Are You Damaged Goods?


The Psychology of Torah vs. Other Schools of Psychology

Not long ago a young man in his early 30’s came to see me. Tall, handsome and articulate, he seemed put together. That is, until he began to share his story. At first he spoke calmly and deliberately. Even as he discussed himself he did so as if he was speaking about another person, totally aloof and detached.

But then the dam broke. With tears in his eyes he shared with me how he was violated and deeply wounded as a child, in ways that I would prefer not to graphically describe here.

Hearing how an innocent defenseless child has been hurt tears your heart out. I too began to well up. But then things got worse.

This man, at no fault of his own, told me how his entire childhood and growth into adulthood was haunted by one prevailing feeling: “I am damaged goods.”

And if this wasn’t bad enough, he related how, after years of intense therapy, he sensed that his own therapist agreed with him. “In one of our last sessions,” he told me, “I asked my therapist if he sees me making any progress. I still am having extreme difficulty dating and building a healthy relationship. I don’t feel that I trust anyone, and am pretty sure that no one trusts me. So where is this therapy going”? The fellow continued: “My therapist’s tepid reply made my heart sink. He told me that healing takes time; it can often be a lifelong experience, and even then some things may never be fixed.”

“So what the [expletive] am I paying top dollar for therapy when things may never be fixed?!” he blurted out to me – and, I guess, to his therapist.

Great question.

I asked him for permission to call his shrink and try to get some clarity. With his blessing I unabashedly picked up the phone and had a conversation with this mental health professional. Long story short, this particular therapist believes that therapy can soothe, minimize and alleviate some of the pain, hopefully enough to allow this fellow to function better, but damaged goods are damaged goods, and he didn’t have much hope that this individual would become functional enough to build a healthy marriage and family. “Some people are not destined to find true happiness, especially in that way. We need to help them find some comfort in other ways.” I didn’t expect that he would share this sentiment with his paying client…

When I pushed him further, wondering what his role as a healer of souls may be, he finally conceded that some damages cannot be repaired. He actually presented a plausible and even scientific (based on his axioms, that is) argument: Just as body parts can be severed (G-d forbid) in an accident, with no hope of growing back, so too can our psyches incur irreversible damage.”

Whoa… I thought to myself: This certainly opens up a Pandora’s box.

Is this true? Do many – and how many – psychologists actually believe that certain life experiences damage you forever? How many feel that some people are actually damaged goods? And how does this bode for the benefits of modern psychology and its interventions?

I went to search for the definition of “damaged goods” and discovered that most dictionaries offer a gloomy definition: “A person who is considered to be no longer desirable or valuable because of something that has happened.” “A person considered to be less than perfect psychologically, as a result of a traumatic experience.”

I reminded myself of Josephine Hart’s damaging quote: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” Is that good or bad news?

The questions mount – and challenge our very perception of ourselves, as well as the perception of our professionals.

How deep are the effects of psychological trauma?

Trauma results from a violation of a person’s familiar ideas about the world and of their human rights, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This can also be experienced when people or institutions, depended on for survival, violate or betray or disillusion the person in some unforeseen way.

Traumatic experiences in people’s lives, especially in children, completely overwhelm the individual’s ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. This sense of being overwhelmed can be delayed by weeks, years or even decades, as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances.

We know that a severe traumatic event, especially one that is repeated or enduring, can lead to serious long-term negative consequences that are often overlooked even by mental health professionals. Trauma victims, young and old, organize much of their lives around repetitive patterns of reliving and warding off traumatic memories, reminders, and affects.

But how deep are these affects? Do they cause permanent damage? Once broken, can a soul be repaired?

Are some of us then damaged goods? Are some situations pretty much hopeless? Do some professionals believe that, but simply choose (for many reasons) not to share that information?

Doesn’t this question lie at the heart of all healing? How powerful is the healing process when it comes to human psyche and soul? For that matter, what does our soul and psyche look like? What potential do they have? Can we ever completely heal?

Theories abound about these fundamental questions – cutting into the very core of the human soul. These theories surely span the spectrum from one extreme to the next: Some argue that like all things in nature the human psyche can get irreparably damaged. Others feel that some healing can be achieved. The differences of opinion range as to how much healing. But the consensus more or less is that we cannot expect a traumatized or wounded psyche to ever fully rebound.

I would like to humbly submit the Torah/Chassidus view on the matter. You can compare the different modalities and draw your own conclusions. May the best man win.


Sixty four years ago this week (the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat 1950) my mentor’s mentor (Rebbe’s Rebbe) ascended on high. His name: Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Chabad Rebbe. The last discourse he published in his lifetime was issued for study that very day. The Chassidic discourse, titled Basi L’Gani, Come to my Garden (a verse in Song of Songs), consists of twenty chapters.

When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, assumed leadership of the movement, he began his first discourse with the same verse, and elucidated on the original discourse. Every year hence, on this day, Yud Shevat, the Rebbe would focus, in consecutive order, on another one of the twenty chapters of the discourse, in 1952 – chapter two, 1953 – chapter three, concluding with chapter twenty in 1970. Then he began the order again. Based on this cycle, this year, 2014 (5774), corresponds to the 4th chapter of Basi L’Gani.

What is the theme of chapter four?

You guessed it, the nature of the “damage” or the way it’s described in this discourse, the nature of the forces that “conceal” the pure and healthy divine soul.

In the words of the chapter: Though, as stated above, the world obscures G-dliness — i.e. the spirit of folly stemming from the animal soul can obscure the light and truth of the G-dly soul — this affects only the middos, the emotive attributes of the G-dly soul, but not its essence.

The question is how deep is this concealment? How deep the damage?

Each and every person has a healthy divine soul that always remains intact in its health. Upon birth this soul enters into a material body and animal soul, which conceals the purity and health of the divine soul.

The healthy soul, which is essentially divine, is aligned with its purpose. Like a healthy machine that follows its engineer’s plan. But once inside the body and animal drive, their selfish desires dull his healthier senses, causing the person to deviate and get misaligned from his or her life calling. Conflict has been born – a split between who you truly are and what you do, between your core and your behavior.

This is the root definition of all “disease” – a body that is misaligned from its soul. From this stems every form of dissonance. In its more extreme form this is the effect of trauma, which overwhelms the individual and causes a part of him or her to break off from itself and its soul connection.

But – as explained in chapter four of the discourse – even the most extreme form of trauma and dissonance only impacts the emotional faculties of the soul, its self-perception, self-awareness and feelings. This damage is only as strong as the feelings vested in it. But beneath the surface of our consciousness, the core soul remains intact, healthy and as connected as ever.

Indeed, what is even more amazing – as the chapter explains – is that the very concealment and dissonance itself was created for you: your challenges are a vote of confidence in you and your ability to overcome this temporary concealment, and recognize your true inner divine power.

The reason that the “animal soul” has the power and ability to conceal your healthy core is because its power is rooted in the divine desire to overcome these challenges and transform them into colossal forces of good.

And therefore, though initially and ostensibly life’s traumas can cover up and conceal the outer dimensions, the conscious feelings, of the healthy soul, they do not in any way compromise the core itself.

Our faith and connection to the core gives us the strength to overcome these overwhelming forces and discover the unscathed soul within.

So there you have the psychology of Chassidus:

There is no such thing as damaged goods.

In a man-made world with man-made objects things are built and then broken. In a world subject to the laws of erosion, aging, deterioration and death, things always get damaged; the arrow travels in one direction, from healthy to less healthy, from complete to broken. This process cannot always be reversed.

But in the divine-made world of the immortal soul, nothing is ever permanently damaged. The expression of the soul – its feelings and outer faculties – can be concealed and temporarily blinded. Trauma can impede our functions. But they can never damage our core souls.

You are only as damaged as your perception and feelings convince you to be. Otherwise known as projection. In truth, beneath it all, on the foundation level, where it matters most, you are not damaged at all. Your beautiful soul sits waiting for you to believe in it and set her free.

As Michelangelo famously explained how he sculpts such beautiful angels in the marble: I saw the angel in the marble, so I carved and carved and set her free.

Life’s travails can wear us down. Loss, pain, trauma etch their wounds into our psyches. Our pure souls get entangled and trapped in marble, concrete or even more sullied substances. But their effect goes only as far as our perception and feelings allow them to go. They do not touch the core essence of who you are.

This is the foundation of all true healing.

Believe in yourself because G-d believes in you. Indeed, your very challenges – the ones that control your initial perception and feelings, concealing the inner power of your divine soul – were created for you to overcome them and seek out the divine within.

Thus, even your feeling like “damaged goods” is meant to motivate you to transcend that feeling and reach the true you.

So the next time your despondent voice whispers to you that you are “damaged goods,” and the next time your therapist concurs – tell them both that you just read in a discourse of a mystic and healer of the highest order that it just ain’t so.


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Gitel Blima
10 years ago

Thank you so much for this essay Rabbi Jacobson. I feel as though it was written especially for me as that IS THE way I have come to identify myself, although there are probably many who feel like this. I am a daughter of Holocaust survivors who looked to their children to allay their pain – clearly setting us up for a fall with this impossible expectation. Then there was an abusive marriage from which I am still recovering… In any case, the damaged goods label can for a time be helpful so as to avoid beating oneself up for all the messes, all the failures, all the dysfunctionality. And I get the fact that therapists who only relate to the natural world would come to conclude that real, complete healing and true happiness are not possible… but I know that you are right because I have experienced that transcendence as well. It is not a battle that can be won only once Im afraid, it takes constant work and study and faith and vigilance. Thank you again for writing about people like us. I only wish that there was a teacher nearby to help me delve into and really live our sacred texts like Basi LeGani. Online reading is great, but it is no substitute for face to face authenticity. I am blessed to have a son who is on his way with his Yeshiva to Crown Heights at this moment for the occasion of Yud Shvat this Shabbos. I have lived to see great Nachas and reward, and yet I struggle every day with a monstrous Yetzer Hara that wants to keep me down. If only I were strong enough to surmount it! If only I could allow myself to fully identify with the G-dly Soul within me and to simply treat the negativity as an illusion or a stone to kick out of the way… And as you write R. Jacobson, may the best in man – and woman – in all of us, WIN.

sarah sweet
10 years ago

Amazing! I never realized chassidus and psychology connected.

Yaacov Dovid Shulman
10 years ago

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
I am glad to read your point of view on this matter. This is particularly so because a long time back I attended a talk by Rabbi Manis Friedman in Monsey, NY, in which he said that he saw a billboard reading, I cant be junk because God dont make no junk, and he said, Thats not true. God does make junk.

10 years ago

I wholeheartedly agree. On the one hand, the therapist is almost right – there are so many layers of abuse, especially systematic child abuse starting at a young age, that it can take many years to heal, and perhaps a person might die first.
But the truth is: Elokai neshama shenatata bi – TEHORA HI! The pure soul Hashem gave each Jew is PURE. And there is NOTHING in this world that can damage it. NOTHING.
I myself am a survivor of this sort, and after many years of therapy found that true healing comes only through 3 corresponding things – 1. A belief in Hashem 2. A belief that the soul Hashem gave me was and is still pure and 3. Speaking to Hashem and asking Him to connect me to that healing, and fix the brokenness, with the belief that it is possible and He will help me through this test that He gave me.
Lo and behold, its not a fast and easy process, but over many years already (about 7 – but not 70!), Hashem has enabled me to heal what many doctors and therapists told me would be forever impossible. I admit that there is still what to heal, and I continue to focus on the things that need to be healed as they surface, deeper and deeper into the layers of the onion. But each time that process is easier and faster, and the disfunction becomes less and less. It may feel that I am starting all over, but Im not. What totally debilitated me for 6 months at the beginning of this process now becomes something I work on for a few weeks with no disruption of my life, to deal with something much more traumatic that surfaced.
I hope I give others out there hope that with Hashems help, there is no despair in the world. You must simply believe in yourself, and decide NOT to give into the despair. Recognizing that Hashem is the only one who can heal you, even if you use therapists as shalichim to help, is also crucial.

Paul V. Rafferty
10 years ago

As usual, the Rabbis Wisdom inspires !
I hope to use this essay when some friends need counseling.

miryam swerdlov
10 years ago

Loved it! so well said, so NOW, so taking Chssidus and bringing it down to exactly what we need today.
I loved say it aint so……..

Barry Chiate
10 years ago

Ive been dealing with early childhood trauma for a lifetime.My infantile rage-aholic parents screamed and yelled at eachother 24-7 and I was caught in the middle. My earliest memory in this world is that i gave up my life and right to live so that it might alleviate my parents pain and suffering. I literally was turned to stone and my body and emotions went into a state of paralysis and numbness. I had no idea that I had any presence and even existed. I was damaged goods – a human garbage can – what psychologists call the scapegoat complex. With a body filled with the disease and sickness of my parents and I wouldnt want to get near anybody because they would be infected by my disease and die.Recently I came across a quote by Gregory Bateson who wrote the classic book: Ecology of Mind. His millions of words were reduced by his daughter to:People think – Nature Works. The old piece of wisdom – Where you have been wounded – you will be healed. In the same way that story BEGINS WITH CONFLICT – nature works when you go into that dark place and hour heart touches that wound. Like the way the body forms a healing response when you have a cut – the body creates a healing response when there is acceptance of the existence of the wound. The Jewish mystical expression That the greatest light shines from the darkest place connects with the etymology of the word DISASTER. DIS (loose) ASTER (star) = TO LOSE YOUR GUIDING STAR. This is the NORTH STAR that is your point of ORIENTATION that can only be seen when it is night and you are in that dark place that you dont want to go into. The teaching point here is THAT NATURE WORKS THE WAY NATURE WORKS and that nature is more powerful than KING BABY EGO IN THE NURSERY. When the love in your heart touches that wound – a healing response begins to coagulate and work. If people were simply educated to know that this is a process of life that WORKS when there is a REAL NEED – so much needless suffering and pain could be avoided. PEOPLE ARENT BORN STUPID – WERE JUST BROUGHT UP AND EDUCATED TO BE THAT WAY.

Reid Friedson
10 years ago

In most ancient societies, you can only be a healer of others if you have gone thru great psychological trauma yourself as a child. Tikkun olam: heal yourself and heal the world. No ones spiritual essence is damaged beyond repair.

10 years ago

Your article came at a very low period in my life. While I dont feel like damaged goods, I feel pretty bad. My challenges have been very hard on me, and your words helped me tremendously

10 years ago

Thank you for this discourse……..
Yes I believe that some therapists should
not practice or give advice to some searching souls….It is sad to not believe that the inner soul cannot be healed………..

Hari Nam Singh Khalsa
10 years ago

Great Simon. Totally agree. Teaching class on yoga and meditation tonight, but for sure will integrate this reminder of true reality into my class and share with the students. Thanks.

Arthur Nudell
10 years ago

Childhood trauma last a lifetime, but I have managed, with the help of therapy, a productive life and a long marriage with my wife and partner, with fantastic children and grandchildren. But, although therapy helped, I should mention a book by Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and psychotherapist, which I read as a young man, called Mans Search for Meaning, which has helped me achieve a truly miraculous life, Baruch Ha-Shem.

Anath Garber
10 years ago

how well said and with heart felt compassion.
Perhaps all will be well advised to ask the prospective therapist about his/her core beliefs re healing before starting the journey. How lucky of the young man to have reached out to you.

10 years ago

Just today I repeated my damaged goods self-description, to myself and to a new friend who views me with kindness and love. I know its wrong, I said, but Ive given up on myself. Then your article appeared as if bashert. THANK YOU.

10 years ago

I enjoyed your article and the positive message it conveys. However, I do not agree with your understanding of the therapists attitude. I dont think he meant to say that his patient was damaged goods in a judgemental way, perceiving him in a negative way. I think he meant to validate his patients pain by admitting that some peoples traumas are so deep and horrendous thatt unfortunately, they are very difficult to heal. This is not a judgement about the persons worth; it is an observation from his experience that some traumas leave deep lifelong scars. I think that YOUR lesson could be learned about a person who has done very harmful things in his life and is filled with guilt. In this case, it would be helpful to know that no matter how negative and hurtful his actions have been, he still has an unsullied part of his soul and can always return fully to this pristine essence.

10 years ago

Sometimes you think you are broken but with time and help you realise that you will be ok. You cant give up and accept that diagnosis. We all have a G-dly spark and we need to not let others dampen it by their projections. We also need to not make excuses for our own strange or maladjusted ways but continue to work on our middot always in search of improvement.

Dovid Sholom Pape
10 years ago

Thank you for this insightful article. Compare what the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya: As for the Animal Soul, its desire is exactly the opposite (of the G-dly Soul), which is [surprisingly] for the benefit of the individual, so that he will totally overcome its [negative] inclinations and desires, and subdue them (and transform them to good), like the Zohars parable of the prostitute (sent by a King to seduce his son, in order to bring out his true nobility.

Rus Devorah (Darcy) Wallen, LCSW
10 years ago

Rabbi Jacobson, I read your article and Im letting you know that the therapist you spoke with has a limited perspective. He probably didnt have much in the reservoir of techniques other than supportive listening and mirroring. We do much more these days for those w/trauma. And YES, in many people the actual trauma is healed to the point that they no longer see themselves as damaged goods. They gain a new perspective and stop blaming themselves for the abuse that they have suffered and then they emerge bigger and better (as you know Torah and Chassidus explain). That may also be one of the limitations of a Jew going to a therapist who is not a believer. As you know, The Rebbe was in favor of Torah observant therapists, since matters of psychology are matters of the soul. Additionally, any therapy in 2014 that does not contain behavioral change is not as highly considered in such cases where people have had trauma and need corrective experiences.
In one of the Rebbe’s discourses, he explains that now (in the post-Tanya era) we can actually change more than our behaviors and character, we can change ourselves internally and transform our most essential selves. If that is the case, I as a therapist with a Torah informed practice can never lose hope, and must always instill the hope that it is possible to change with G-ds help. I would think in this area, it would be forbidden to discourage a client as your students therapist did. As The Rebbe says, You as a Doctor should also strengthen the faith and trust in G-d [of your patients] (Igros Kodesh Vol. 4 p. 444).
Rus Devorah (Darcy) Wallen, LCSW –

10 years ago

This is a GEM.
Thank You!

10 years ago

Isaiah 53:5 By His wounds we are healed

7 years ago

Thank you so much for writing this. It made a huge difference to me. I hate the expression “damaged goods,” but have definitely identified with it for some time. This article reinforced what, somewhere in my soul, I knew was true, and I really appreciate it.

Susan jacobsen
6 years ago

Thank you for your discourse. As a young child I was repeatedly told I was damaged goods. Repeatedly, over and over. Sexually assaulted at four years and beaten , continuing until I was 17. I had seven brothers and one sister. Three have died who were severly mentally ill. Two have attempted suicide many times. Two can’t function and here I am at 77, damaged goods, who has two college degrees and horrible survivors guilt. I couldn’t save my brothers and sister, I tried though. Thank you for your help.

5 years ago

Thank you, thank you, thank you! It is not enough to say thank you for your faithful and generous sharing of wisdom that brings healing. This is the tipping point of healing for me. May Hashem bless you.

5 years ago

The world doesn’t judge people based on the premise we’re all valuable souls. I wish it did. But honestly, how would that really work out? It’s dance monkey, dance. You had better perform or you will quickly be discarded and tossed away. And if you can’t, you had better pray and hope that you fall into a category which is pitied. Perhaps you’re a child with cancer or a mentally deranged person, then society will swoop into help. Otherwise, you had better suck it up and pretend you’re grateful as you fight for your scraps. Talents and ailments aren’t handed out in any way to make people feel loved and valued by society, let alone a God. Many are expected to fall through the cracks. It must teach character or something, perhaps bitterness and emptiness.

Sad but true.

5 years ago

There’s a lot of confusion here on the difference between being “damaged goods” or whether someone has “a good soul”. These are two completely different things.

A person who has been severely traumatized will never in life have a chance at being normal like a person who has not been severely traumatized. Especially if that person has a life that outright blows such as someone without family, without childhood buds, without college, without money, without careers, and in many cases without a roof over their head or food to eat etc. etc. The fact that this guy is able to see a therapist at all ranks him as doing better than most of the country. Your emotional/psychological health CAN be irreversibly damaged and it doesn’t mean you have to lose your soul in the process.

Some people are broken and you can’t throw a pill at it and a professional won’t be able to fix it. And exercise, diet, blah blah blah won’t change a thing. Neither will drugs. Ive already tried everything. Honestly, it was nice that the therapist was being realistic because now he could let go of the fantasy of ever being normal and learn to work around it rather than waste time trying to fix something that can’t be fixed.

3 years ago
Reply to  Ann

I agree with this. At 60 years old, I know that I will never have a loving, healthy intimate relationship. After a lifetime of therapy and failed attempts, the best help I could get is a realistic view of what I have and don’t have, and the tools to cope with life for whatever years are left.

5 years ago

He didn’t give glory to God first, before striking the rock, and for that reason alone he was not able to enter the promised land with the Israelites*

4 years ago

Crying myself to sleep because someone I assumed loved me called me damaged goods. I needed this. I really did. Thank you 💙

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