By Dr. Rachel Lowinger
Reflecting on one’s behavior and being able to put oneself in another’s proverbial shoes are at the core of what makes us into decent, empathic human beings. The ability to take the perspective of another being is something we begin learning from toddlerhood when our parents ask us, “How would you feel if your sister did that to you?” The ability to understand how we and others feel depends on our ability to get into our own heads and reflect on our behavior. Too much of a good thing, however, can become problematic.
Psychological studies point to self-focused attention as a non-specific factor common to many otherwise unrelated mental health disorders. In 1979, Carver defined self-focused attention as a heightened sensitivity and focus on one’s own thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and feelings: “Self-focus may take the form of an enhanced awareness of one’s present or past physical behavior. . . . Alternatively, self-attention can be an enhanced awareness of . . . one’s attitudes or memories.” Others speak of self-focused attention in relation to a tendency to analyze one’s personality and one’s internal states. A more specific aspect of this inward focusing of attention is rumination, which is defined as an internal focus on negative moods, or on events that elicit feelings of shame and self-blame. There is a subtle but crucial difference between the ability to reflect, which facilitates our empathic responses to others, and this type of negatively tinted self-focused attention.
Pesach is upon us, and every year we strive to find new ways to understand the many ways in which the message of Pesach is relevant to our daily journey through life. Understanding the meaning of matzah (versus chametz) and freedom (versus slavery) can help us redirect our emotional energies in a positive way. We are familiar with the idea that matzah, compared with chametz, is flat, modest and unassuming. The Lubavitcher Rebbe warns us that a person who has an inflated sense of self and is highly egotistical will have a hard time serving any cause other than his own and is likely to sin by following his own opinions, interests, and desires. We take note that on a spiritual level we must be careful not to overinflate ourselves by being overly boastful, arrogant, or self-serving.
Although we appreciate the importance of guarding ourselves from egotism, we may be less vigilant when it comes to guarding against the flipside—a negative evaluation centered on the self. Although self-criticism and negative evaluation focused on oneself does not seem like an overinflation of the ego, but rather to the contrary, a deflation of the ego, it too can constitute emotional chametz. Self-focusing can prevent us from being able to transcend our personal concerns and be of service to others and Hashem, just like egotism and pride do. It also happens to be really bad for our emotional well-being.
Rick Ingram, in a review paper, has gathered evidence from an impressive number of studies, portraying the prolific association between “self-focused attention” and a diversity of psychological disorders, including depression, alcohol abuse, general anxiety, and social anxiety. For example, Ingram describes studies in which individuals experience more negative feelings after focusing on themselves (self-focus in some of these studies is manipulated through gazing at a mirror or writing about oneself). Other studies show that individuals who experience a minor setback or failure and who are more self- focused tend to experience negative moods and self-blame that last longer compared to less self-focused individuals who experience a similar failure.
Here are some examples of what this might look like in daily living. Tamar, who is prone to worrying about whether she is doing well and “being good at things,” takes a midterm exam. During the test she frequently wonders whether she is doing well or poorly. She pays more attention to how she thinks she is doing on the test than to the test questions themselves. This is likely to interfere with her performance on the test and lead to her getting a lower grade compared to her peers who are not self-focused and are equally knowledgeable.
Daniel is hyper-vigilant and worried about his manner of speech. At a work party he is worried about every sentence that he utters. He often repeats the sentence in his own mind and wonders whether he was misunderstood, whether he expressed his view clearly enough, and whether he came across as unintelligent. As he does this, he loses track of the flow of the conversation. Not surprisingly, he has a difficult time appearing engaged or interested in the conversation and certainly is unable to enjoy himself.
Millie misses a business opportunity at work. She starts wondering about all her possible mistakes and misdoings. She wonders whether she was too aggressive or too soft, if perhaps she didn’t come adequately prepared, or maybe she wore the wrong suit for the occasion. She takes a lot of personal responsibility for what has happened, blames herself, ruminates on her potential mistakes, and does not allow for the possibility of Divine Providence or the idea that these events may still turn out for the best. Instead, Millie is trapped in a cycle of negative self-evaluation and self-blame, which ultimately leads her to feeling depressed and unmotivated at work.
Now let us revisit the message of simple matzah and the meaning of true freedom according to Torah. The simple matzah tells us that we need not be overly concerned with ourselves, whether in a positive overinflated way or in a negative deflated way. Disengaging from self-absorption will allow a person to free up much of his or her mental and emotional energy toward serving Hashem and others.
The idea of freedom is a similar one. The Bnei Yisrael, as they traversed the desert after having left Mitzrayim, weren’t free to do whatever they wanted. In fact, they had many rules and mitzvos to follow. However, they were now free to serve Hashem, and free of the constant needs of the body. As one’s mission becomes focused on service, self-transcendence is possible and one’s attention can shift outward, away from negative thought, doubts, and criticism.
This capacity to escape the tyranny of one’s own mind, that internal negative voice that comments and critiques, seems to me to be one of the ways in which the Bnei Yisrael were freed from their previous state of pain and slavery. This aspect of freedom is more relevant to us today than ever before even as we experience so much more material and spiritual “freedom” than our ancestors. Paradoxically, when we stop focusing on ourselves and what’s good for us, it turns out to be exquisitely good for our well-being. Psychological research shows that different manipulations to reduce self-focused attention are associated with less negative affect and psychopathology. Fortunately, we do not need to resort to artificial distractions and experimental manipulations to divert our focus from ourselves. All we need to do this Seder, when we eat the matzah and experience the true freedom of yetzias Mitzrayim, is to remind ourselves that self-criticism, blame, and negativity are part of the chametz and slavery we leave behind. v
Dr. Rachel Lowinger is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Concordia University and has been a postdoctoral fellow at the William Alanson White Institute. She works in private practice in Lawrence and Manhattan, specializing in adults, emotional disorders, personality disorders, trauma, and women’s and young adults’ issues of identity. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.