On Feelings, Derech Eretz, And Victimhood

As I’ve been looking inward this Elul and Tishrei, I haven’t liked all that I see. Considering that I engage in more self-criticism than the average bear, that’s not surprising. For the past two years, I have been paying upward of $300/month for two hours/month of therapy, in which my therapist teaches me how to control and respond to the barrage of critical, loatheful thoughts that I experience. This kind of therapy has made me less petulant, more accepting of others and myself, and able to control my paranoia and anxiety. I also take Prozac. The combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Prozac, and actually working on myself (meaning: I have two hours-per-month of in-office therapy since that is all I can afford; the rest of the month I am working hard on a daily basis at using the tools my therapist gives me)  have genuinely worked. People who are close to me are pleased with the results as I am more myself and less the paranoid, defensive, angry, anxious, perfectionistic jerk-face that sometimes takes the wheel.

Being able to filter out what self-talk is pure yetzer hara and which self-assessments are actually accurate is one benefit of CBT, Prozac, and actually working on myself. Without digging myself into a nihilistic depression based on an erroneous but oft-had assumption that I will never be a good enough person, I’ve gently come to see some middoth of mine that need to be refined. They are: I don’t always know how to feel feelings and as a result get really anxious; I should be functioning with a higher caliber of derech eretz than I often do; I think I am a victim, even if it is only a victim of my own past-decisions and perceived limitations.

Now to get to the part that I assume will provoke a bath in buckets of cherry-flavored-hatorade, I’ve come to this Tishrei middoth-refining-list as a result of thinking carefully about what annoys me about other people. We all know that the Baal Shem Tov said that what gets your goat about other people is really those people reflecting your own flaws back at you. I’ve noticed that lately I have squirmed and tried to run away from (or had internal flashes of hatred toward) people who talk trash instead of dealing with their real feelings, who don’t practice derech eretz very well, and who see themselves as victims. Well guess what: As a Jew and as a non-idiot, it only takes a second to realize that all that stuff is my own stuff too.

It is really hard to feel feelings. I feel guilty for having feelings. I feel like an idiot for having feelings. I feel weak for having feelings. I feel juvenile for having some of the emotions that I have. One way out of feeling feelings is to panic; another way out is to get angry; another way is to pretend the feelings are someone else’s fault and then talk trash about her. Do you know how many times I have blamed “Crown Heights” for the fact that I feel inadequate as a human? Do you know how many conversations I have had in which I have blamed this community for the fact that sometimes I am bored, depressed, inclined to overeat, and am not employed as Anna Wintour’s right-hand reporter at Fashion Week? Do you know how many times I have passed off my own resentment of having to fully cover my body and wear a wig as complaining about the the standard of other women’s tsniut around here? Did you know that I’ve blamed my own isolationist inclinations on the strangers who look me up and down in Empire Kosher? Do you know that I have blamed the shuls for the fact that I kinda don’t like to pray from a siddur? For me, the emotions I experience during prayer are often and unfortunately frustration, boredom, and guilt because a voice in my head tells me what a lousy Jew I am. So instead of feeling my feelings and moving on, I talk trash to myself about how the shuls around here are just not as good as the shuls elsewhere. I am ashamed to say that I have verbalized those thoughts out loud on occasion.

An outgrowth of anxiety, anxiety which is 99% of the time related to not feeling my feelings and instead defaulting to good old anxiety, is not behaving with very much derech eretz. If I am agitated, and especially if I am agitated and depressed, I take it out on other people. I get straight-up petulant and impatient. Everyone seems to be in my way; everyone seems to be personally stopping me from reaching my destination on time; I frown and say not-so-nice things. I am queen of giving the stink-eye. I am also queen of getting so tired and overwhelmed that I don’t show up to my friends’ simchas, when I could rally to at least show up and say “Mazal tov”.

I’ve noticed that I feel a flaming hatred for other people who do exactly the same things that I do, who feel so bad that they let themselves behave without derech eretz. I’ve had occasion lately to put on a happy face and act graciously when really I wanted to punch people; of course, instead of just having a wholesome sense of satisfaction from succeeding at putting on a happy face and acting graciously, I feel vehemently angry at other people who don’t put forth the same effort.

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And now for a musical interlude from Ani Difranco, who put it so succinctly: “Maybe you don’t like your job/Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep/Nobody likes their job/Nobody got enough sleep/Maybe you just had the worst day of your life/There’s no escape and there’s no excuse/So suck up and be nice.”

The last piece of this is feeling like a victim, which I will sum up as using the phrase “why?” instead of “how can I change this?” You don’t know how often I catch myself thinking, “Why is this person such a chump? Why am  I stuck dealing with them?” Guess what, Chaya! Instead of being a little chump by throwing yourself a pity party, look for a solution! Dealing with idiots? Well let’s find a way to either escape the situation or to change perspective on it! Hating myself because I don’t dress chic enough and I am not “socially connected to influencers” because I was raised by people who think khakis and a jersey = fashion, and I chose to follow my heart instead of being ambitious? There’s no reason to say, “Poor me.” There is every reason to screw my head on better and appreciate what I do have.

I think there is something in it for people who can’t get out of victim mode. I think there is a benefit to them. I think it is comfortable to be a victim, because you can just inactively blame yourself and others instead of snapping into action and actually doing something. I know that for myself, it’s comfortable to think the same old way and to do the same old things. It is easier to be bored than to put the effort into learning; than to put the effort into actually getting out and living life.

This Tishrei, I am owning that I am like that. I’m not looking for applause or affirmation. What I am looking for is for other people to also do the same thing. Own it. Own your stuff. Smell your garbage, but don’t wallow in it. Just do your best to catch yourself avoiding your feelings and opting for less-productive reactions; do your best to catch yourself making excuses for a lack of derech eretz, and then put on your happy face; and then find solutions instead of complaining. I think if we all do this, we’ll like each other a whole lot more.