At some point in our lives we are bound to ask ourselves a question that is at once very basic yet incredibly profound: “Who am I?”
Though we may not realize it, at these critical moments of introspection we are really asking “How do I see myself?” While we may look in the mirror several times a day, we may still be unsure what our own eyes see when we take a glimpse at our reflections.
To be sure, it’s not a simple query. We spend our lives deciding who we are and what we stand for. And as we journey toward the solidification of our identities, we develop opinions of ourselves. This self-perception not only determines our course of action but also our interactions and relationships with all the other people in our lives.
An excellent example of this phenomenon can be found in the story of the spies who returned from Eretz Yisrael with an unfavorable report. While describing what they saw, the spies said the land was simply uninhabitable because it was ruled by giants.
As they phrased it: “We were in our eyes like grasshoppers to them, and that is also the way they saw us” (Bamidbar 13:33). The Sfas Emes explains that this episode illustrates the sobering reality of self-perception; namely, that as humans we will always assume that others see us the exact same way we see ourselves.
After all, the spies had no basis for their report. Isn’t it possible the giants had heard about the great Jewish nation that left its servitude from Egypt in exalted fashion? It is possible they revered the Jews like kings. However, the spies couldn’t see beyond their own feelings of fear, doubt, and inadequacy, and thus presented those emotions in the form of someone else’s views.
Taking this concept one step further, Rav Shimon Shkop (in his introduction to Shaarei Yosher) asks how it’s possible for one to fulfill the commandment of “love your neighbor as yourself” if human nature dictates that one will always love himself more than anyone else. He answers that one’s ability to love others is rooted in and fueled by his love for himself. In other words, someone can only love another person as much as he loves himself.
Along these lines, academic research has shown a linear connection between one’s self-esteem and his marital satisfaction. These findings highlight the importance of one first solidifying his self-esteem and self-perception in order to safeguard his psychological health and ensure the development of strong and healthy relationships.
In order to sharpen his self-perception, one should begin by targeting four main areas of improvement: focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses; creating realistic objectives and goals; appreciating one’s individuality and uniqueness; and physical exercise.
Many individuals highlight their own weaknesses instead of focusing on their strengths. This, of course, is damaging because the negative always takes center stage, while the extraordinary positives, one’s unique traits and strengths, are left in the shadows. Zeroing in on (and perhaps even showcasing) those strengths can help one view himself in a new and more favorable light, ultimately increasing his self-esteem.
Creating realistic objectives and goals are crucial for one’s psychological well-being. If one always expects more of himself than is actually possible, he will never feel a sense of accomplishment, and his self-esteem will plummet. The creation of realistic goals will give one a sense of direction in life, help him feel more accomplished, and solidify his self-esteem.
The appreciation of our individuality is crucial to our very existence. The Talmud (Berachos 58a) highlights the fact that every individual possesses truly unique qualities that cannot be found in anyone else – “just as every individual’s appearance is different, so are their ideas.” This is considered such a positive product of creation that when one witnesses the gathering of 600,000 Jewish individuals in one place, he is instructed to make a blessing to celebrate – not for the multitude of people, but for the blessing of seeing so many unique gifts on display at one time (Talmud, ibid; Shulchan Aruch O.C. 224:5).
When one can truly appreciate his uniqueness, he will be able to ascribe value to himself and to others, laying the groundwork for healthier and more fulfilling relationships.
Finally, physical exercise helps one find his “best self.” Many therapists and psychologists prescribe regular physical exercise for patients experiencing sadness and depression. According to many researchers, physical exercise makes our bodies release hormones that keep us upbeat and happy. Additionally, exercise is an actionable metaphor upon which we can build and improve our lives – bettering ourselves and moving ourselves forward physically empowers us to do the same in all other areas of life. Physical health shores up our mental health and sets the stage for interpersonal health.
In my experiences counseling married couples and my coursework at Touro University, I found it is quite common for spouses to blame each other when friction occurs. However, in light of the ideas discussed above, it would be much more productive for each spouse to reflect on his or her part of the conflict and determine if perhaps a projection of their own feelings is to blame.
The old saying purports that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But while our eyes have the ability to overlook the flaws of the things we love outside ourselves, they often harshly highlight our own blemishes, to our great disadvantage. If we can refocus our eyes to see the beauty within ourselves, we will not only improve our lives and relationships but set our loved ones on a course toward positive self-perception as well.