It is good to criticize yourself. It is not good to beat up on yourself. The former is necessary for your moral growth, and comes from your soul’s desire to reach higher. The latter is no more than a tactic of the devil inside you, trying to sabotage your life by bringing you down.
The two may seem similar, but in fact they are worlds apart. There are a few tell-tale signs to identify the true source of your thoughts:
Healthy introspection is a deliberate exercise that takes place at a scheduled time of your choosing. You control it, it doesn’t control you. If thoughts of self-criticism come to you spontaneously, unplanned, in the middle of doing something else, then they are just an unwanted interruption to the flow of life, and should be cut off immediately.
Furthermore, healthy self-analysis has a time limit. You can spend ten minutes on it, maybe fifteen. No more. If it goes on forever then it is coming from a place of self-absorption. Wallowing in self-improvement doesn’t improve anyone. If it is endless, it is not coming from a good place. Your inner devil crashes the party and doesn’t know when to leave. Your soul comes with an appointment.
Then, at the end of a good session of introspection, you feel upbeat and positive. You have identified what needs to be fixed and believe in your power to fix it. That is a sign of a healthy self-analysis. But unhealthy self-wallowing leaves you feeling flat and hopeless. There is a twisted pleasure in putting yourself down and making yourself out to be the worst human specimen in the world. After all, that’s quite an achievement. But it’s just not true. You’re not so bad and shouldn’t enjoy thinking you are. It’s just negative indulgence.
Finally, the surest sign of healthy self-analysis is what you do next. If you are spurred on to take action, if you are moved to improve, if you have the momentum to get up and do better, then your introspection came from the right place. But if it makes you feel useless and depressed, inert and lethargic, if you feel what’s the point of it all and why should I bother trying, then you know that’s your devil talking.
So to test the true source of your self-analysis, just ask: When does it happen? For how long? How does it make me feel? And what do I do next? The answers to those questions will tell you whether you are soaring with your soul, or dancing with your devil.
Rabbi Moss and Rabbi Mendel (Menachem) Bluming of Potomac, Maryland