We all know people who struggle with poor self-esteem. They are always down on themselves, unsure if they’re good at anything. They can’t take a compliment.
They always give in to what other people want, even allowing others to take advantage of them. This seems like the opposite of pride, so it must be humility, right?
If it sounds mentally unhealthy, it’s because it is. Self-loathing or self-debasement might look like humility on the surface, but it misses the mark just as much as pride does.
Rav Avraham Isaac Kook contrasted the two this way: “Humility is associated with spiritual perfection. When humility effects depression, it is defective; when it is genuine, it inspires joy, courage, and inner dignity.”
Joy, courage, and inner dignity are hardly the hallmarks of a person with low self-esteem.
I don’t want to diminish what someone suffering from low self-esteem might be going through. The past two years have been especially difficult for many, with social distancing, isolation, and sporadic employment contributing to depression and other mood disorders. However, it is important to distinguish feeling bad about ourselves from genuine humility—the two are worlds apart, and if we can nurture the latter, it can help us deal with the former.
Breaking the Cliché
To be honest, I heard so much about low self-esteem growing up that I sort of checked out on the whole concept. I got tired of hearing about it. It became cliché to hear about it constantly on the news and in public service announcements. But when I started studying musar literature, specifically the power of true humility, I finally found a framework to understand what low self-esteem is all about.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, in his book Life’s Too Short, wrote that low self-esteem can lead to harmful patterns of thought and action. Among them are, of course, the usual suspects of stress, depression, and anxiety. However, a person’s fear of rejection and failure can also lead to counterintuitive results such as narcissism, demands for recognition, and even a fear of success and happiness. A person with low self-esteem is hypersensitive to criticism—one of several characteristics they paradoxically share with the proud.
People who are constantly seeking validation are still focused on themselves. They may not share the grandiose self-image of the truly proud, but their attention is still in the wrong place. By constantly worrying about how others perceive them, they use up the mental and emotional energy they could otherwise use to reach, uplift, and encourage others.
Again, depression is a serious condition. If you’re trapped in the vicious cycle of a mood disorder, blaming yourself may only contribute to your downward spiral. I encourage anyone in this situation to seek professional help.
Some of the best help you could get—from any therapist or psychologist who is up to date on the scientific literature—would be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a set of practical tools to help you change what you think about from moment to moment to help you shift your focus from your endless flood of bad feelings to a more productive and helpful thought or action. As your actions change, your thoughts change; as your thoughts change, your feelings change.
The rabbis of ages past knew this principle well, and musar literature teaches that the antidote to self-loathing is not an altered focus on ourselves but a shifting of focus to HaShem’s desires and how we can be of service to others. This habit of acting on constructive thoughts makes a difference in the world.
The Meaning of Middot
Musar gives us methods to build our middot. In this context, it is translated as “character traits,” but the word middot literally means “measurements.” Every character trait needs to be expressed in its proper measure—not too much, not too little. If we veer too far toward either extreme, we miss the mark.
Alan Morinis, a modern proponent of musar, explains that humility exists on a continuum: At one end is arrogance, and at the other end is self-debasement. Humility is in the middle. A humble person doesn’t think worse or better of themselves than they actually are. Rather, a genuinely humble person knows exactly who they are.
From a place of true humility, we can take our eyes off ourselves and put the needs and the honor of others ahead of our own. Once we are confident in our identity as sons and daughters of God, flawed but faithful followers of Yeshua, we begin to realize everything we have to give to those around us.
This confidence doesn’t flow from narcissism; it flows from the humble realization that God has placed us here for a reason. While part of this mission is to repair ourselves, our ultimate mission is to repair the world. Disciples who know who they are and are confident in their identity as servants of God can undertake the kingdom mission without being overly focused on their own importance—whether they are tempted to underestimate or overestimate their own value.
The Meaning of Musar
Musar is the study and practical application of the ethical underpinnings of the Torah. It focuses on correcting one’s internal condition and relationship with God. The word musar is usually translated as “instruction” or “discipline.” This stream of Torah learning derives its name from the beginning of the book of Proverbs. The second verse of the Proverbs introduces the purpose of Solomon’s teaching—“to know wisdom and instruction [musar].” Solomon says the one who scorns musar is a fool. He exhorts us to heed the musar of our father and the torah of our mother.
Over centuries musar literature developed into an entire genre. Everything from medieval works such as Chovot Halevavot [Duties of the Heart] to writings born out of the musar revival movement that began in the nineteenth century are still studied today. Contemporary writers like Alan Morinis, in his book Everyday Holiness, have made these teachings even more accessible.
Musar often derives a list of specific character traits or other desirable qualities and analyzes them in depth. It discusses practical ways to acquire these traits and avoid the obstacles that prevent inner transformation. These character traits are referred to as middot, which means “measurements.” With careful study, reflection, and active practice, one can ascertain how much of these qualities he or she possesses and work to attain the proper measurement of each.
The focus on serving God with proper intention and ethical behavior is at the core of the message of the biblical prophets calling the nation of Israel to repentance. This same call to repentance, to change from the inside, to cultivate qualities such as humility, compassion, honesty, modesty, and faith in God, are the very heartbeat of our Master Yeshua’s teaching and the antidote for the exile he saw on the horizon.