Self Esteem Is a Huge Problem Worldwide. It Wasn’t Always. What Happened?

What is it about self esteem? Why is it a problem that plagues all of us, in different doses?

There are many explanations given for our worldwide struggle with self esteem. Some focus on the way we were parented, our early experiences, our internalization of a critical voice, and perhaps genetic predisposition. Many theories and explanations can shed light on our problem. They might all be right.

The question is, what changed? What is it about our generation that makes us suffer from low self esteem so deeply. It seems to be a relatively new problem for humanity to struggle with en masse. Even when Freud helped people tame their superego (his name for the critical voice), he was treating the people that came to him with pathology. It wasn’t acknowledged as, perhaps, the primarily mental health concern of mankind.

Our rich library of beautiful sifrei mussar seem to indicate that this was not always such a prominent issue. Classic works spanning from the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuva to the Shaarei Teshuva, Chovos Halevovos, and Mesilas Yesharim do not directly address the low sense of self that most people have. Although we can extract ideas from those sefarim about how to build and understand ourselves, they do not write about it with broad strokes. If the problem of self esteem was as widespread then as it is now, they would have had whole chapters discussing how to deal with it. Low self esteem is a major impediment to avodas Hashem.

Most of the sifrei mussar focus more on a person combating negative traits and on the duties of his relationship with Hashem. They do not focus as much on how to help one who is extraordinarily self critical, including in avodas Hashem. What do you do if a person does not see himself as someone that Hashem really wants to be involved in His service? How can we help someone – and this probably includes most of us – that repeats Avraham Avinu’s “anochi afar v’efer” not from a place of strength, love and awe of the extreme grandeur of the Divine, but from a place of weakness and feelings of inadequacy, religiously and otherwise?

What changed so drastically over time? What made self esteem rise like oil to the top our conscience and consciousness? My point is not about exploring different movements in yiddishkeit, such as those that focused on simcha, those that emphasized the greatness of man, or about Jewish philosophy altogether. My question is simply historical. What changed to make humanity suffer from low self esteem now in ways perhaps unparalleled in world history?

Our worldwide low self esteem seems to be directly related to one of the great blessings of our society – freedom. We are privileged to have unprecedented financial and social mobility. We are taught that we can do anything we set our dreams on. In many ways, that is true. We can become who we want, and what we want. Many beautiful motivational speeches encourage us to stare down adversity and welcome the fight. Those are powerful and encouraging lessons. There is also a tremendous downside to freedom and dissolution of social classes. We feel that if we do not succeed in our fight, we have no one but ourselves to blame. If we can all tackle all the odds to become like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos – or like some of our neighbors – then the fact that we aren’t points squarely in one direction – to our own faults. We could have done it – but we have not succeeded.

It gets even more complex. We have a self serving reason to maintain our negative thoughts about ourselves. The more we criticize ourselves, the more we can still motivate ourselves to strive higher. It is a double edged sword. We fault ourselves for not maximizing our potential, and then we unconsciously preserve those negative thoughts so that we can propel ourselves to do more. Great freedom brings great responsibility – and low self esteem.

This downside of freedom is exacerbated by the value that contemporary society places on tangible accomplishments, whether they are financial (such as income), societal (such as a a positions of prominence), religious (such as a particular lifestyle or way of doing mitzvos), or economic (such as type of house or a car). Each subculture might have a different emphasis. But it’s all the same idea. What a subculture in B’nai Brak or Lakewood sees as accomplishment might be different than Bergen County or Manhattan…or another part of Lakewood, but the concept is the same. The way we see others see ourselves can always make us feel like we are not good enough. Even if we reach the pinnacle in one area, we won’t get to the top in others. Even if we reach all pinnacles, there is always someone that reached even higher.

I am not sure if society places more value on conspicuous demonstration than it has done in that past. But now we all see it as our fault if we do not obtain those things. They are more accessible than ever before. Our sensitivity to what others have and our focus on externally influenced barometers of success (as opposed to our internal compass) combine with our thinking that we have the ability to do it. If we do not – we fall short. There is a benefit to being hard on ourselves. Our mind tells itself, “keep those negative thoughts around, they will propel you forward.”

When we believe that we can do anything, we fault ourselves and drive ourselves crazy when we are not. That is the perfect recipe for widespread low self esteem.

Perhaps the great sifrei mussar did discuss, including the Mishna in Pirkei Avos. It reminds us that the key to fulfillment is being sameach b’chelko. That is something that we always have the freedom to do.

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