Dear Therapist:

One of my teenagers is busy with "streaks." It seems that that is the only way he feels he...[succeeds]. He will be very occupied...[for instance]...that he hasn't missed...[prayers]...in “x” amount of days. Then when he misses he will completely fall apart and miss...for days at a time. It seems to be all or nothing for him. It is unclear to me exactly how much, but this...[strategy]...does seem to be being pushed by a...[rabbi]...in his yeshiva and I wonder how healthy it is? Could be it just doesn't work for him. I understand that consistency is an important lesson but this seems more like all or nothing to me.

 

Response:

Your concerns seem to be warranted. Just as with parenting, there is no single educational strategy that will work for all people. Also, in the yeshiva system, educational factors are closely intertwined with religious and spiritual aspects. Because of this...[educators]...need to be all the more conscious of individual needs. They need to be alert to signs of unhealthy responses to their methods of helping students attain their potentials.

It sounds like your son is obsessing in an unhealthy way about specific actions. Clear focus on actions as a means to a goal can be a positive thing. However, there are two issues that bother me about your son’s reactions. He seems to be focused on the particular action (...[prayers]...for instance) rather than the ultimate goal (...becoming closer to...[G-d]). He is also reacting in a maladaptive way to perceived failure on his part.

These two issues often point to a more general problem. When a person becomes obsessed with the specifics instead of the underlying goal, this can mean that their sense of self is based at least partly on these particular actions or accomplishments. Self-esteem should be based on intrinsic qualities, not accomplishments. Though not optimal, realistically most people do define themselves based on factors like their jobs, their possessions, and their social standing (religious or otherwise). However, when someone focuses largely on one area—like being the perfect yeshiva boy—this can become obsessive. It can become more problematic if the focus becomes even more concentrated to one particular action.

Likely the reason that your son reacts so strongly to his failure to be perfect is that he is not separating his actions from his essence as a person. When we fail at something, we can be upset at the fact that we have failed. It is even normal to feel somewhat upset at ourselves. However, if failure at something is inextricably linked to our sense of self, any failure in such an area will make us feel somewhat worthless. When the area of failure represents a significant percentage of our sense of self, this can be devastating.

Teenagers who are in the process of developing a sense of self can be especially vulnerable to these types of issues. Most adults—and certainly teenagers—do not appropriately identify their own qualities. We therefore have trouble feeling good about ourselves without connecting this to external factors. Most of us, however, make this work by defining ourselves from many angles. If I feel good about myself because of my possessions, my family, my friendships, my educational accomplishments, my status in the community, and many other factors, an insult to only one of these may not deeply affect me. If, however, my sense of self is based on only one or two factors, even a seemingly small insult can be greatly magnified, causing tremendous pain.

It is probably a good idea to speak with your son’s...[rabbi]...—as well as with others who have an impact on him. Hopefully they can help him to better recognize the priorities, as well as the pitfalls of focusing too strongly on the specifics and not strongly enough on the main goals.

Your son may also benefit from counseling to help him better understand his needs, emotions, and reactions.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

 www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317