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What Is the Jewish Perspective on True Compassion and Self-Esteem?

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

A friend recently shared an article with me from The Atlantic called “Why Self-Compassion Works Better Than Self-Esteem.” Psychologist professor Kristin Neff explains that self-esteem itself isn’t an issue, but how most people go about attaining it is. In America, she says, self-esteem is usually built on comparisons to other people, which she argues inflates our egos and makes us narcissistic. In addition, most people pin their self-worth on externals like physical appearance, wealth, social status, and career success. The problem is, externals are fleeting, and so if one or more of these factors changes, our self-esteem may lower considerably.

Instead, for a more sustainable sense of self-worth, Neff advocates for self-compassion, which she defines as “treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion as you would treat those you care about- your good friends, your loved ones.”  A key part of self-compassion, she says, is to address our own suffering by recognizing that everyone makes mistakes and it’s ok because we are human and thus imperfect.

My friend wanted to know, what is the Jewish perspective on self-compassion and self-esteem?

I base most of the following answer on the book, Stages of Spiritual Growth, by Batya Gallant. Drawing on Torah sources, Gallant explains that self-compassion is not any one act, but “an attitude of treating all of our needs and desires with compassion and respect.”[1] However, unlike the common definition of self-compassion, which is to love yourself unconditionally, the Torah concept of self-compassion is one that includes both unconditional and conditional love.

Self-nurture that is based only on conditional love is destructive because we feel that we need to constantly prove our worth. Yet self-nurture based only on unconditional love is just as destructive because “it does not take into account the deep human need to be valued for our accomplishments.”[2] The Torah approach to self-compassion combines both elements: “We must nurture ourselves unconditionally, but earn our own self-respect through achievement.”[3]

Our unconditional love stems from the idea that on the deepest level, we are a soul, which is part of G-d. “A Jew who is aware of his neshama (soul) and appreciates its inestimable value should not have a negative self-image…”[4] Our conditional love comes from exercising our free will correctly, which includes serving G-d, refining our character, and using our G-d given gifts in a positive way. These efforts may or may not be recognized externally, but they are still achievements.

The interplay of unconditional and conditional self-love mirrors Hashem’s love of the Jewish people.[5] We believe that Hashem loves the Jewish people unconditionally, as we have an eternal covenant with Him, yet He also provides conditions on our relationship, which are the mitzvot.

Gallant cites one of the leading Rabbis of the last generation, the Chazon Ish, who explains that “the correction of one’s character does not negative self-love.”[6] Just like we need the physical input of food and the physical output of exercise to be healthy, we need both ingestion and exercise in the other areas of our lives: intellectual and spiritual. Otherwise, our self-nurture is not complete. This explains why some spiritually sensitive people feel an existential emptiness despite the spirituality they consume; their souls also yearn for spiritual exercise, through character refinement and serving G-d.[7]

The Chazon Ish says, “love yourself and acquire honor and respect, but know where your true happiness in this world stems from, and what your true source of honor is…”[8] True honor, he says, lies in humility. (One resorts to false pride and vanity as a result of low self-esteem).[9] True happiness, he says, lies in liberating ourselves from our natural tendencies and elevating ourselves through serving G-d, learning Torah, and keeping His mitzvot.

Gallant takes the definition self-compassion a step further, by emphasizing the two main components of true compassion. One, in order to show true compassion to someone, we must understand the perspective and needs of the other person. This is fairly straightforward. However, the second component is less intuitive. Gallant insists that in order to treat others with proper compassion, we must be able to acknowledge our own negative emotions and character traits. In direct opposition to the definition of self-compassion in The Atlantic, we cannot base our self-compassion on how we treat those closest to us, because if we treat ourselves unkindly, we cannot treat others with true compassion!

This is perhaps the greatest lesson I have gotten from Gallant’s book: To properly have compassion for someone feeling negative emotions, to “sit” with their emotions, we need to be able to sit with our own. If we are threatened by our own emotional pain and run from painful feelings, we will not be able to share in another’s pain in any sort of meaningful way. As she says, “When I am feeling pain, I want the companionship of a person who has patience and tolerance for painful feelings, rather than the companionship of someone who feels threatened by unhappiness.”[10]

Like the Atlantic article encourages, to acknowledge our “shadow” or undesirable side (for instance, that part of us that gets angry or jealous) allows us to identify with the human condition of imperfection. This enables us to be more compassionate to others. However, the appropriate response to human imperfection when it comes to ourselves is not simply, “It’s ok.” Rather, we must acknowledge our negative traits or emotions and love ourselves despite them (unconditional love) yet also work on improving our negative traits or addressing negative emotions in a constructive way (conditional love).  The Torah provides many tools for refining our character traits and redirecting our negative emotions. The entire “Mussar movement” in Judaism is focused on this holy task! (For instance, see my article on turning complaints into gratitude).

By working on our self-compassion, which includes both unconditional and conditional love, we can exercise true compassion for others, and we will build a sustainable sense of self-esteem.

[1] Stages of Spiritual Growth: Resolving the Tension Between Self-expression and Submission to Divine Will, by Batya Gallant, p. 21. To prioritize self-nurture does not mean we need to fulfill or indulge every desire we have. “If one approaches self-care with the attitude that it is important to nurture oneself in order to sustain spiritual growth, then one will make constructive and morally correct choices of how and when to indulge.” Id.

[2] Id. at 23.

[3] Id. at 24. (citing R. Tzadok Hakohen, Pri Tzaddik (Lublin: 1922), Pesach 34, and The Chazon Ish, Faith and Trust, p. 194-196.)

[4] Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Let Us Make Man: Self Esteem Through Jewishness, p. 21.

[5] Stages of Spiritual Growth, by Batya Gallant, p. 24 (citing R. Tzadok Hakohen).

[6] The Chazon Ish, Faith and Trust, p. 196.

[7] Stages of Spiritual Growth, by Batya Gallant, p. 20 (footnote 18, citing The Chazon Ish, Faith and Trust, p. 194-196.)

[8] Id.

[9] Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Let Us Make Man: Self Esteem Through Jewishness, p. 22.

[10] Id. at 41.

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