People often talk about self-esteem. When a child or even an adult seems forlorn, withdrawn, sad, timid, or is an underachiever, some are quick to attribute this to low self-esteem. When someone is an overachiever, is overly outgoing, tough or assertive, some people are just as quick to consider this a sign of very low self-esteem. The difficulty with the term is twofold. First, it is a theoretical idea that has never been validated as a real or useful concept, or anything more than an abstract idea. Not all people take the time to assess themselves and determine they are unworthy, which is more or less what the idea of low self-esteem means. Not all people reflect internally to assess their worth. Second, if self-esteem is such a vital characteristic, we would probably spend much more time teaching our children and students about getting to know themselves. We seldom speak about the “self,” and the concept of having or being an individual is not well-defined. So, why do we attribute things to low self-esteem if many people, particularly children, do not have clarity on what their “self” is?
In Biblical Hebrew, or lashon hakodesh, there are two words for “I” or “me.” We have the word ani, and the word anochi. There are several perspectives on the use of the two words. I have found this perspective useful: ani is for me, when the topic is about me (e.g. I am) as opposed to anyone else. When I am referring to me as a unique entity independent of anyone else, that is anochi. Anochi is more like myself in that regard. Why is this distinction so important?
Although the words anochi and ani both mean “I,” they refer to two different aspects of one’s existence. When using the word ani, we speak on behalf of our own soul. When we use the word anochi we are referring to the body, our anchor to this world. The Maharal of Prague wrote that the difference between ani and anochi is that ani is the simple way of expressing first-person, while anochi refers to a reflexive first-person, such as “myself.” Who I am or what I am comprises the self. And the self is a set of values that comprise my behavior and world view. The self is the package of qualities and characteristics that make a person unique. The “self’ is what makes that person different from anyone else, and you know about yourself when you learn to be introspective and reflect on your thoughts and feelings, and what they represent about you. For example, a person can acknowledge they have a temper or are prone to worry, which means they have self-awareness about these qualities. As they reflect on these qualities, they develop a sense of self-awareness, which is what the self-concept is. A person who reflects on the way their mind works and the way their behavior affects others may feel a desire to grow and change into a nicer, calmer person. Being content with the “self” is called a positive self-concept. Being distressed or upset with who you are is called a negative self-concept.
As parents and teachers, we need to spend time addressing self-awareness with our youth, prompting them to look at their image and consider ways to continue to mature, grow, and become effective as people. What some people refer to as self-esteem is actually, in my opinion, perceived competence. When people believe themselves to be competent and capable of growth and change, this is positive and healthy. When we encourage and promote the belief in our children that they can get to know themselves better through introspection and learn how to bring about productive, worthwhile changes, we will have succeeded in introducing them to their anochi, the knowledge that they are a competent individual capable of change and growth.
During times of stress, such as the times we are currently facing, feelings of heaviness, dark thoughts, hopelessness, and discontent ricochet through a young person’s mind and may manifest in their behavior. When a child feels powerless to bring about change, either internally or externally, their perceived competence falters and plummets. Our task is to help each one to develop self-awareness and identify the goals they wish to live by, and give them tools to feel increasingly confident in their personal competence. Take advantage of your role as a caring mentor to model self-awareness, a wholesome self-concept, and build their belief that they have the capacity to change and grow, which is what competence is all about. Hatzlachah!
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the director of Chai Lifeline Crisis and Trauma Services. For Israel crisis resources and support, visit chailifeline.org/israel or call 855-3-CRISIS