We don’t have to reprimand ourselves for our negative feelings
The season of rejoicing is upon us. Bask in the glory of the succah, rejoice with the Torah on Simchas Torah. Sure. But what about all my problems — my stress, my marital conflict, my struggles with the children, my health, my life? Where am I supposed to put all that on these “happy days?”
In his book The Trail to Tranquility, Rabbi Lazer Brody writes about “self-induced misery” — a state we bring upon ourselves through our faulty thinking habits. We can think ourselves into a chronically unhappy state by regularly focusing our attention on everything that’s wrong, unfair, or unpleasant in our lives. We’ll never run out of content to feed our misery mill.
On the other hand, Dr. Rick Hanson, in his book Hardwiring Happiness explains in detail how we can reprogram our neural networks to produce a constant state of happiness by focusing our attention on everything we experience as right, good, and pleasurable.
This idea has been well established by our sages and is brought to light in Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s Gateway to Happiness and Rav Shalom Arush’s Garden of Gratitude, among many other works. Apparently, despite the circumstances of our existence, we have a great deal of power to influence our own moods.
The Pull of the Yetzer Hara
Although we can put ourselves into a happy state on demand, we don’t always want to.
“I don’t enjoy having a house full of people for several weeks. I’m not going to pretend that I do,” says one woman.
The yetzer hara can convince us that “being authentic” is a mitzvah. Why try to shake it? It’s just who we are.
Or, we may want to elevate our mood, but find it virtually impossible to accomplish. “I’m the one who has to do all the shopping, all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the managing of everyone and everything, day in and day out, until the ‘holiday’ is over.
“The problem is that I’m not the domestic type. While I’m miserably slaving away in the kitchen, I constantly reprimand myself: ‘Think how grateful you should be to Hashem for the blessings of health, family, and sustenance!’ And do you know where my reprimand gets me? Then I feel miserable, and I feel guilty for feeling that way!”
Here the yetzer hara has a double victory, heaping negativity upon negativity.
Accessing the Yetzer Tov
Fortunately, we always have more than one “I” available to draw upon. In fact, our psyche is made up of many characters, each tied physically to different parts of the brain. Jill Bolte Taylor, in her recent release Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life explains how she lost entire parts of her personality when she suffered a stroke on the left side of her brain and how, when her brain healed eight years later, those parts returned.
The crucial point she makes is that there isn’t a singular “I.” When we say, “I’m not happy on Succos,” we’re expressing the sentiment of one part of our personality. Using the word “I” to express a feeling can cause us to become flooded with that individual part’s emotional experience, drowning out the voices of all our other parts.
Do a little experiment. Try slowly saying “I dread the holidays,” and then slowly say, “A part of me dreads the holidays.” Note how each sentence makes you feel. When we identify exclusively with the negative voice, our whole being is filled with negativity. But when we notice there’s a part who dreads the holidays, the negativity resides only in that part, while the rest of our personality has space for other feelings.
“A part of me detests all the cooking and cleaning, but parts of me love being with the kids, and there’s a part that appreciates the break from the office.” An individual is not one person with conflicting feelings; the individual is a bunch of people who all share the same body! Each has its own valid emotional — and neural — reality.
Knowing this, we’re in a better position to access our “happy self.” It’s also a powerful tool for disempowering the yetzer hara. “Oh, I know you’re there, you who is suffering through the holiday. But I know that you other folks are there, too. I need one of you happy people to come forward right now and experience the beauty of the succah. Who’s ready to step up to the plate?”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 760)
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