A friend of mine who is a Health At Every Size advocate recently posted this to her blog: “I cannot state how strongly I disagree with the idea that we can hate our bodies into health.”
I think this applies equally to our souls – we cannot hate our souls into righteousness. Yet how many of us follow practices that are equivalent to trying to do just that? How many of us, when we make a mistake, spend a disproportionate amount of time berating ourselves for the mistake? How often do you find yourself saying “I’m such a sinner, I’m so bad, I’m so evil, I’m so wrong, I’m so stupid, I’m an idiot”?
If you’re like me, probably you do this a lot. In fact, one of the things that attracts me so much to Judaism is that it has set procedures for dealing with this kind of pain – procedures that are meaningful. You made a mistake? Do what you can to correct it and make amends to those you harmed by the mistake. And then you let it go and move on.
One thing that we often forget, though, is that this includes ourselves. When we make a mistake and we’re the only one affected by it, too many of us then beat ourselves up for some period of time for having made it. To me, this is trying to hate our souls into righteousness. It’s a form of lashon hara.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in The Book of Jewish Values, makes this the topic of Day 321 (p. 441-442): “Don’t speak lashon hara about yourself.” This is one of those values that, for me, is very difficult to follow. I was raised by a perfectionist to be a perfectionist, and I was always told that nothing less than perfection was acceptable. (This is what happens when you have a parent with a personality disorder.) As a result, I tend to beat myself up. A lot. For example, I tend to think that once I’ve made a mistake, it’s irreconcilable and irretrievable – that because I made a mistake, others will always think less of me and will always remember it. I believe that I am “not enough” in a hundred different ways. I tend to think I’m unworthy of people’s time, attention, and love – even my own. I was even raised to believe that this was the right thing to do, because without constant reminders of how bad I am, how can I ever improve? I am my own sharpest and most merciless critic. So I’m certainly guilty of performing lashon hara against myself.
But Telushkin points out that that’s just as wrong as beating someone else up with words:
While it is good to be humble […], being modest does not mean denying one’s virtues or disparaging oneself. The Torah verse that explicitly commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) implicitly commands us to love ourselves. And just as you would not wish to hear others speaking ill of someone whom you love, so too should you not speak ill of someone you are supposed to love: yourself.
As his example in this day’s lesson, Telushkin tells about a rabbi who was corrected by someone else for speaking negatively about himself. When the corrector found out who the rabbi was, he tried to apologize, but the rabbi said “You have no reason to request forgiveness […] On the contrary, I learned from you an important lesson. For decades, I’ve been teaching people not to speak lashon hara about others. Now I’ve learned that it’s also wrong to speak lashon hara about yourself” (Telushkin, p. 441).
Telushkin’s point is valid, certainly. But for many people, the idea of loving the self is difficult. In many sects of Christianity, the self is considered a sinful thing by definition. Moray Allan, while an MA student in Theology and Religious Studies at Cambridge, begins an essay on this topic by saying “Christianity has often been understood as demanding not self-knowledge, but self-abandonment. The self has been understood as necessarily imperfect, so corrupt that it is worthless: in seeking Christ Christians may abandon themselves, condemning the self and attempting to discard its influence. They may feel that it is impossible both to express the individual self and to emulate Christ”.* So this idea that we should love the self, and ourselves, is sometimes a difficult lesson to learn, especially in a heavily Christian-influenced society where the self is viewed as sinful by definition.
Allan goes on to cite Augustine’s view that even when we have a positive view of the self, the self should come second to G-d. Augustine feels, according to Allan: “[H]is very identity is subsumed in G-d, for he cannot achieve anything independently”.
Both of these views, to me, seem to set us up for failure. On the one hand, the self is so vile we must reject it; on the other, the self is not really important enough to matter in the long run. In both cases, I think this sets us up to continually speak lashon hara against the self.
This brings me back to Dr. Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, again. Brown has experience with trying to abuse herself into perfection; indeed, it is the basis of her life work. Brown said that what originally attracted her to social work research on shame was the idea that if you can measure it, you can control it and put it in a box. As she says in one of her speeches,** “There are people who say “Life’s messy. Love it.” And I’m more like “Life’s messy. Clean it up, organize it, and put it into a bento box.” When she discovered that people who could “roll with” shame and get through it were people who were the opposite of her, it devastated her, because those were generally the people who said “Life’s messy. Love it.” The acts of cleaning up the messy, organizing it, and putting into a bento box came with a huge helping of shame and self-abuse. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown describes it like this:
“I thought I’d find that Wholehearted people were just like me and doing all of the same things I was doing: working hard, following the rules, doing it until I got it right, always trying to know myself better, raising my kids exactly by the books…” (Brown, Kindle Location 89/2245)
In doing these things, Brown found herself automatically blaming and shaming herself for not living up to the standards set by the rules and by the books. She found herself saying things like “When I’m good enough/thin enough/smart enough” to justify why she denied herself things that were pleasurable. Over the next year-plus, she went into therapy to deal with the reasons she felt she had to be perfect. Then, over a six-year period, she wrote three books on the topic of shame and perfectionism – how damaging shame is, how impossible perfection is, and how the combination of the two can wreck our ability to be kind to ourselves or to anyone else.
Since the first and most important Jewish value is to be kind, I think that this is kind of important for Jews (whether JBB or JBC) to learn about. Telushkin’s statement that we must not practice lashon hara against anyone, including ourselves, is revelatory.
How do you practice lashon hara against yourself? What do you plan to do today to stop doing that?
I wish you Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll be back on Sunday morning.
*Allan’s full essay can be found here: http://jcsu.jesus.cam.ac.uk/~mma29/essays/speakingself/
** Brown’s speech can be found here: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability#t-146506