Balancing Jewish Self-Criticism With Self-Compassion

While being Jewish can mean being self-deprecating, it could also mean being resilient and kind to oneself.

My mom recently told me that a Jewish mother always blames herself for her children’s problems. Despite my mom’s best efforts to remove herself from blame — I can’t count the number of times she’s told me “I did the best I could” or, a lesser favorite, “You’ll appreciate me when I’m dead” — I know she takes responsibility for much of my pain and suffering growing up, even when it wasn’t at her hands.

I wish she wouldn’t blame herself, but I’m not surprised she does. Self-condemnation is rife throughout Jewish history and modern culture, masqueraded as a joke despite representing something larger and darker. The concept of “Jewish self-hatred” emerged in the 1800s during the Jewish Reform movement and became a topic of increased interest and discussion among social psychologists in the first half of the 1900s. In 1941, social psychologist Kurt Lewin posited that Jews defend and protect themselves from the depth of others’ hatred by hating ourselves first. This was said to be a defense mechanism, a functional response to internalized antisemitism and perceived inferiority.

As a therapist and millennial navigating my Jewish identity, I see this instinct in my mom, myself and my Jewish friends and clients. But it doesn’t feel quite like self-hatred: It’s not a hatred for being Jewish, but rather a tendency to self-criticize because we are Jewish. As if being self-critical, self-deprecating and mindful of our every flaw are cultural character traits, rites of passage that evolved out of Jewish self-hatred but then strayed away from it.

We don’t have to look far for examples of Jewish self-criticism in the media, and I’d be lying if I said they didn’t thoroughly entertain and soothe me. I feel at home listening to Larry David kvetch or watching Nathan Fielder play an exaggerated, lonelier version of himself. Flip through TV channels and there will be at least one Jew poking fun at themselves, and odds are the jokes will resonate.

Like my mother and many Jewish comedians, my Jewish self-criticism only occasionally actually references my being Jewish. Yes, I’ll slip in the occasional “Of course I’m on an antidepressant— I’m Jewish,” and I always jump on board a Jewish digestion joke. But, more often than not, despite existing in part because of my Judaism, my self-criticism extends beyond it. It’s as though my self-critical muscle gets bored of the “Jew thing” and decides to move on to more mature exercises (read: how disgusting I am for going days without showering, what a bad friend I am for not keeping in better touch with anyone outside my time zone, and the list goes on). It’s a persona I have inherited, embraced, and developed, a method of moving through the world in which being self-critical is a way of expressing my Judaism, even when it’s not explicitly referenced.

Even the way I explain my choice in career has roots in self-deprecation. When I was about 11, my dad (who I’d argue was the reason I was in therapy in the first place) told me that people only become therapists because there’s something wrong with them. So I thought, “Great. I’ve got it made.”

Fifteen years or so later, turns out I did have it made. Becoming a therapist has been my greatest professional achievement — and an expensive one at that for this frugal Jew — and what do I chalk it up to? “I’m a therapist because there’s something wrong with me.”

Recently, I’ve been quite the hypocritical therapist-because-there’s-something-wrong-with-me. With my clients, I champion the cultivation of self-compassion, discharging data demonstrating just how detrimental judging ourselves is to our mental health. And yet in the moments after my sessions, my practice of self-criticism persists — because I am a Jew, and to be Jewish is to self-deprecate, to criticize my every move, to “should” all over myself.

Or is it?

While self-criticism feels like a part of my culture, my being, my blood — and admittedly more a part of my Judaism than observing Jewish law itself — it also feels like a cheap way (pun obviously intended) of grappling with antisemitism I’d often prefer to pretend no longer exists.

When I first got my driver’s license, I took backroads until I was comfortable on the highway. After driving a few towns over through the Connecticut woods, I called my mom and asked why we never went to one of the towns I had driven through. It was so quaint and not at all far from home. Her response: “Because we’re not welcome there.” I knew what she meant. My first thought (a sarcastic one, of course): “I wouldn’t want me around me either.”

Fast forward to 2021 in Los Angeles. While outdoor dining on a first date, my best friend witnessed a car full of men driving by the restaurant, which was across the street from a synagogue, screaming, “Where are the Jews? Show yourselves!” For the next few weeks I scrutinized my nose in the mirror to determine whether it was safe to walk outside.

It’s as if despite finding the pride in Judaism I imagine my ancestors would want me to feel, I still can’t shake the sense that I must be flawed or doing something wrong simply by existing. It makes me wonder whether being Jewish is, in part, schlepping through life with more bags than we have shoulders, each filled with centuries of historical trauma, and hating ourselves all the while.

What I do know is that a shared understanding and experience of Jewish self-criticism has allowed me to bond with others and reflect honestly on life.  If I hadn’t schlepped these bags, I wouldn’t have cultivated some of my closest friendships and engaged in some of my most meaningful conversations. Self-criticism is a gesture towards the never-ending strive to improve ourselves, even though improving shouldn’t necessarily always be the goal, as we are often perfectly imperfect as we are.

But this lifestyle is clearly missing something, a balance I only recently realized I might be able to achieve: the balance of my mostly-good-spirited Jewish self-criticism with what I’m calling Jewish self-compassion.

Jewish self-compassion isn’t any different from plain old self-compassion. It’s still the act of treating oneself with unconditional caring and kindness, with a non-judgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures. What makes it Jewish is its ability to help us find durability when our self-criticism is breaking us down. While being Jewish is being self-deprecating, criticizing ourselves, and “should-ing” all over the place, it’s not just that. It’s also finding resilience, self-reflecting and doing mitzvot (even for ourselves).

Jewish self-compassion can take many forms. For me, it’s putting a hand on my heart when I find myself in a self-critical spiral, checking in with myself about why these thoughts are showing up and what I might need in the moment. It’s giving myself permission to watch hours of Selling Sunset instead of writing session notes on days I know I really need it, and reminding myself “This is okay” when I tell myself I’m not working hard enough. It’s gifting myself a deep, full breath to interrupt the short, shallow ones when I drive by a synagogue and brace myself for a bang. It takes commitment and mindfulness to make these acts of self-compassion happen, but when I doubt my ability I remember that to be Jewish is to be committed, to be present.

My wish — mom, please don’t blame yourself for this too — is that I’d learned sooner that I can balance my Jewish self-criticism with Jewish self-compassion and still be Jewish, still be Brooke. If I had known I could stick Jewish self-compassion into the bags on my shoulders and actually feel lighter, I imagine I would’ve. Although I’m sure I still would have criticized my posture.

So, while my mom may blame herself for every problem my sister and I have and I’ll probably do the same with my children, I plan to balance my Jewish self-criticism with my newfound Jewish self-compassion. And anyway, as my mom snuck into the conversation, half-jokingly, “Of course we all know it’s really the Jewish father’s fault.”

Brooke Schwartz

Brooke Schwartz, LCSW (she/her) is a licensed psychotherapist and writer located in Los Angeles, CA. She practices behavioral therapy, writes about a variety of mental health topics, and is passionate about destigmatizing mental health by finding humor in an oftentimes painful part of being human.

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