A student, Hanna, called for marital advice. Although ashamed to admit it, she was bothered by her h6usband’s height. She lamented, “If only he were taller, I would feel so much better about myself.”
Of course, the real problem wasn’t her husband’s height. Even if that had magically changed, it wouldn’t have affected the root cause of her confidence deficiency.
“If only” thoughts surface in many forms:
If only my children behaved, I would feel better about my parenting.
If only my husband was more socially adept, I would be more confident.
If only my boss were more encouraging, I would be more productive.
Our imagination sometimes points beyond our reach and paints a picture of how fabulous life would be if only something external changed. Imagination does play a role in visualizing happiness, but we must be able to discern when it benefits us and when it acts to our detriment.
Inner joy doesn’t stem from changing others. And focusing on what we actually have the power to change – ourselves – will change others far more effectively.
Dr. Edith Eger is a Holocaust survivor, psychologist, and bestselling author. As a teen, she was a ballet dancer and Olympic-tracked gymnast before the Nazis came to power. Her ballet coach said something that later helped her survive Auschwitz: “All the ecstasy in your life is going to come from the inside.”
Inner refinement is in our control, and tending to it is the most effective way to change a healthy relationship. Yet, so many of us avoid this task because of the effort involved. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the mussar movement, poignantly wrote, “It’s harder to change a single character trait than to learn the entire Talmud.”
Changing ourselves is so hard, in part, because no one sees the tremendous effort we expend in pursuing this aim. For example, after giving birth to my fifth child, I developed diastasis recti, a muscle separation in the abdomen, and needed physical therapy to rehabilitate my core. The exercises were exceedingly difficult, but I looked like I was in a state of complete rest while doing them.
Strenuous running actually felt effortless in comparison to just minutes of my physical therapy regimen, and I developed all sorts of tactics to avoid doing it, even preferring to wash the dishes instead. Yet, these dreaded exercises were tailor-made to solve my issue, so I had to summon the motivation to face myself and work from the inside out. My diastasis recti was an “inside job.” No one would see the effort or the results.
We all know deep down what our “work” is. It’s the bad habit that keeps resurfacing. It’s the same shortcoming for which we do teshuvah on Rosh Hashanah year after year. It’s the character trait we can’t seem to shake. And while it’s much easier to focus on the world around us than to focus on ourselves, running away from our problems is unwise since addressing them is often part of our mission (or tikkun) in this world.
My grandfather, a veteran of World War II, fought in the U.S. Army, earning a Purple Heart and two Silver Stars for his efforts. He experienced trauma from battle, and for years, he had nightmares that caused him to cry out in terror. He had demons to fight to move beyond the past, and he once wrote the following in a local paper:
“You cannot run and hide, and you are only beaten when you fail to continue to fight.”
Working on ourselves will yield results both inside and outside. Perhaps you’re familiar with this famous quote:
“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult, so I tried to change my country. When that was not possible, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered even that was too hard. So I tried to change my family.
“Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family, and my town, and my country. And that, in turn, could all indeed have changed the world.”
I often share with married students, “Don’t try to fix your husband. Rather, work on yourself, control your responses, and then your husband will react differently to the new you. Change the ‘dance’ that has been created by changing your pattern, and a new reality will emerge.”
Samantha had been fighting with her husband over a sensitive issue they couldn’t seem to work out or discuss without exploding.
I offered her effective communication tools to turn inward, reduce her anger, and express her feelings rather than blame. We even role-played so she wouldn’t automatically fall into her old habits when the discussion came up again in real time. After utilizing the techniques, she called to say, “I was in awe after I used the new tools. For the first time, I watched my husband respond calmly to my feelings. We came to a mutual understanding and moved on. I was blown away.”
Of course, her husband didn’t see her behind-the-scenes hard work to maintain shalom bayit, and there was no audience to cheer her on. But we reap reward from the changes we experience from a better life.
To Hanna, I shared ideas on how she could make self-care a priority and techniques to enhance her own confidence. When I checked in with her, her husband’s height was no longer a glaring issue for her.
Facing life’s struggles requires hard inner work. But when we put in the effort to change, our circumstances can actually become better. The answer isn’t somewhere else. It’s somewhere in.