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Dealing with the Psychological Scars of Childhood

Dealing with the Psychological Scars of Childhood



I have a fundamental question about anger. What if someone has deep issues, scars, feelings of abandonment, anger, sadness, anxiety, etc., that are festering inside? What is the Torah perspective on how to deal with those psychological issues?

Using myself as an example: I have issues with my parents and the way they treated me, that affect the way I see the world. I have buttons that get pushed; I get really upset and angry sometimes. I know it’s not desirable and unhealthy. I’m trying so hard to change. I think about G‑d, trusting G‑d, believing every moment in life is an opportunity to grow, change, and transcend. I am trying to develop my faith that He has set up this life for me, difficult and easy things, exactly for me for the best, and that all my trials and tribulations are for growth and positive change.

But yet, my buttons still get pushed, and I have unresolved frustration, anger, resentment . . .

Any words of wisdom?


Took me some time to think about this one. The issue of repression vs. expression is not an easy one.

On issues such as this, I always go back to a classic work, the Tanya, by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. He wrote this over a hundred years before Freud has his epiphany, yet he precipitated many of Freud’s most original ideas. Freud was interested in helping people live productively within society, whereas R’ Schneur Zalman had more lofty goals—that a person should have a sense of the spiritual and the divine. Nevertheless, his advice concerning repression stands firmly with two feet on the ground.

In chapter 28 of Tanya you’ll find a loaded line about dealing with disturbing thoughts: “Don’t be a fool to try to find the root of these thoughts and elevate them. This is only for tzaddikim (enlightened souls). But for the regular person, how can he raise these thoughts upward when he himself is tied below?”

In modern parlance, this is called “pulling yourself up by your own hairs.” Doesn’t get you too far.

Then there’s denial. Denial doesn’t mean you deny that you are having these thoughts. Denial is when you are angered that such a thought has the audacity to appear on your conscious radar screen. Or paralyzed with shame and guilt. Such a reaction, writes R’ Schneur Zalman, is a symptom of an overblown ego. “Such a person,” he writes, “does not recognize his place.” He believes that he should be pure and righteous—and to such people, thoughts such as these would never arise. So why are they falling into his brain?

Rather, he writes, a balanced person recognizes that these thoughts are natural for a human being living on planet Earth. So he ignores the thought and gets on with life. At the appropriate time, he’ll find a way to improve himself. But he won’t fall into the trap of fighting with the shadows of his own thoughts.

We all have within us our share of hungry animals: wild beasts that tear and devour their prey, donkeys that refuse to budge from their place, mad dogs who bark at any passerby, and monkeys just acting silly. Yes, we need to tame them. But don’t try to train your dog while he’s barking. At that point, you just want to shut him up and sit him still.

When and how do you deal with those little nasties? As you go through life, the opportunities arise.

When you live with others, you learn how to make space and share. You may discover a nasty rhinoceros inside who isn’t so thrilled about sharing space. You recognize him and shoo him away.

When you raise your own children, you recognize in your own behaviors and reactions the patterns that were fostered by painful experiences as a child. Now it’s time to change—and now you have the power to change. You catch those reactions, acknowledge, “Yes, this is who I am. But I don’t have to stay that way.” And you do things right.

Similarly with the other challenges of life: career, friendships, marriage, health—when an issue becomes a real obstacle to progress, that’s when you know it’s time to tackle it.

How do you tackle it? Simply by doing things right. Forget the searching into your past. Forget the self-analysis. That’s more of that futile “picking yourself up by your hairs.” Just do things right, and all of it will be fixed—whether you got to the bottom of the problem or not.

The question still remains: At the end of the day, we are still telling you to bootstrap your own life. How can a person be expected to climb upward on the slippery surface of life without a helping hand extending from someone who has already made it?

The answer is that he can’t. That’s why each one of us needs a teacher and guide. That’s why chassidim have a Rebbe—they bond with a tzaddik who stands firmly at the top of the precipice of life with a strong rope to pull others up. And even then, they need also a more immediate teacher, someone closer to their personal situation to guide them step by step. And even then, we all rely on good friends with whom we can confide and who we can trust to let us know when we are messing up—with love and with real concern.

Find a single path. Find a Rebbe, a true tzaddik who teaches this path. Find a teacher. And find good friends.

Then just move ahead, step by step, up the hill. Don’t look down, back to the depths from which you came—except to know that “yes, it’s a great challenge, and look what I have accomplished to move this far ahead.”

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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ruth housman marshfield hills, ma July 8, 2015

what happened so egregiously troubling In our stories, there is so much pain. Not just ours. And that is plenty. We can write the endless litany of what befell the Jews. And also that we're still standing. Upstanding in many ways. I am referencing what happened to so many, in the fulfillment of Story, as in what someone said about children and people, who were innocents, also, caught up in the tidal wave of events. Killed. Murdered. For a cause. A Divine Cause. I think it's a problem. A deep Cosmic Problem, to contemplate, and deeply important to speak to this suffering. Because this too, happened. And it takes a deep, sensitive person, to reference this burden of sorrow, to think about them too, in contemplating a Story, that did involve, in sometimes apparently merciless ways, violence to others, innocents. Reply

Debra Hebb April 12, 2015

Finding a teacher Okay, great advice. But when one is begging to be taught by a Rabbi step by step and is not then what? Tried to understand why when a class is offered and a book required is purchased only to find out there is no class...those in charge of the teaching do not answer the questions but tells you that the only concern is with the Jews at hand and not someone like me who is in need of guidance even in the Noahide Laws...No explanations as to why a class is dropped before it even gets started...lost and trying to find my way. More than eager to learn what is correct and what is not. I realize I am not gifted in the complexities of Judaism, but I know that their is One G-d...He said that the nation of His Holy Book is to teach everyone who seeks learning...confused more each day as I struggle on my own to make sense of this journey... Reply

Anonymous Gentile Ottawa October 7, 2013

Suicide If I'm interpreting what Ruth is saying correctly, she's saying that suicide isn't a sin, it's the person/s who drive another to suicide that are sinful. She also says that reaching out isn't always enough to stave off the act of suicide.

Survivors of suicide are left a legacy of pain and often wonder what they could have done to prevent the suicide, or worse, wonder what they did to cause it.

If someone has decided to fulfill an intention to suicide, they are past reaching out for help. Once the mind is made up, the suicidal individual is likely to become the model of discretion so that the plan can be executed, unhampered.

When someone is reaching out, the decision is not yet finalized. The problem is, how to help the one reaching out? As someone who has struggled with suicidal ideation, as well as someone who as so far, survived the suicide of a spouse, all I knew is that I didn't want to die depressed. I guess that was incentive enough for me to tough out the healing process.
So I'm guessing, based on my anecdotal experience, and subject experience, that when a suicidal person is reaching out, it could be for the last time, and we might be in a position to help. But how? They don't want to die, they just don't want to suffer anymore - so how to help them find the incentive to carry on? I don't know, but we must try. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 4, 2013

Is suicide a sin? Are people in such pain, in such personal despair, that they want to kill themselves, sinful? I think not. I also know the trail of tears they leave behind, but it happens, reaching out, isn't always helpful to mitigate what is fueling this deep angst, deeper than one can imagine, not being there.

I don't like the word SIN. I don't judge someone in such pain they kill themselves. Sure, I could say evil exists in this world. All you have to do is look around, towards what is brutal beyond conscience of any kind, and ask, the Eternal, about the eternal wailing why of this. But judgment is wrong. To be inside another's story could be to comprehend where they are at, how they got to that place. And sure, I wouldn't want to be in a lot of in depth stories, that lead people to terrible acts of destruction and pain, that kill the soul of others. For me, that is so wrong. But suicide?

I am responding to what was written here. And maybe I am a rebel. There is in REBEL REBE cca at the WELL. Reply

anonymous gentile ottawa September 30, 2013

Weirdness I was thinking about the post which describes sufferers of childhood abuse as being weird due to an ability to connect or properly respond to others.

I think that's exactly right. I don't believe weirdness is an inherent personality trait, but a symptom of a struggle to survive in a world that seems very weird and warped to the sufferer.

I'm sure I was considered very weird and I'm sure no one would call me weird now, because I do have the wherewithal to connect to relate to others now.

When you really think about it, abusers are weird. The ones bent on abuse for the sheer thrill of it do strange things to the victim to get their kicks. Reply

Anonymous Gentile Ottawa September 30, 2013

Miriam and Phil Indoctrinated - "To accept a set of beliefs unquestioningly". When I was abused as a child, that would not be true. It didn't become true for me until I was well into middle age - a life time of abuse will do that to you.

Phil, I'm sure I behaved abusively, eventually, partially to defend myself and partially in retaliation. When you're not able to think you merely react. I can say that behaving abusively was never my first resort, only my last. By the time I resorted to the last resort I have no doubt that my mind was thoroughly warped. It's not that my thoughts were delusional - people really were "out to get me". But the were warped in so far that I was so far gone, I had actually forgotten that I was a human being. I became convinced that I was lower than dirt. That's the warped part. So the abused succeeded in warping my mind, but I must say that it took a long, long time for that to happen. I got myself away from the circle of original abusers, but simply attracted more into my life. For quite awhile it was the same cycle of defense and retaliation, and it wasn't working. There's only one of me and millions of "them". This became some sort of challenge for me. Something in me refused to be defeated by this. I was intrigued by the problem and set about solving it, which meant learning to think my way through these situations. I gradually learned ways of responding that were effective. These little successes were empowering and I grew ever more skillful. Eventually I stopped being terrified of others and myself. As for the torments, what was true last week is not true this week. The path to healing is long and arduous, but then you hit a "critical mass" so to speak - and the rest of the healing comes quick. I can fully feel the love of the creator and that sense of warped worthlessness is gone. It started by learning to think straight and act accordingly. Reply

Miriam Columbus September 29, 2013

Anonymous You deserve to be acknowledged for your tears.

I have another question. Indoctrinated? In what? Sorry, I honestly don't understand that part.

Thank you. Reply

Phil Detroit September 29, 2013

To anonymous gentile You say: One thing I learned is that if one is subject to extreme abuse in childhood, it doesn't stop in adulthood. It took a couple of years, but the abuse has completely ceased.

I am confused. Do you mean that those who abused you have continued to do so?
Or do you mean that you passed on the abuse to others?
Or what do you mean by the above statement of the continuation of the abuse?

All of those are known to happen to abused children. And the child's mind is so warped that he assumes that it is proper for him to keep accepting abuse from, say, his parents. He may also not notice that he is behaving abusively, since it may feel as if he is merely defending himself. He may be unable to see that he is not being attacked..

With warped perceptions, even the righteousness is warped.
You recovered through insight? That means your abuse failed to seriously warp your capacities.

"Understanding is the boobie prize." Emotional healing goes way deeper than mere insight or righteousness. Reply

anonymous gentile ottawa September 25, 2013

Phil I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply behaving righteously is a cure, but I did mean to imply that it helps. I know whereof you speak - I am thoroughly indoctrinated, believe me.

Behaving "righteously" was helped me immeasurably in terms of stopping the cycle of abuse.

One thing I learned is that if one is subject to extreme abuse in childhood, it doesn't stop in adulthood. I needed it to stop and I had no support system. I had to teach myself to think my way through abusive encounters then act according to my best judgement. It took a couple of years, but the abuse has completely ceased. Thank Gd. Those inner torments still torment, but I have more energy to deal with that because I'm not dealing with abuse. Your post made me cry - not because you disagree, but because I really do know your pain. Reply

Sidney London September 21, 2013

If you regard PTSD as universal, then you are not speaking of childhood trauma. You are merely speaking of whatever childhood experiences are universal.

The topic here is childhood trauma.

That means more than mere distress. It means a serious violation of the child, such as distorts his attitude towards himself and the world and renders him unable to engage with others. Or, it may simply create a filter that distorts incoming information such as to fit the violation. The result is an adult whose behavior is weird.

If PTSD were "universal" then EVERYONE's behavior would be "weird".

But in that case, nobody's behavior would be weird, since it would be universal.

Someone with distorted perceptions can behave righteously, but this fails to correct his perceptions or his weirdness. He would merely be righteously weird. And, incidentally, incapable of ongoing contentment, even if he is capable of occasional tiny moments of intense joy.

And his friends, associates, and co-workers would still be deprived of his warmth and fellow-feeling. Reply

Miriam Columbus September 17, 2013

Tapping I see you know about tapping, anonymous.

Here's an anecdote for you.

At my place of work, a man came every 3 weeks to spray insecticide. He promised not to spray in the room where I was working.

For the next several weeks I was so weak I could hardly walk. I finally realized my bronchial tubes were so swollen I could hardly breathe. Resting didn't help. Nothing helped.

I had ONE hour tapping session with a skilled partner. That night I dreamt that three tsaddiks came and healed me. They wore white shining garments and golden crowns.

When I woke up I could breathe for the first time in over a month and the difficulty never recurred. This was four years ago.

Of course, I told the boss that if the exterminator came during working hours again, I would have to leave the building. But that's later. What matters is that the lungs physically recovered from that first crippling exposure.

Tapping affects physiology. Goes way past intellect. Reply

Phil Detroit September 17, 2013

Why do you keep insulting people who are dealing with something you have NOT experienced? It is NOT TRUE that behaving righteously helps.

The personality is still wooden.

The feeling that he had no right to be born remains, and the sin of being born far outweighs any mitzvos he or anyone can ever do.

It's impossible to escape that sin. Suicide is a sin too. Accidental death is an option, & the possibility that such may occur through his subconscious guilt it also terrifying.

It's as if there were an evil king, more powerful than GD, constantly accusing him. The person tries to imagine Gd protecting him from the evil king--and can't imagine it. Consciously, the person believes Gd is all-powerful, but emotionally, he finds that the evil king trumps Gd.

You claim to know more than you know. Even infinite righteousness fails to protect this man from the evil king who rules his emotions.

The one thing that fails to help is mechanically doing mitzvos all the time, as they fail to give any emotional relief.

He, UNLIKE YOU, feels guilty, evil, & doomed. Reply

anonymous gentile ottawa September 16, 2013

con't - Behaving Righteously I am beginning to see PSTD as a rite of passage in learning to navigate and eventually circumvent the law of the jungle - with the reward being increasingly greater quality of mind and life. I also know I had to tackle it on all levels simultaneously - behaviorally as well as emotionally, psychologically, physically,. spiritually and unconsciously. My perceptions were not warped, but my responses for the longest time, were entirely inadequate to deal effectively with this condition. There are mixed reports on tapping. They say it works well in conjunction with talk therapy. This for me begs the question, do studies prove these claims out? How can we know that talk therapy is more effective with tapping? The anecdotal evidence is not convincing. Reply

anonymous gentile ottawa September 16, 2013

Behaving righteously I think I missed that implication in the narrative. I was more struck with questions about anger and helplessness, and completely missed that, or forgot about it. Not to be difficult, but I think the Rabbi is on to something, but sometimes it's hard to communicate the message in it's entirely and still keep it simple. I think of it as working without as well as working within. Behaving righteously works. Success breeds confidence which boosts inner strength. Also, I question that the person with PSTD has a completely warped perspective. Maybe they can read everyone's mind, and PSTD is an appropriate and understandable reaction, until the sufferer gets it through their head that most people will limit their shinanagins to whatever they can get away with. When your able to assess what that is for the average Joe, then your all set to handle this "reality" as it were. This world is increasingly sick, dangerous and threatening. Warped even. I'm beginning to see PSTD as a rite of passage t Reply

Phil Detroit September 16, 2013

It's not about "dwelling on the past"; it's about the uselessness of righteousness to overcome what was repressed Ottowa says, "The terrified person you describe... sounds very much like myself over the past 9 years."
Then I described it wrong.
The person I described doesn't know he's terrified.
Tzvi says, "it's mainly a matter of changing how you act, how you think of others, and thereby, how you think of yourself." "It'".
It is NOT do-able. He IS "good" but his personality is wooden. He's "uncomfortable" w. people. He can't see that behind his "discomfort" is an unrecognized fear that if he ever errs he'll be annihilated. It takes all his courage to leave the house & go to work. He "lacks warmth," feels burning agony. He fears talking: that's imposing. He has no idea how to act. Being "good" is useless. Within a sea of misery & agony are tiny moments of joy--giving thanks, making brochas-- but not from his mitzvos; they're never enough. Tries & fails to accept praise, to stop feeling he sinned by being born, to stop pretending not to exist. Like Tzvi, he sees his failure as sin. Reply

Nachman Haifa September 12, 2013

You say "it's not easy" as if it is merely difficult to succeed on one's own. No one can completely overcome PTSD merely by "practicing righteousness".
Just as coffee consumed by someone who is drunk produces a wide-awake drunk, so righteousness practiced by someone with PTSD produces actions without heart or soul. .Yes, "fake it till you make it" but there is more to the Twelve Step Program than just faking it.

And the Twelve Step Program also fails to heal PTSD.
So does a Freudian counselor.
So does any other talk therapy.
So do drugs.

Righteousness & goodwill fail to undo the warped perceptions of the world constantly haunting one afflicted with PTSD. Trying to recover from PTSD thru righteousness is like trying to recover from a broken leg by walking on it without setting it.

The entire brain/body chemistry are totally warped by PTSD and cannot be healed by artificially adding chemicals or actions from outside, since the body's set point is violated by the outside chemicals & the body WILL reclaim its own warped set-point .

But tapping helps. Reply

Yitzhak Salt Lake City September 11, 2013

Rabbi, you are obviously healthy. You are NOT walking around with PTSD. So what you know "from experience" fails to deal with PTDS.

Someone with PTSD does not overcome terror by resolving to "be nice".

The terror remains until s/he finds someone who can give him/her specific exercises to deal with the terror and to reduce the terror. Even if it never quite goes away, it needs to become MUCH LESS before the person can "be nice" in any meaningful way.

Forcing himself to "be nice" is absolutely inadequate.

A frozen terrified "nice" behavior is not a life. Please stop claiming that merely behaving righteously will heal PTSD.

For you to insist on saying that, is an unkind slur against those who struggle with such terrors.


annonymous gentile ottawa September 11, 2013

To Phil The terrified person you describe in your response sounds very much like myself over the past 9 years. Although, there were actually one or two people that did want to kill me. Failing that, they did their best in other ways to finish me - and they succeeded. I simply did not have the wherewithal to either defend myself, or fight back. So let them finish me. And when you've been taken as low as you can possibly go - without dying, or killing, or contracting some life threatening disease, you then know, in your knowing of knowings, that aside from a bullet, there really is nothing that anyone can do to hurt you anymore. For me, nothing has been more therapeutic than that. Maybe it's surviving that which imparts self esteem to go along with the self worth. It's belief in myself now, which enables me to deal with anything that arises in an effective manner - including anger. I has to be dealt with. It cannot be repressed to good effect. Reply

Anonymous September 11, 2013

Freeing ourselves from the past Rabbi Freeman's advice was very realistic and helpful.
Ruth in this discussion used a great expression, namely to "Ice it".
It is like Dry-freezing an unwanted / malignant mole.
If it is no longer part of you, it cannot harm you. Or at least try visualizing it.
we must not let toxic memory/scars have power over our present and future.
That is why I like the Jewish daily blessings from the Siddur. It reminds us to have gratitude every moment and to look at the "now". Everyday is a new day, a gift and we should treat it as such. Let's not let the toxic memory contaminate this gift. Is not Judaism about separating the holy from the profane? Reply

Da vid USA September 10, 2013

For Rabbi I am inclined to agree with you....dwelling on the past does not keeps you stuck and living in the past. I have done it enough to know.

What happened when Lots wife looked back? So too, this can happen with people if they focus too much on looking back.

If I have learned anything from Judaism, it is to embrace life, the now, the it is so very precious. Reply