Dear Therapist:

My son started dorming in an out of town yeshiva this year. While he had tremendous growth...during the year, I am worried that his personality has been affected somewhat. He appears much more quiet and serious than his former care-free and humorous self. My husband says that this is a normal stage that...[boys]...go through when trying to find where they stand in the balance between a rigorous...[person]...and a friendly, outgoing, relaxed young man. I am somewhat nervous though and eagerly await the panel's input.

 

Response:

Many people go through experiences very similar to what your son is experiencing. Although I have seen this fairly often in a yeshiva setting, this phenomenon is by no means limited to yeshiva boys and to learning.

For most of our lives (with the possible exception of early childhood) we struggle with our self-esteem. A scant few of us are able to achieve a sense of self that is truly based on our intrinsic qualities. The vast majority of us will base our feelings toward ourselves on things that are external to who we are. These include jobs, careers, money, looks, relationships, community, and many others. What these often have in common is our concern about what others think of us. We tend to use our perceptions of others’ perceptions of us to determine how to feel about ourselves.

In our teenage and adolescence years, this struggle with self-definition is usually most evident. These are the years during which we first begin to feel the need to develop a self-concept—to define ourselves in some manner. Some teenagers and adolescents rebel against convention in an attempt to create an individualized sense of self. Others focus on a one particular area in their lives to define themselves.

In a perfect world, we would all learn to recognize our inherent positive qualities. This would negate the need to focus on (or even obsess about) external characteristics. We would like ourselves for the same reason that we like others who have positive qualities. In our imperfect world—and especially for young people—this can be very difficult to achieve. Most of us are content with a diverse, externalized sense of self. Since our positive self-concept is based on many different factors (albeit external), it is in less danger of being challenged or damaged.

The question is what your son’s motivation is, and to what extent he mentally retains other external aspects of his “personality.” If his motivation is to self-identify, and he is placing self-esteem emphasis almost solely on his identification as a...[scholar]...this might become a problem. In this instance, it would be important to encourage him to acknowledge other areas with which he can identify. These might include socialization, sports, hobbies, and other things that he enjoys, or that give him a sense of satisfaction.

If your son has a specific goal with reference to yeshiva and learning, this may be a sign that his motivation is positive. If his motivation is pure—and he legitimately wants to achieve a certain level of learning—and he also feels good about other aspects of his life, his actions are more likely to be healthy. Positive motivation and a diversified sense of self will usually go together. It is when a person is attempting to fill a void that they tend to hyper-focus on one characteristic. Hopefully your son is able to define himself in various ways, and is focusing on learning in a positive way.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

 www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317