Now we're going to delve into what this is and how to deal with it.
It’s like a sunburned piece of skin or an open wound. If you press your thumb against other areas of their skin, they feel fine. But if you press against an open wound or a sunburn, they’ll scream in pain and jerk away from you.
And that’s normal.
Everyone has something vulnerable and oversensitive like that.
Whether you were born with it or developed it through certain experiences in your family life or school, everyone has at least one sensitive spot.
Much of the time, a person just wants other people to give way to their sensitive spot. And if you know someone’s area of oversensitivity, it’s good to be sensitive to it and avoid pressing on it.
But the problem is that one person can have many areas of sensitivity.
Also, because everyone has a different area, it can be hard to keep track of each person’s area of oversensitivity and especially when you need to remember that this person has these 3 areas of oversensitivity while another has 10 areas of oversensitivity, and then keep track of the different areas of oversensitivity in another 7 people…
Realistically, you can’t expect everyone you know to tiptoe around your particular area (or areas) of oversensitivity. Even if they really want to be sensitive to you, they’ll mess up sometimes.
So a person will be happier in life if they work on their own area of oversensitivity. That way, when someone presses against it, you won’t be as angry or as hurt. Or maybe you’ll work on it enough that it’s no longer oversensitive.
But most of all, Hashem gives you your flaws (and having an oversensitive spot that others need to tiptoe around is a type of flaw) in order to work on. The very act of working on your various middot rectifies your soul and enables you to fulfill the very mission for what Hashem sent you here.
As Rebbi Akiva Rabinovitz stated:
Hakadosh Baruch Hu [The Holy One Blessed Be He] holds absolutely no hakpadah [strict judgment, condemnation] against a Jewish person who possess evil traits and lusts. Hakadosh Baruch Hu does not come in accusations about this since He implanted these within him, and He brought us down here for this purpose.
If so, regarding what is the hakpadah?
The hakpadah occurs when the Jewish person does not strive to seek out the path and the counsel as to how to get out of [those evil traits and lusts].
Therefore, there exists the iron rule:
"As long as a person engages in battle, he is always called 'the winner' [hamenatze'ach]."
(Ahavat Kedumim, Rav Ofer Erez, p. 170)
- Avoid the extreme of demonizing the other person for something that’s actually your problem.
- Either give the benefit of the doubt or find a merit (or both, if possible).
- Avoid the other extreme of blaming yourself being oversensitive when the other person is at fault.
Identifying Your Oversensitivities
When you feel a rush of rage, despair, pain, or anguish, the precursor likely touched on an oversensitivity.
Could that still be the other person’s fault?
Yes. But just because another person does something wrong doesn’t mean that you’ll get SO upset about it.
So when it’s your area of oversensitivity, you can step back from the emotion while focusing on the situation itself.
Then you can see whether you’re projecting onto the other person negativity that simply isn’t there, or whether the other person really is behaving badly, but you still don’t need to take it so much to heart.
Rav Avigdor Miller mentions (can't remember where) the importance of laughing off another’s annoying behavior. Sure, laughter isn’t always the appropriate response (especially if you laugh out loud & make things worse), but it certainly takes the heat off of many irritating situations.
For example, in a recent shiur (Judaism is in Real Danger; Includes Current Events - starts at 52:00), Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi describes his encounter with a smiling man who refused to respond to Rabbi Mizrachi in any way. Even when Rabbi Mizrachi asked him direct questions, the man continued to smile yet did not reply at all.
Rabbi Mizrachi just laughs it off. He's neither embarrassed nor offended.
Later, Rabbi Mizrachi discovered that the man was on antidepressants and that’s why he was so smiley yet so unresponsive. (I think this is part of what's known as “emotional blunting.” As a friend of mine explained, the person can’t really feel their own feelings so they can’t really feel yours either. I've seen this with others on antidepressants.)
And really, laughing is the correct response—even before you discover that the rudeness is chemically induced.
So for example, even if someone intentionally ignores you when you greet them, then that reflects on their own bad middot and lack of derech eretz. Sure, it’s a little embarrassing when it happens and it stings a bit.
But it doesn’t have to overwhelm you with despair or angst. And even if it does, you don’t need to act on that rush of negative emotion.
You can try to diffuse your rush of negative emotion by laughing it off.
But there’s another aspect to all this and that’s giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.
She didn’t even look at me.
Feeling my face heating up, I thought maybe she hadn’t heard me. After all, she was just staring downward with a glum expression. So I tried again, but again, no response.
Embarrassed, I glanced around. But to my relief, no one seemed to have noticed.
I didn’t know what to think of the woman. It didn’t make sense that she would purposely ignore me, but it didn’t make sense that she didn’t hear me either.
A couple of days later, I was speaking with the neighbor who hosted the class and she commented that the lady who gave the shiur suffers from minor brain seizures.
“It’s very distressing,” the woman confided. “She can never know when they’ll happen. What if it happens while she’s cooking or if a small child runs out of the house or starts doing something dangerous while she’s having a seizure?” The woman shook her head. “She always needs someone around in case she has one, like one of the older children or someone.”
Realization started to dawn on me.
“Is it scary for the children to see their mother have a seizure?” I said.
“No,” said the woman. “You don’t see anything. She just freezes.”
I realized that must have been happening when I was trying to talk to that same lady. She wasn’t ignoring me at all. She was having a seizure.
Having said that, you can’t go around thinking that every person who snubs you is having an invisible seizure. It’s something to keep in mind, but no need to be so unrealistic.
So taking a lesson from Rebbe Levi of Berditchev who, when faced with a Jew knowingly smoking on Shabbat for no good reason, the Rebbe simply detoured into another area and praised the man for not lying.
When there’s no excuse for the person’s behavior, find a merit in another area of the person’s behavior!
(We can't justify genuinely forbidden behavior due to the prohibition of chanifah. But we can still find a positive attribute in another aspect of the personality.)
Here's another example:
When you take your kid to gan, you pass by all the other mothers of your child’s ganmates. You all often say hi to each other.
But once, there was one mother who refused to even look at me when I greeted her, yet she would talk to some of the other mothers. Again, I found her consistent snub very embarrassing.
So I stopped greeting her even though that felt wrong too.
And over time, I saw that she simply compartmentalized people. If it served her to acknowledge them, she did. If not, she didn’t—even if they spoke to her directly. Pretty bad middot, actually. But I also noticed that she was a very attentive and patient mother.
So while I couldn’t justify her lack of derech eretz, I could still direct my mind to take a detour into another area of her personality and admire her maternal attentiveness and patience.
Avoid the Other Extreme: Taking Responsibility for the Other's Problem
Over time, you can habituate yourself to a mild or dismissive response when that spot gets pressed. But if you excuse the other person’s bad behavior completely because you assume that each time they bother you, it’s your problem and not theirs, you can find yourself tolerating intolerable behavior or unnecessarily staying up in a harmful relationship.
While I don’t think that we need to snub and condemn people all the time, mussar sefarim (Pele Yoetz, Orchot Tzaddikim, etc) tell us to hang out with people who are better than us in order to be influenced by them.
If we just ascribe all uncomfortable or hurtful encounters to our own oversensitivity and excuse the other person more than they deserve, then we can end up spending too much time with the wrong kinds of people.
Also, these types pick up on the fact that you’re blaming yourself for their bad middot and they often enjoy taking advantage of this.
Sometimes, they’ll even tell you this outright (in a joking manner so they don’t sound too nasty) especially if you’ve already admitted that you’ve got an oversensitivity in the particularly area on which they’re pressing.
This doesn’t mean you can’t give them the benefit of the doubt or find a merit in them.
You can. But you needn’t spend much time with them either.
Even if you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt (or even going so far as to blame yourself for feeling bad around them), spending time with people who have bad middot and really don’t try to improve eventually affects you negatively.
You can either start absorbing their bad middot or you can start thinking that their bad middot are just your imagination and blame yourself for feeling bad around them.
Also, pretending that something forbidden is actually okay falls under the prohibition of chanifah, which is basically when you claim that something wrong is actually right. (There are something like 9 categories to the prohibition of chanifah.)
No one’s perfect, but you want to associate with people who are at least trying to work on themselves and not with people who only give lip-service to middot-work.
- Identify it (usually via strong negative emotions often out of proportion to the event)
- Don’t demonize the other person for not being sensitive enough to your oversensitivity.
- Don’t demonize yourself for being oversensitive.
- Recognize that it's simply part of Hashem’s self-rectification plan for you in this lifetime.
- Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
- Don’t justify genuinely bad behavior or middot, but detour around the bad to find a positive attribute in another aspect of that person.
- Don’t go so far to the other extreme that you always blame your own oversensitivity and end up spending too much time around people who aren’t good for you.