Dear Rachel,

I want to change my image. Without going into too much detail, the person I’ve become—or rather, the image I project—is not one I want to continue. I’ve madeThe image I project is not one I want to continue some mistakes. Well, maybe even a lot of them. I’m still young, but I’m afraid to be stuck with this image forever. I don’t want to have to move away and start a new life; I like where I live and many of the people I know. I want to start over, but don’t know if I can, and more importantly, if others will let me forget my past.

The Wrong Image

Dear New Image,

First of all, I want to congratulate you. It takes a lot of maturity and self-awareness, as well as plain old spunk, to say This is not who I want to be, I can be better. Change is hard. But not impossible. The Talmud says (Yoma 86a) that a completely righteous person cannot stand in the place of a baal teshuvah. In other words, it is the height of holiness to feel remorse and make amends, to change your ways and choose a new path.

A new path begins with just one step; that’s all you have to take. G‑d helps those who try to change. The midrash on “Song of Songs” (5:2) says: “Open up for me an opening like the eye of a needle, and in turn I will enlarge it to be an opening through which wagons can enter.” You’ve got the best personal coach in G‑d. And the amazing thing is that when you make that change, all your negative behavior becomes positive in retrospect. The act of change—remorse, teshuvah—turns liabilities into virtues. It redefines who you were by who you have become.

Change doesn’t have to be major to be effective. You don’t have to move away to another city, although there is the expression that someone who changes his place changes his luck. The change could be small, like where you sit (in school, on the bus), where you spend your free time (the library, or a bar), and where (and with whom) you socialize.

Here’s some suggestions on how to change:

  1. First, decide what you want to change about yourself and your life. Get a clear picture of what you want your new image to be. Visualize what you and your new life will look like when that change has been accomplished. When you have set those goals, make a list of the steps you have to take to get there. Make sure they are a sequence of small, doable steps. Also, the more areas of your life they cover, the more complete the change will be.
  2. It’s usually easier to start with external visible changes. There’s a concept of naaseh v’nishma—“we will do and then we will hear.” You do the action, and then it changes you internally. So changing how you dress, how you walk, and your vocabulary (which is important, since speech affects thought) are easier changes to make. And always make the easier changes first. They will give you the jump start you need to tackle the bigger ones.
  3. Develop relationships with people who reflect the new values and lifestyle you are trying to emulate. Our social circles have a very big effect on who we are and who we become. Surround yourself with people who inspire you to be your best, and taper off your relationships with people who are a bad influence on you. Read about people who inspire you, about their challenges and how they overcame them. Great people are not born, they’re made. And they become great through perseverance and hard work.
    The Amoraic sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, also known as Reish Lakish, was the quintessential baal teshuvah. He went from being a highway robber to becoming a master Torah scholar, thanks to his teacher and brother-in-law, Rabbi Yochanan, who believed in his potential. Be among people who believe in your potential.
  4. Write some affirmations that depict your ideal self and repeat them to yourself on a daily basis. Sentences like “I am confident in my own decision,” “I am valuable and unique,” will help you realize your self-worth and live up to that image of yourself.
    As for other people letting you change, well, let them try to stop you. You are who you are, and no one’s opinion can change that. People are wary of others who claim to have changed. You’ll have no choice but to prove it to them by being consistent in your new behavior. Some people will find it hard to accept the new you, but that’s not your problem.
  5. There are three steps to doing teshuvah: apologize for your wrongdoing (to others or to G‑d); make any amends that are necessary; and promise not to engage in the same behavior again. These steps can be taken at any juncture in our lives.
    If your previous behavior caused any damage, loss or pain to anyone—and you have it in your power to rectify that—then you need to take the steps to make amends. But you don’t have to do this all at once. Make a list of the wrongs you are able to right by apologizing, being kind, returning money or any other similar necessary retribution.

Know that there will be setbacks. That’s normal, and no indication that you won’t succeed. Keep believing in your new vision of yourself, and it will become a reality.

In the story of Creation, G‑d says: “Let us make man.” To whom is He speaking? One opinion is that it refers to the angels. Another opinion is that He is speaking to us—to humankind. We play a large part in who we become.

TheWe have the potential to be G‑dly rest of the verse says that we are made in G‑d’s image and likeness. We have the potential to be G‑dly and to project that image. The Torah gives us the tools to do this. Each mitzvah we do—whether it’s between us and G‑d, us and other people, whether it’s something we must do or something we must hold ourselves back from doing—makes us more refined and polishes our image. Our actions define who we are, and they in turn affect our thoughts and speech.

Each of us, including you, has the potential and the responsibility to remake ourselves in our best image.

Wishing you a brilliant future!