April 19, 2024
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Sefirat HaOmer: An Analogy for Self-Improvement

Having just celebrated Lag B’Omer, we find ourselves inching closer to the culmination of Sefirat HaOmer (counting of the Omer). The seven weeks that comprise Sefirat HaOmer connect the exodus from Egypt to receiving the Torah at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai). In other words, these two events (the exodus and receiving the Torah) are not isolated events, but are bookend events, if you will, that are very much related to one another.

While in Egypt, the Jewish people had been conditioned, in mind as well as body, to be slaves to human masters. When we left Egypt, we were emancipated from bondage. However, even though we were physically free from slavery, we were not completely spiritually and psychologically free. And so, we were not yet ready to receive the Torah. We required a period of time to transform ourselves and that is what the seven weeks of the Omer were; it was a period of time which allowed us to improve and refine ourselves so that we were ultimately ready to dedicate ourselves to God at Har Sinai. So, one of the things we learn from Sefirat HaOmer is the importance of self-improvement and this, I believe, is a timeless concept.

People often ask me if I think everyone should be in psychotherapy. The truth is, not everyone “needs” psychotherapy, but I do think everyone could benefit from it or, more to the point, everyone could benefit from self-improvement, which is really what psychotherapy is all about.

When do we need psychotherapy? We should start to consider psychotherapy for ourselves when we have an emotional problem that is bad enough that it’s impacting our life in significant ways for a long period of time. But, what if this isn’t the case? What if we get sad from time to time, but it clears up pretty quickly? What if when we feel anxious, we’re still able to function pretty well? So, perhaps we don’t need psychotherapy, but does that mean we can’t benefit from self-improvement?

Thankfully, when we talk about improving ourselves in the year 2016 (5776), we no longer are referring to literally freeing ourselves from slavery. But, in a less literal way, we are often slaves to our own emotional un-health. Whether we’re talking about eating too much junk food, not being productive enough at work, feeling anxious, struggling with an eating disorder or drug addiction, or repeating a pattern of unhealthy relationships with others, we are, in a way, slaves to ourselves.

When I say “ourselves,” I’m referring to the way we think, feel, and behave. As part of human nature, we tend to develop “ways of doing things” that stay with us and that play out the same way time and again. Why does this happen? Why do we keep repeating the same patterns in our life? Why do we encounter the same problems with our spouse, child or friends? In our career, why do we encounter the same challenges regardless of whom we work for? When it comes to addiction, why do we struggle with staying sober regardless of how many times we’ve tried?

It’s because we keep thinking the same negative, unhealthy way. We have the same attitude, we think of ourselves and others in the same way, and we use the same unhelpful coping skills that we’ve always used. So, the outcome is always the same. Perhaps we typically react defensively whenever our boss gives us constructive criticism because we feel threatened and powerless. Maybe we’re often quick to yell at our spouse when they don’t do something they’re supposed to do because we feel disappointed and betrayed by them.

In order to break these patterns, we need to change how we think about ourselves and others, we need to change how we act and behave. In short, we need to improve ourselves.

I had one client who came to me for therapy because she was struggling with longstanding anxiety and it was affecting her at work and at home. She often avoided getting things done at the office and had become increasingly nervous and worried in her personal life too. She knew she wanted the anxiety to stop, but didn’t know what was causing it or how to make it go away.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

As is the case with anxiety, this client came to realize during her therapy that she had unhealthy thoughts and beliefs that contributed to, and sustained, her anxiety. For example, she avoided taking on new and challenging projects at work because she had a paralyzing fear of failure. If she volunteered to spearhead a new project, she believed it would have to be 100 percent successful; anything less than that would be a catastrophe and she would be a complete failure!

Eventually, my client was able to understand that her expectations were unrealistic. Her conclusion that less than 100 percent success would be a catastrophe and that she would be a complete failure were inconsistent with reality. Once she realized and accepted this, and she changed her thinking to be more realistic, my client felt an incredible sense of freedom from her own thoughts and beliefs. She was able to take chances and feel confident that even if she wasn’t 100 percent successful, things would be OK. She would be OK.

This is the power of self-improvement. It frees us from our self-imposed slavery. When we improve how we think, feel and behave, we’re able to do more and better than we’ve ever done before. We’re able to accomplish things we denied ourselves in the past. Just like the Jewish people during the seven weeks leading up to receiving the Torah, we’re able lift ourselves up and reach our potential!

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710 or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

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