Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski

My Own Struggle with Low Self-Esteem

(In addition to reading the essay below, you can Listen to / watch Rabbi Dr. Twerski talk more about his struggle)

People often ask me, "Is it true that you've written over fifty books? How did you find time, with your busy schedule to write so many books?" I tell them that I did not really write fifty books. I wrote one book, in fifty different ways.

Almost everything I write relates in one way or another to the theme of self-esteem. I define self-esteem as a true and accurate awareness of one's skills, capabilities and limitations. The importance of this should be obvious. A person can adjust optimally to reality only to the degree that one's perception of reality is correct. An incorrect perception of reality is a delusion, and someone who is delusional cannot possibly adjust properly to reality. For example, if a person who does not have a cent to his name but because he has the delusion that he is a millionaire buys expensive cars, clothes and jewelry, he is going to get into serious trouble. Or, if a person who does not know how to drive takes a job as a truck driver, he will soon be in trouble.

I am an important part of my reality, indeed, the most important part. If I am delusional about myself, there is no way I can live a happy and productive life. If I happen to be bright but think that I am dull, if I am personable but think myself to be undesirable, if I am handsome and think myself to be homely, I am delusional, and my distorted self-concept precludes an optimal adjustment to life. Indeed, I believe that the overwhelming number of psychological problems that are not of physiologic origin are invariably due to low self-esteem, i.e., to a distorted self-concept in which a person grossly underestimates oneself.

The feelings of inadequacy and unlikeability are very painful, and the unconscious mind exercises a number of maneuvers to shield a person from this pain. These maneuvers can result in suboptimal behavior and a variety of symptoms. I described some of these in Life's Too Short.

I emphasize the problem of low self-esteem because I was a victim of this condition, but had no idea that this was so, just as any delusional person has no idea that one's perceptions of reality are incorrect. In retrospect, I did many things to protect my fragile self-esteem, things that were costly to myself and my family.

I first became aware that I had a self-esteem problem at age thirty-eight. For three years, I had been director of a huge, 300 bed psychiatric facility with a very busy emergency room. If a nurse could not reach an attending doctor, I was called. Every other night I was on call to the emergency room. On a good night, I was awoken only five times; on a bad night, ten or more times.

I had a vacation coming, and was desirous of getting away from an impossibly hectic situation. I sought a vacation spot that would allow me to do nothing other than vegetate. I wanted no sightseeing or activities. I finally decided on Hot Springs, Arkansas, which promised to allow me total rest.

The industry of Hot Springs is horse-racing, which begins in mid-February. I reached Hot Springs in December, when there was nothing doing in town. Most of the stores were boarded up. It was the vacation spot I had hoped for.

Having had low-back pain for years, I thought I would take advantage of the mineral-water baths, which were touted as producing miraculous results. I was taken into a tiny cubicle, and an attendant gave me two glasses of hot mineral water which was naturally heated deep in the earth. Then I was put into a tub of these magic waters, and the whirlpool was turned on.

I felt I was in Paradise! No one could reach me—no patient, no nurse, no doctor, no family member, no social worker, no probation officer—I was beyond reach. And in this paradisical situation, I was bathing in nature's own hot-water. Who could ask for more?

After about five minutes, I got up and said to the attendant, "That was wonderful! Just what I'd been hoping for."

The attendant said, "Where are you going, sir?" I said, "Wherever the next part of the treatment is." The attendant said, "First you must stay in the whirlpool for 25 minutes."

I returned to the bath, and after five minutes I said, "Look, I have to get out of here." The attendant said, "As you wish, but you cannot go on with the rest of the treatment."

I did not wish to forego the treatment, so I returned to the tub for 15 minutes of purgatory. The hands on the clock on the wall did not seem to be moving.

Later that day, I realized that I had a rude awakening. I had taken three years of constant stress without difficulty, but I could not take ten minutes of Paradise! Something was wrong.

On return home I consulted a psychologist. He pointed out that if you asked people how they relaxed, one would say, "I read a good book," or "I listen to music," or "I do needlework," or "I play golf." Everyone tells you what they do to relax. However, relaxation is an absence of effort. One does not do anything to relax. What most people describe as relaxation is actually diversion. You divert you attention to the book, needlework or golf ball.

Diversions are perfectly OK, but they are actually escapist techniques. Work and diversion are fairly healthy techniques. Unfortunately, some people escape into alcohol, drugs, food or gambling.

In the cubicle at Hot Springs, I had no diversions: nothing to read, nothing to look at, nothing to listen to, no one to talk to, nothing to do. In absence of all diversions, I was left in immediate contact with myself. I could not remain there long because I didn't like the person I was with!

Why are people using a variety of escapist maneuvers? What is it that they seek to escape? Very often it is from themselves. If, as was the case with me, they have an erroneous self-concept, they cannot stand being with themselves.

People assume that low self-esteem is caused by parental neglect, abuse, comparison to other siblings, illness or failures. None of these applied to me. I had loving parents and a nanny who thought I was G-d's gift to the world. I was a chess prodigy, and achieved excellence in school that enabled me to graduate high school at 16. There was simply no logical reason for me to feel inferior, yet I suffered from low self-esteem and was not aware of it until the incident at Hot Springs.

What may be the cause or causes of low self-esteem, the symptoms that result from it and what one can do to overcome it are discussed in my books Let Us Make Man, Life's Too Short, Angels Don't Leave Footprints and Ten Steps to Being Your Best.

You may say, "I know myself thoroughly, and I know that I am unlikable or dull or unattractive or impersonal. Those are facts, and it's not my imagination."

That's the way I felt even after being a psychiatrist for several years. If you find that you have any of the traits I discussed in Life's Too Short, you are suffering unnecessarily from low self-esteem. Do whatever it takes to get over this.

Listen to / watch Rabbi Dr. Twerski talk more about his struggle

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