Teshuva and Psychotherapy

3 10 2009

I can write about teshuva through Hoshanah Rabbah, right? I sure hope so.

I used to struggle with the concept of teshuva, or repentance. All of the chest-beating, liturgical prostration, and communal wailing—what did it have to do with me? I believed that I was supposed to consider myself as an essentially good person. Convincing myself to feel guilty about things I might or might not have done since last Rosh Hashanah made me wonder if I had “self-esteem issues.” The fleeting moments of guilt, when I transgressed a minor law or even a few major ones throughout the year, never seemed to get me anywhere. Even trying to collect all of those little moral and ethical slips, as I religiously tried to do every Elul, didn’t seem to improve my moral fiber. The promises I made never stuck: to remember to enumerate daily the things for which I was grateful, to say all brachot in recognition of the good that God bestowed upon me, to avoid speaking lashon hara, to stop thinking I was smarter than everyone else, and to try to understand other people’s perspectives on life. I felt like I was pretty much the same person, year in and year out, and I was mostly happy that way. A friend told me that if I wasn’t improving, I was deteriorating, but that never resonated with me. “I am who I am,” I concluded, “and while it’s important to strive for self-improvement, yearly chest-beating and sin-listing won’t get me there.”

Over the past ten years, as I have learned so much about myself through psychotherapy, my feelings about teshuva have shifted dramatically. The thoughts that I am about to share consitute the deepest and truest knowledge that I possess. Of all of the things that I know in this world, this is surely the most important. It is at the core of my being.

Teshuva is therapy; therapy is teshuva. Teshuva literally means “return.” In my experience, therapy is also a return, although to the self, rather than to God. But they are interdependent paths: one cannot return to God without having first returned to oneself, and a return to the self is often accompanied by a return to God.

The steps through teshuva and through psychotherapy are identical:

  1. First comes a deep-seated inner desire to change.
  2. Then, a recognition of specific things that are going wrong in one’s life.
  3. Third, taking responsibility for whatever is wrong.
  4. Fourth, an honest evaluation of how one can prevent what went wrong from happening again.
  5. Fifth, actively preventing the wrong thing from happening again.
  6. Finally, recognizing and appreciating–and celebrating!–the changes that one has made.

The deep-seated inner desire to change is no simple matter. It cannot come from guilt, from outside disapproval of one’s life or actions, from a book, a lecture, or a teshuva drasha [sermon]. It can only come from the deepest part of one’s soul, from a feeling at the pit of one’s stomach that one wants to be different than one currently is. Many things can cause these feelings to bubble to the surface: a particularly difficult emotional experience, months or years of depression, not being the person you want to be in a relationship with someone else, or something as simple as seeing someone older who reminds you of yourself and whom you don’t want to end up as. It builds up and suddenly hits: “My life isn’t working. I do not have the life I wish to have. I want to change. I want things to be better.”

The next step is to keep one’s eyes and ears open to the elements that make up this dissatisfaction, whether it is a general sense that “Bad things keep happening to me,” “My life is full of the mundane; I do not aspire to greater things,” or “I’m always so angry,” or things as concrete as “I do not relate well to others,” “I never daven anymore,” or “I am always late to work.” Even after accepting the fact that something is wrong, it sometimes takes some time to determine what that is—it’s not always what your first instinct tells you. I have spent a lot of time breaking down “generally wrong” feelings into specific reactions and emotions.

That realization and commitment to change and recognizing what is wrong are hard enough, but they are only the beginning, and the next step is infinitely more difficult. Contrary to my earlier feelings about teshuva, teshuva isn’t about guilt at all. It is about responsibility. Guilt is stultifying, mucky, and backward-looking. Responsibility is more difficult, yet somehow liberating and forward-looking. The realization that I needed to take responsibility for situations that were not my fault–and maybe no one’s fault–was among the most powerful in my life. I accept that while I may not have created the circumstances that led to something being wrong, only I can create better circumstances for myself. I, and only I, am responsible for getting myself to a better place. That’s what being an adult is about, and while it sounds both trite and obvious, but at the time of the realization, it felt like a bitter pill to swallow. The difference between hearing it, accepting it, and living it is infinite.

An important corollary to taking responsibility for my own life is understanding that only other people can take responsibility for their own lives; only they can change themselves. I cannot shoulder that responsibility for anyone else, just as they cannot shoulder it for me. This is sometimes difficult and hurtful, but it is really the way things seem to work in this world.

Once I realized what was wrong, and that only I could change it, I began to undergo the arduous process of change. I wanted to try to illustrate this arduous process of change, but I’m not sure there’s an example that I feel comfortable sharing that still feels true to who I am. I will try, anyway.

Say I realize that things that I come to recognize that comments that I intend to be received as helpful and well-meaning (“I think there should be a comma there” or “I think you’re thinking of the word ‘circumnavigate'”) are regarded by their recipients as nitpicky and terribly condescending. I am actually hurting people. I don’t want to hurt people anymore. So I come to recognize this as a problem in my life. Through introspection and therapy, I realize that I tend to make more of these corrective, detail-oriented comments about others’ speech and writing when I am feeling threatened in some way. So even though I don’t consciously want to put others down, my subconscious (or whatever, I am no psychoanalyst) is spouting this condescending tone to put others in “their place” before they can attack me. These are all steps 1-3 above. Now, the change. How?

The consciousness that I become this annoying verbal copy-editor when I am feeling threatened, and that this harms my relationships with others and outweighs the (grammatical or syntactic or lexical) benefits I derive from righting these wrongs, leads me to greater awareness of different things I might say, that might hurt others less, when I am feeling threatened. Now, to change, I pay more attention to how I am feeling, and when I feel threatened—which I sometimes sense or I sometimes only discern by my immense desire to make sure others know that they are wrong—I pay careful attention to what comes out of my mouth. And this is hard. I want to show people how smart I am. I don’t know why. But I can want to do that, and I can feel threatened, and through this hard work of teshuva and psychotherapy and change, I can feel things without acting on them in ways that hurt others’ feelings.

I can think about why I feel threatened and either say, “Why are you threatening me?” (or some more polite modification thereof) when a boss is questioning my ability to do my job, or handle the actual feelings of being under threat in some other way. Perhaps, I may realize that I am overreacting because something someone is doing is triggering an old memory or experience for me. Perhaps, I may see that I am reacting to something this person (or someone else!) said to me when we were eight years old together, and not what she or he is actually saying now. I can handle the feeling, now that I’ve identified it, in some other way, rather than being supercilious and condescending towards others, which I have decided is undesirable. I can’t change how others act towards me in any real way, nor can I change how I feel about them when they act that way. What I can do it change how I respond both towards their actions and my resulting feelings. Learning to sometimes bear feelings—not to repress them, not to express them, just to feel them—constitutes a major part of my life’s work.

And suddenly, I’ve changed. Not completely. There is no instant link between taking responsibility for things and being able to do them differently. But it happens, or at least it has for me, if I keep these things in both my mind (that analytical part of my inner being) and my heart (the part that starts these arguments). I never would have believed it, but it turns out that you can cultivate patience, wonder, gratitude, and sensitivity towards others. It takes time and effort and some disappointment, but I fully believe in the human capacity to change. This is the greatest gift of both the Jewish tradition of teshuva and the modern practice of psychotherapy.

As I suspected as an adolescent, it makes no sense to limit the teshuva (or therapy) process to one month of the year or to a physical, breast-beating ritual undertaken at morning services. Therapy, like teshuva, happens all year long. But Elul is a time for meta-teshuva, or meta-therapy. It is a time for stepping outside the therapist’s cozy office, out of the place of constant inner analysis, to ask the big questions: Is this process working for me? What am I putting into this process? What am I getting out of it? Am I in a better place, spiritually or psychologically, than I was a year ago? How is my relationship with my therapist? How is my relationship with God? And most importantly, how is my relationship with myself?

If we did this constantly, change would not be possible. If Elul happened all year, we would spend all our time in the meta-space, leaving no room for mucking about with jealousy, disappointment, joy, anger, gratitude, or resentment, leaving no room for making the mistakes that enable reflection and prompt growth. Luckily for us, the Jewish calendar is set up to give us eleven months for teshuva and one month to think about how we can do it better.

I think it is significant that in anticipation of our New Year, we are required to effect change, while anticipation of the secular New Year brings a flurry of promises, or resolutions, to change. My original, adolescent understanding of teshuva, which was guilt over past sins and promises never to repeat them, was more akin to New Years resolutions than to the dynamic, participatory process that I now understand to be the essence of teshuva.

Finally, contrary to my friend’s earnest assumption, it’s not true that if you aren’t improving, you’re deteriorating. That is an attitude designed to stimulate guilt without understanding. The truth is, if you aren’t improving, you’re staying the same. And staying the same, in response to a vibrant, confusing, joyful, tragic, colorful, discordant, laughing, and crying world is worse than deteriorating. Deteriorating is at least a response, an acknowledgement that we are affected by the world around us. If we aren’t motivated by the world around us, if we don’t change in response to events, people, and emotions, then we aren’t really living, we are stagnant and stubborn. The teshuva season, heralded by the shofar’s daily siren throughout the month of Elul and drawing to a close over the coming holiday of Sukkot, shocks us out of that stagnant and stubborn place and shows us a better way.

Note: This piece was originally written in 2003, greatly revised in 2006, and revised again in 2009.




2 responses

23 11 2009

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I only came to this post today, (though I read this journal intermittently) and this was immensely helpful for my thought process. Thank you.

31 08 2011
“And God Will Gather Me In”: Thoughts on Elul «

[…] are some thoughts about teshuva from 2003/2009. This post wasn't really about teshuva, interestingly enough. I'll have to think […]

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