May 18, 2024
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Teshuvah: A Mental Health Perspective

With the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) fast approaching, we’re entering into a period during which the focus is on personal reflection and introspection. For those of us who are religious, great importance is placed on doing teshuvah (repentance) for the wrongdoings we’ve committed. This is a journey that, by necessity, is a personal one; it’s up to every one of us to consider what we’ve done wrong and to seek forgiveness.

There have been countless very insightful rabbinic teachings on the importance of teshuvah and how to do it. I’d like to offer a brief mental health perspective.

It may be tempting to think that more and more and more is better when it comes to doing teshuvah. While this may be true, the risk with thinking this way for some people is that they might start to confuse “quantity” with “quality.”

Quantity, of course, refers to how much time we spend doing teshuvah, seeking forgiveness and committing ourselves to turning over a new leaf. Assuming one doesn’t neglect the basic necessities in life and one’s important responsibilities, there isn’t anything unhealthy about doing more teshuvah. On the contrary, it certainly seems laudable from a religious and spiritual standpoint.

Some of us, however, may become overly self-critical and berate ourselves as being horribly bad people for our wrongdoings. In this case, the quality of our teshuvah changes and the focus shifts from our bad actions to our “bad self.” In other words, we vilify the self rather than the behavior.

Implicitly, we know this is unhealthy. How often do educators and child psychologists talk about the importance of teaching our children that they are good people even if they behave in a bad manner? What happens if we don’t distinguish between the two for the child and, instead, we put down the child and give the message that the child is a bad person? His self-esteem plummets and he is at greater risk for becoming emotionally maladjusted. And, importantly, there is a good chance he’ll continue acting out in destructive ways in the future. The logic goes, “If I’m a bad person, I might as well act the way I’m expected to act.”

Just as with children, it’s unhealthy for adults to think of themselves as bad people for all the reasons just stated, including one very important reason that applies to adults and isn’t too often seen in children (at least not in young children). When we get too down on ourselves we can become emotionally stuck in our self-criticism and we can’t pull ourselves out of the mire of self-flagellation. When this happens, we lose sight of our goal (self-improvement) and we stop working to achieve it.

People who struggle with significant depression often experience this phenomenon. They know what it’s like to be caught in never-ending self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-recrimination. This is one of the reasons why treatment for depression often includes something called “behavioral activation.” This exercise gets the depressed person to step outside their emotional anguish, to expand their awareness away from themselves (which they may perceive as terribly flawed), and to do something enjoyable or positive.

Teshuvah isn’t about thinking we’re worthless and useless as human beings. Sure, we talk about being “dust of the earth,” but we’re also created b’tzelem Elokim (in God’s image). It’s important for us to develop a sense of humility and to understand who we are in relation to God, but it’s also important to acknowledge that within each and every one of us lies something wonderful and good.

We all have great potential, but the only way we’re going to realize that potential is if we believe in ourselves. When we condemn our behavior while believing in ourselves as good people capable of doing good, we’re able to remain objective and clear-thinking. As a result, we’re more likely to try to do better because we believe we’re capable of it.

So, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur nigh upon us, may we all be successful in our teshuvah and may we all merit another year, one that is full of good health, much happiness, and great success.

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.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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