what it was) and cry. To the wicked, it will appear as thin as a small hair and they will cry tears regretting that they succumbed. To the righteous it will appear as a huge mountain and they will cry tears of relief and disbelief that they were able to surmount it.” While this evocative and cryptic Gemara is open to many interpretations, we believe one idea it is trying to express is that temptation is highly subjective, and grows or shrinks based on the person’s mindset.