June 11, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

If You Look Hard Enough for Your Shortcomings, You Will Surely Find Them

In the young Orthodox Jewish community, a significant mental health issue is bubbling up from just below the surface. Its roots lie in the recent past. Many grandparents who immigrated from Europe came to the U.S. near penniless. They and their children had nowhere to go but up. Many proved so successful that it became hard for their children to match their successes. We can’t just be “regular” people with “regular” jobs. I have observed socially and during sessions that a common threshold for success individuals hold is related to how successful their parents are/were. Ideally, we need to be more successful than our parents, just as in generations past, our parents were commonly more successful than their parents. Since this pattern of striving has continued for so long, keeping this standard locked in place makes the one-upmanship increasingly tougher for the younger generations.

Failure to meet our own inflated expectations can lead to low self-esteem, a place commonly based on cognitive distortions resulting from misinterpreting reality. Four such distortions are quite common:

One distortion is black-and-white thinking: David generally sees himself and/or interprets his surroundings in an extreme way, for example “I am wonderful” or “I am terrible.” However, the grey area is reality. David is neither always wonderful, nor always terrible and has to tolerate being somewhere in the middle: “I am okay even though I make mistakes.” A second distortion is called mind-reading: David is convinced that he knows what others think about him, even if he doesn’t have facts backing this up: “I know that Sarah thinks I am pathetic.” In reality, David has little proof of what Sarah actually thinks. Even if there was a negative interaction, there is little evidence that Sarah’s view of David is 100% negative. A third distortion is called magnification and minimization: David minimizes the positive interactions he had with Sarah, interactions where Sarah would likely have developed positive judgments about him. David, in turn, magnifies the negative interactions. A fourth distortion refers to emotional reasoning, which occurs when David is emotionally overwhelmed and then tends to reason based off of his emotions: “If I feel bad, I must be bad.”

The individuals who have low self-esteem generally wear magnifying glasses that are designed to enlarge their self-identified flaws. Their mind sees the nightmare version of themselves playing over and over again on a 120-inch screen. Such people scrutinize themselves in very detailed ways, and devote endless time doing so (especially while trying to sleep). These people then compare themselves to others, but without replicating the same kind of investigative work that they conduct internally. Since they can only superficially examine others’ flaws, and since they have a flaw-based mentality, they usually magnify their own weaknesses. They also look for strengths in others, and so their viewpoint that they are worse off than others remains consistent across various situations and settings.

Here’s one important way out of these self-defeating attitudes: While you should revel in the achievements of your parents and peers, you should also examine your own strengths. Search and you shall find. Acknowledging your strengths and how you live according to your own values is critical to combatting the negative judgments you make about yourself and the invidious comparisons you make with others. It may be helpful to ask yourself these questions: What are my achievements, skills and talents? What are the challenges I have faced? What do other people value in me? Which qualities that I appreciate in others do I possess? Which negative qualities do I not have? How would a person who cares about me describe me? Try and acknowledge positive characteristics as they play out in real time. If you consistently engage in this self-reflective activity, you may realize that while you and your parents do share DNA, comparing yourself to them is akin to comparing apples and oranges. The comparisons you make are mostly meaningless and unscientific and you don’t take into consideration the different times, upbringings, types of challenges faced etc. You may just wind up with a more balanced view of your grandparents and parents, as well as your peers and yourself.

Samantha Schulman, PsyD, NCSP, is a licensed psychologist and former school psychologist specializing in both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and practices in Wyckoff, New Jersey. [email protected].

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