How we handle stress is due in large part to how healthy our sense of self is. We contend that a healthy life requires the belief that life has meaning. Therapy can help uncover this meaning by allowing you to explore and discuss this in a safe environment.
Therapy means managing symptoms, finding root causes and/or addressing behavioral issues, developing insights into oneself and one’s life, and so on, but if someone truly believes life has no inherent meaning, that nothing matters, therapy will have failed. Without finding meaning in life it is difficult (though perhaps not impossible–the research simply has been done) to develop some of the key indicators of a healthy sense of self.
Someone with a healthy sense of self exhibits:
- A balanced blend of humility and confidence
- Respect for others as well as self-respect
- Awareness of one’s own strengths—and acknowledgment of one’s weaknesses
- Resolve to accept what can’t be changed—with ourselves, others, and the world— as well as a dedication to improving oneself.
This is a tall order and no one is perfect. But it is essential that we all try to work on this balance if we are to have healthy relationships and a sense of meaning in our lives—two key factors in helping us cope with inevitable stress.
This is summed up nicely in our tradition. A wise teacher (Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa; 1765-1827) said everyone should have two pockets, each one containing a slip of paper. On the first slip should be written, “I am but dust and ashes”, and on the other, “The world was created for me.”
One of the failures of Western culture, especially some aspects of American culture, is that it encourages the belief in “the world was created for me” without also encouraging the belief that we aren’t immortal or perfect (that is, without belief in the corresponding, “I am but dust and ashes” concept).
There are a few weaknesses of the extreme adherence to what can be called the “self-esteem movement.” For example, success (of various kinds), is worshiped and failure is almost always re-labeled “success.” Also, one is taught to love and rely on self above all others—“trust your gut instincts,” “follow your heart,” “honor your feelings,” and so on.
But what if your instincts are simply inaccurate or off-base? What if your heart leads you to indulge in unhealthy desires? What if your feelings demand that you hurt or negate others or focus on self to the exclusion of all else?
A total adherence to putting self first creates unrealistic expectations. If one’s expectations are constantly disappointed, it leads to dissonance between the self and the outside reality, or in simpler terms, between “I” and life. If I am so great, how come I…got sick? Failed to get into the college of my choice? Can’t sustain a relationship? Work hard but still can’t afford to take a vacation or buy a house?
There are very few options left. You can make peace with the fact that you aren’t perfect and that not everything is within your power to change or you can blame the outside world and make yourself out to be a victim, the opposite of what the “self-esteem movement” started out to do in the first place.
In order not breed a sense of entitlement, a healthy sense of self must necessarily be balanced with three key factors some or all of which can be found in many of the world’s religious traditions:
- Humility—the kind that combines a realistic sense of one’s own importance and a respect for others’ importance
- Belief— in a higher power than ourselves which leads us to temper self-reliance with a balanced view of our own importance.
- Control—A realization that we can’t control everything that happens to us but that we can control our responses and take control of ourselves. And yes, this is easier said than done!
By achieving a realistic, healthy sense of who we are and our place in the world, by accepting that what we want isn’t always what we get, and by strengthening our relationships with others, we assist ourselves in our own recovery. Therapy can have a role to play in this. By seeking meaning and by honestly exploring what we believe, we enrich our lives.