Throughout our lives, we will all experience endless irritations and frustrations, as well as many losses—such as being fired from jobs, suffering betrayal and abuse and losing loved ones.

What makes the difference between those who stay down and those who pick themselves up and start rebuilding?

A major contributing factor is the level of ego-strengths which the person possesses. I do not mean "ego" in the sense of egotistical, self-centered or arrogant, but rather in the sense of knowing what I like and dislike, how – and with whom! – I want to spend my time and validating my right to actualize my talents and strengths without being ashamed of my limitations. We recognize people who have it because:

  • They are not afraid to honestly acknowledge and feel the full range of their feelings – including grief, insecurity, loneliness and anxiety – yet do not get bogged down in these mood states for long.
  • When they suffer a loss, they push forward, focusing on what they can give to others and accomplish, not allowing self-pity or resentment to cripple them.
  • They use painful events to strengthen themselves spiritually, focusing on compassion, humility, creativity and faith.
  • Despite loss, they engage in positive activities (exercise, cleaning, kindness, learning, etc.), knowing that all feelings are transient and eventually fade.
  • They empathize with others, willing to hear and "hold" the pain others are experiencing without trying to reduce or eliminate the pain.
  • They are self-disciplined, courageously resisting temptations and fighting addictive urges, even if doing so means going against the crowd.
  • They take responsibility for their actions, holding themselves accountable and not blaming others for the negativity they may feel at times.
  • Thanks to their independent sense of self-worth, they know that their essence is good and holy even if others are scornful or dismissive.
  • They accept themselves, with their limitations, knowing that perfection is a childish demand, and yet strive constantly to do their maximum.
  • They set firm limits, saying "No" even if it means disappointing others or risking ridicule and rejection. They avoid people who drain them physically or emotionally.

People who lack ego-strengths can be recognized by the following signs:

  • They are on a perpetual roller-coaster, controlled by their moods, fears and anxieties, constantly thinking, "I can't cope with life."
  • They take everything personally and, therefore, are easily insulted, sure that, "No one really cares about me. People are selfish and self-centered and always irritating, ignoring, belittling and hurting me on purpose."
  • They give up easily, thinking, "What's the use? I always mess things up. No matter how hard I try, nothing works out for me. I'm a loser and a failure."
  • They give their personal power over to others, feeling "big" when others admire them and "little" when others are disapproving.
  • Because their sense of self is rooted in others, they obsess about "what do others think of me?" Since they believe, "I'm not good enough," they are sure others feel the same way about them. Thus, they don't trust those who care about them and fear those who don't.
  • They try to control others with guilt-tripping, anger and resentment.
  • They constantly complain about not getting enough from people; there is never enough love, help, understanding, approval, respect, compassion or sensitivity. Feeling like a "nobody," they resent others and belittle whatever others do for them, making it meaningless and feeling that "it's never enough."
  • They constantly judge themselves and others as inferior or superior, rating people according to their looks, income, accomplishments and other superficial factors, turning relationships into competitive power struggles.
  • Fearful of ridicule and rejection, they give up their own dreams and then complain, "I can't do what I really want, because they won't let."
  • They are undisciplined. If an urge to explode or an addictive impulse arises, they give in to it, feeling that, "I don't have the strength to fight."

Ideally, parents should help their children develop ego-strengths during their formative years. But if they were not able to do this for you (often because they, themselves, did not have such strengths), you can begin to develop them now, on your own. This requires that you make small, conscious efforts during the day to think and act differently from the negative script you adopted earlier in life. It's a lot like making the decision not to wear the same clothing you wore when you were five!

  1. Realize that only you have the power to determine your self-worth. People will belittle, invalidate and scorn you. That's life. People think they have the power to decide who is "big" and who is "small." This is an illusion. You are a royalty, the child of G‑d! This gives you worth—even if others think you're a "nobody."

  2. Even King Solomon said, "No one gets even half their heart's desires fulfilled" (Ecclesiastes 1:13). Feeling, "I deserve more," leads to bitterness. Remind yourself, "G‑d gives me everything I need. It might not be all I want, but if I had all I want, I'd be a spoiled brat. I'm getting exactly what I need for my growth."

  3. Know that you can always give—even if only a smile or a word of praise or gratitude. Being in the giving mode puts you in the driver's seat.

  4. Notice and value your smallest acts of self-discipline throughout the day. You had one cookie instead of ten—or no junk food at all? Great! You recycled your bottles or your batteries? Terrific! You kept silent instead of spreading gossip or gloom? Give yourself a pat on the back! It may seem silly, but this is what people with healthy self-esteem do naturally. Copy them! Then, from the thousands of victories you have each day, write down the five you are most proud of in a little notebook. Every act of self-discipline is an act of self-respect!

  5. Make the conscious effort to practice gratitude. Write down five things for which you are grateful each day. An inspiring word of Torah? A flower? A seat on the bus? Enough money to finish the month? A good friend? What about the miracles that happen each day, like not getting run over as you crossed the street or being saved from some other disaster? Write it down.

  6. The greater the pain, the more action you must take. If you don't have the time or money for a gym, take brisk walks or turn on the music and dance.

  7. Keep telling yourself, "Even if I'm not all I'd like to be, I choose to love and accept myself as I am right now and to know that G‑d loves me as I am." Even if you think this is a lie, thinking the words over and over throughout the day will have the same effect as a tow truck pulling a car out of snow drift. The alternative, i.e. continuing to dislike and feel like a failure, is not a healthy choice!

Notice and value your healthy choices. You can choose right now to think an inspiring thought! The ability to choose is what distinguishes us from animals. No one else can do this for us—no therapist, advisor or pill. So give yourself some soul food today! No one can control your mind unless you give them permission to do so.