Jewish World Review August 8, 2002 / 30 Menachem-Av 5762

Self-blinding perceptions destroy spiritual growth

By Dr. Abraham Twerski, M.D. | People who feel good about themselves do not need to be constantly reminded how good they are. It is only when one is tormented by feelings of worthlessness that one seeks to escape from them by constantly being reassured that others do respect and value him.

It is ironic that psychology has applied the term "narcissistic" to these people, because although their behavior appears to indicate that they are absorbed with self glorification, the fact is that in contrast to Narcissus, who loved himself, these people actually despise themselves. Their self deprecation is a result of a distortion of self perception. People wrongly see themselves as inadequate, and the correction of such a concept of self would allow them to dispense with the desperate defense of self absorption and grandiosity.

One does not really have an option whether or not to have a self-image. The only option is whether to have one that is accurate or one that is distorted. Thinking poorly of one self is not a virtue. Virtue is truth, and there is no virtue in denying the truth about oneself.

I know what you're thinking: "It IS true! I am no good. I'm not lying! Just ask anyone; they'll tell you how worthless I am!"

To you I say the following: "You may be convinced -and you may have convinced yourself, that you are without worth and value. But that is subjective. You have ulterior motives that have led you to seeing yourself this way. These motives have distorted your view of your self which is unwarranted by the objective facts".

A proper adjustment to reality can only be achieved when reality is correctly perceived. A person of average income, who deludes himself that he is a millionaire is inevitably going to misapprehend his purchasing power. A person who is in fact a millionaire and has the delusion that he is a pauper is similarly maladjusted.

Just as one must have a valid concept of one's external reality, so one must have a valid concept of one's inner reality. We must know what our positive traits are in order to cultivate them and develop them to their fullest. Similarly we must know what our weaknesses are in order correct them and improve upon them.

Just as a person is not consciously aware of his throat until it becomes inflamed, so one is not conscious of the self unless it is ill. Ideally a healthy person is not self conscious. A true self awareness will result in neither vanity nor self-centeredness, but to the contrary, is necessary to avoid and overcome vanity and self centeredness. It is also essential for the self-fulfillment which is a prerequisite for spiritual growth.

Spiritual growth means growth in character and this can and must be guided by conscious effort. While various factors in a person's environment can have a significant impact on his character, especially those occurring in early life, the human being is capable of developing or weakening his moral and ethical nature, and therefore bears the ultimate responsibility for being and becoming whatever he is.

Improvement of character is contingent on our being aware of our character flaws, which is dependent on self analysis-and self reflection. Step Four of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous calls for a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves. This step applies to all of us. We must be courageous in confronting our misdeeds which are certain to be revealed by a thorough soul searching. But this is only half the story. An accurate inventory requires looking at assets AND liabilities. We must also be prepared to discover unknown abilities within ourselves-much like finding hidden treasure under the floorboards of our home.

The discovery of dormant and unrecognized assets may pose a threat to us. Some people have a pattern of beginning a venture, bringing it close to fruition and then doing something to precipitate its failure. Whereas they certainly have a desire to succeed, the additional responsibilities and stresses that success is certain to bring can overwhelm the desire for success and make failure the easier course. As unpleasant as repetitious failure might be, it has the redeeming feature that one may say: "Don't expect anything of me. I am incapable of doing things right." This is due to a negative, distorted self image where feelings of inadequacy and incompetence make success a formidable challenge.

Self-improvement requires that we have an accurate assessment of our potential. Such an awareness will not allow us to "copout" and hibernate in a rut. Potentials that are not expressed demand to be actualized and indeed produce distress if they are not actualized, much like a nursing mother may experience pain if her infant does not take the milk that she has to give.

Some people may live a long life without ever having been aware of their potential and without having fulfilled themselves. They may even amass great wealth and may be considered by others to be eminently successful.

Yet, their failure to know themselves and to cultivate their potential is a dereliction of their responsibility to themselves. Amassing wealth is not a uniquely human trait as squirrels are known to hoard more nuts than they can consume. The human uniqueness is not acquiring form without, but in maximizing that which is within. This is an essential of spirituality.


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Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit. He has recently launched a new 12 step program for self esteem development Send your comments by clicking here.

© 2002, Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.