On Teshuva; A Psychotherapist’s Perspective - The Jewish Voice
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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

On Teshuva; A Psychotherapist’s Perspective

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As we approach the days of awe, I find myself reflecting on both myself and my work as a psychotherapist with a different lens: one of deep compassion, rather than critical judgment. We are all too familiar with that inner voice constantly asking us what we could have done differently or how we could have been better. Whether it be our intimate relationships, friendships, familial or parent-child relationships, we all know that we can do better. But how do we get there? Is there some optimal path or formula to follow?

As we all know, there are many helpful ways to work on ourselves, many methods, many teachers, many prayers, etc. But is there some other, more comprehensive lens or intention that serves as the common denominator for different methods of growth and self-improvement? I believe there is a particular stance or kavana that is the actual glue that allows deep, fundamental change and growth to take place and hold. This stance is one of compassion.

Compassion is the act of viewing oneself in a comprehensive way—excluding nothing, no ugly or less desirable part of ourselves or others. This does not of course mean, condoning or agreeing with negative behavior. It simply means going beyond the reflex of judgment and self-condemnation to a place that gives the negative parts of one’s self a seat at the table, to be seen, heard and understood. Sound simple enough? Not when you actually try. Take a moment to sit down and apply this idea while reflecting on aspects of yourself you are unhappy with and want to change in yourself. Are you able to deeply accept and confront the fact that you are flawed without putting yourself down?

Most of us struggle with making a commitment to change that allows room for growth while respecting and including our flaws. This can only be done through a lens of deep, wide and inclusive compassion. Think about the quality of compassion through the meaning of the word itself, rachamim. Rachamim contains within it the word rechem or “womb.” In psychotherapy, we refer to the term “holding environment” by W.D. Winnicott, an object relations theorist.

This refers to creating a space that serves as a safe haven for the person to bring all parts of himself, his history, traumas, flaws, and all. It is the goal of the therapist to create a space (similar to that of a womb) that allows for the person to begin and to continue to unfold: uncovering, including and eventually integrating the parts of himself that had become excluded, repressed or rejected. In practice, the therapist and client experience this as the type of deep compassion described throughout this article.

You may have experienced such a compassionate stance or “holding environment” with a truly wise and understanding teacher or friend. You may have felt understood and accepted, inspired to connect more deeply to yourself and your essence, without feeling that you needed to hide parts of yourself. This is a quality of teshuva or repentance that cannot be achieved without an authentic compassionate stance towards yourself.

Teshuva, literally meaning “return,” is often loosely used to refer to the work of becoming a better person. At times, it is misunderstood or misrepresented as a process solely engaged in scrutiny and examination of one’s actions and deeds. Some may even associate the term “cheshbon nefesh,” literally an accounting of one’s soul, with this process of scrutiny that has an absolute tone of judgment. True cheshbon nefesh must include an accounting of the whole of a person to reflect an accurate equation or reading.

This inclusion of the whole self is a fundamental, central component of what true teshuva, or return to one’s self, actually looks like. It cannot be achieved through scrutiny of the parts of ourselves we would prefer to shave away or get rid of. It is achieved through utilizing these undesirable parts as potential lenses back to ourselves through understanding how such parts or behaviors came to exist in the first place.

Finding this place of origin often reflects some sincere need or intention that went awry such as needing to be seen or heard or valued in one’s life. It is the same reason a child may throw a tantrum or misbehave in order to be seen and heard.

Going back to the original question of what it means to engage in teshuva or repentance with true intention, we must come back to this concept of the whole person. Most simply put (but certainly not simple to understand or apply), it means understanding we each are a person with many sides, facets and faces that, when taken as a whole, achieves a different quality than when taken individually.

When a person touches on this in psychotherapy or in a healing moment in one’s life, this is often described as both a grounded and transcendent feeling all at once. This is because it includes the mundane and physical but brings it and ourselves into a different state through inclusion and integration. This means not only have we begun to identify the different parts that we call self, but we begin to include them in conversation with one another.

What does all of this mean? Think about something in your own life that you feel bad or guilty about. We usually feel bad or guilty about something that brings up some form of discrepancy, a discrepancy between our actions or behavior and the way we wish to act or see ourselves. When applying this concept of healing through integration, rather than defaulting on our typical self-deprecation and judgment followed by commitment to change, we take on an approach of compassionately including all parts of ourselves. This means engaging with curiosity about what’s going on for us that is manifesting in less than desirable behavior.

Once we ease our judgment and guilt and open this stance of curiosity (that must be preceded by compassion towards one’s self), we can see a larger map, canvas or background of ourselves. This helps us understand that our actions are caused by so many contributing factors that all relate to one another, like our families of origin, place in birth order, temperament, experiences, conscious and unconscious rules we learn. The list can go on and on but don’t let this deter you from this path of curiosity and understanding, trusting that when you engage in this process with sincerity, the different components that comprise “you” will reveal themselves at the right pace.

This will give time and space for integration of what you learn as opposed to overwhelming you, or worse, causing paralysis with that feeling of having so much to do or work on that we can fall in to the trap of paralysis, not knowing where to begin.

When we treat ourselves compassionately, we realize we simply start one piece at a time, and that as time and effort continue, one positive deed folds into the next. We cannot achieve this with a judgmental stance because it will stop us in our tracks, reducing our process to elimination of our “bad” qualities. When you pay attention to the feeling of judgment, it has a quality of contraction or constriction. Not to say that this does not serve a purpose in the appropriate context because it absolutely does.

This Yom Kippur, I encourage you to take a compassionate attitude towards yourself, one that includes the difficult parts of yourself but that is not ruled by them. This means utilizing a lens that is honest and responsible regarding negative actions, but that seeks to understand them in a broader context of who you are and what reality includes. Do this with yourself, do this with the help of a therapist, friend or guide, and you will see how your lens towards others will shift and evolve as well. It results in deeper friendships and relationships, more present and understanding parenting and a generally more healing presence in your day to day interactions.

Aliza Scharf-Bendov is a Psychotherapist & Hypnotherapist

By: Aliza Scharf-Bendov, LCSW

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