Nowadays, we repeatedly run into the same dynamic:
People who say or do hurtful or unethical things, then refuse to take responsibility or admit in any way that they were wrong.
A huge reason for this is the overwhelming shame many people unconsciously feel. In psychobabble, this is known as "toxic shame."
What's going on?
A) Culture and Society
First of all, our society has turned into a very shaming society, to the point that it obsesses and mocks totally insignificant things. This was always true in magazines and talk shows, but Internet and social media have greatly exacerbated this bad middah. For example, when Pamela Geller starts talking about the Islamification of Europe, or what she terms "the creeping Sharia in America" and she brings very disturbing examples of this, what do her detractors do? They criticize her eye make-up.
You can read posts, comments, or Twitter feeds dedicated to how she was (horror of horrors!) wearing too much eyeliner. (Gasp!) Whether you agree with her views or not, her eyeliner application is really not pertinent to the issues she addresses, such as workplace beheadings and shootings against "infidels," honor killings, terrorist recruiting, and the exploitation of non-Muslim girls at risk.
Paparazzi photos appear in major newspapers which show the unauthorized photo of some celebrity with a caption that reads something inane like: Celeste Celebrity goes to the airport wearing pants that sag at the ankles and bag about her knees. Also, she looks kind of tired.
Of course, this does not even begin to cover the personal fault-finding that people engage in on social media about people they know, their boss, their mother, and cyber bullying, and so on.
While it's too big a topic to go into within this topic, chinuch methods have contributed greatly to unnecessary shame. For the first half of the Twentieth Century, children were demonized (as creatures who "just want attention" and whose sole desire in life was to "test limits" and "manipulate" their parents) and parents (especially mothers) were blamed for doing anything nurturing that might possibly "spoil" the child. Mothers were inculcated with the fear that holding a newborn infant "too much" might irreparably "spoil" the child forever. Smiling "too much" at a toddler could also "ruin" the child. Parents were judged by their offspring's behavior – the child's inherent nature be darned. Your child's errant behavior was YOUR FAULT (probably because you "spoiled" that child). Remember that amusing anecdote in All for the Boss, in which Ruchama Shain pretended not to be her son's mother when he was behaving exuberantly and the other mothers at the park were saying that his parents should be reported to the police? I can't remember exactly what he was doing, but it was something like swinging on the bars with wild abandon. Or something not-so-terrible like that.
Eventually, former children got fed up with being judged negatively all the time and for having their most innocent intentions demonized. So they rebelled, leading to the Sixties. The ensuing child-rearing methods insisted that anything your child did was a sign of unhappiness and utterly YOUR FAULT – albeit for completely different reasons than in the first of half of the century. Even if, for example, it's an energetic toddler who doesn't want to stand patiently holding Mommy's hand while Mommy signs a check at the grocery store. "WHY isn't that mother watching her child more carefully?!! Why isn't that 20-month-old better trained?!! Because her mother obviously has no interest in investing in her precious child!!!"
Was your child doing poorly in school? Not interested in homework? Socially inept? Too introverted? Too extroverted? Did your child cry at daycare because she prefers being with you to being with Morah Chani? Was she too clingy or he too aggressive?
Obviously, the child suffers from low self-esteem which is YOUR FAULT.
Again, the child's inherent nature be darned.
This led parents to the following responses:
A) Emotionally detach from the child (because dealing with the self-accusations is too painful)
B) Beating the child into submission
C) A combination of both, with the beatings being doled out when they're young and gradually segueing into emotional detachment when they're old enough to talk about what's going on at home.
Of course, parents were never supposed to hit or yell at their kids, so they now had to hide that, too.
In other words, parents were demonized for having children who – get this – weren't perfect.
Nowadays, you can be considered an irresponsible, uncaring parent for not putting your child on medication.
[In case you were wondering, the American chinuch of the Nineteenth Century focused on Biblical principles, deriving a large part of its value system from Mishlei/Proverbs and Kohelet/Ecclesiastes. This wasn't perfect and there were still dysfunctional people and families. But in general, society functioned much better than it does now. People were meant to guard against vanity, pride, lying, and other bad middot while encouraging the development of virtue, modesty, patience, yishuv hadaat, self-sufficiency, honesty, and other fine middot. Society expected responsible, ethical behavior from its citizens and for people to own up to mistakes, respecting and forgiving those who did. Christians considered themselves and all humanity to be innately sinful (which is wrong, but better than the current secular view of entitled victimhood) and Jews considered Hashem to be Compassionate and Just and deserving of anything Hashem meted out, even acknowledging specific sins that might be the cause of their suffering.]
I touched on this a bit above, but will go into this further now.
In addition, to all the hyper-vigilant fault-finding about non-essential stuff, many people grew up in homes in which small stuff received overly harsh responses. And I am not talking about an occasional outburst or mistake on the parent's part.
For example, in some homes, a child spilling juice at the breakfast table leads to a slap or even a spanking. Or to sarcasm and derision: "What, you have a drinking problem at your age?"
In some homes, being too upset (even if you're quiet about it) - or even being too happy - is intolerable for the parents; they want their children to all be comfortably pleasant and problem-free.
In other homes, the most innocent and insignificant mistakes are magnified for group ridicule: "It's Thursday today, silly, not Wednesday! What on earth made you think it was Wednesday?" (Parent looks around to other parent and children for approval.) "Boy, we really need to sign you up for NASA's space cadet program!" Even if the child merely misspoke (because he or she knew what day it was, but just said the wrong one), the child cannot protest the ridicule because the parent is just kidding. Supposedly.
Unfortunately, even very frum people don't always know that "Just kidding!" is NEVER considered an excuse or justification for causing someone discomfort or pain by Chazal. David Hamelech considered latzanut so bad that he elucidated this in the very first perek of Tehillim. Rebbe Nachman also propounds on the harm this does. So do the mussar sefarim.
Unfortunately, while mockery and scoffing are considered very serious offenses in Judaism, in cultures like England and America, skillful latzanut can actually be considered a positive ideal.
An offshoot of this is that in some families, owning up to your mistake and apologizing for it leads to the following: "Ha! See? You even admit that you're wrong! I knew it!" Or that being wrong means that others have the right to abuse you.
In fact, a friend once told me about an exchange she had when her cousin called her up and said, "You said something mean to me yesterday, so now I'm going to say something mean to you." And then the cousin proceeded to tell her very gently how she was a bit hurt by the mean comment made yesterday.
The friend told me in a resigned manner, "I accepted it because she was right; what I said was not very sensitive, so I deserved to be told off."
There is so much wrong with the attitudes displayed in the above scenario, I'm not sure where to start. You probably noticed them yourself.
Okay, first of all, if someone hurts you, you aren't allowed to hurt them back. You may certainly inform them that they hurt you and tell them to stop. But you are never allowed to be intentionally mean to someone just because they were mean to you. That's nakamah and is clearly forbidden by the Torah itself.
Secondly, gently explaining to someone that they hurt you isn't "mean." It's "establishing healthy boundaries" and "not holding a grudge in your heart against your fellow."
Thirdly, we DON'T deserve to be told off every time we do something wrong. The world isn't run by strict judgement and there are entire discussions in Chazal about why not. If you feel you deserve to be told off because that is HASHEM'S way of lovingly cleansing your soul, then that is proper and true. But you don't deserve punishment by others, except for those specified in the Torah.
Fourthly, the fact that my friend actually felt that she was being "told off" when in actuality, her cousin was gently bringing to her attention something my friend had said that really was inappropriate and hurtful so that she wouldn't do it again, is also eye-opening.
It is very disturbing that two very frum people both felt that intentionally returning a hurt with a hurt (nakamah) is completely justified and that gently establishing healthy boundaries is "mean" or being "told off."
But this is the state of our generation today; this is the level of confusion.
School faculty and camp staff can contribute to all this, too.
I could go on and on, but you probably can think of more examples on your own.
Shame on You!
So now we arrive at the problem we see today.
If a person has been conditioned that such inconsequential, minor things as spilling juice, not remembering (or merely misspeaking) the day of the week, or simply not having the personality most convenient for their parents or teachers, are insufferable and intolerable, then how is that person supposed to acknowledge real and major negatives in his or her personality - like arrogance? Or an enjoyment of putting others down? Or stealing? Or speaking lashon hara? Or a need to control and dominate? Or laziness? Or wasting time?
If the very fact that you admit you are wrong causes you to be demonized and gives others a right to abuse you, then how can you ever admit you are wrong about anything?
A dysfunctional background makes cheshbon hanefesh more challenging, but it is still definitely possible.
Doing Teshuvah Step by Step
Before we go further, let's take a look at the actual steps to doing teshuvah. I know you know them already, but it's helpful to see it within the context of overcoming the shame inherent within a cheshbon hanefesh.
Let's take a wacky example and go beyond the standard example of when you're clearly in the wrong.
The gray areas also deserve attention.
Let's say that someone stepped on your toe and then just stood there. And let's say that they didn't necessarily mean to step on your toe, but once they did, they decided that standing on it wasn't that a big a deal. Or that them standing your toe would actually be good for you. Or that they weren't really standing on your toe, but on some kind of funny wedge and that you are just exaggerating and stam trying to make them feel bad.
So you hint to them, but they don't move for the reasons stated above. Then you whack them really hard upside the head and scream, "Will you just get the heck off my toe, you insufferable nitwit?!! Are you blind?! Are you evil?! You're so stupid and insensitive!!!"
Now, there is nothing wrong with informing someone that they are hurting you and that they need to stop. Also, no one can fault you in any way for uncontrollably crying out in pain. So in this example, the issue is how you responded, not that you told them to stop.
1) Recognize what you did wrong.
This is the chesbon hanefesh part. Did you do something wrong? If so, what? Was there an aspect of this interaction which you could have handled better? If so, how?
It's important to separate the level of guilt or innocence of the offender from your own behavior.
If they were hurting you on purpose, of course they deserve what they got. The issue is your own response. If they deserve to get screamed at, insulted, and whacked, then they will. It doesn't have to be from you.
Ultimately, you apologize for your own behavior because you want your Heavenly slate cleaned. What they did is their own cheshbon with Hashem. Try as much as you can to maintain objectivity about the situation. Focus on you, not them. Remember, they are just an agent of Hashem.
Even if they meant to step on your toe, that was from Hashem. It was a message or a kapparah or a lesson or a tikkun/soul correction or something. Although understandable, getting angry, calling names, and hitting was still wrong merely because it shows a denial of Hashem's constant involvement in even the most intimate details of our lives.
The wacky example aside, sometimes you are completely in the wrong. Sometimes mostly wrong or sometimes partly wrong. Sometimes you are only in the wrong a little bit and the other person deserves the vast majority of the blame. And sometimes, you aren't to blame at all.
It's important to get this right.
Denying your culpability prevents true teshuvah and your sin stays with you.
Yet taking the blame for another person's sin helps neither him nor you and drifts into the area of chanifa – flattery. Do not accept blame for the other person's sin, no matter how much they insist. One aspect of chanifa is when you give a person who did something wrong the impression that he did nothing wrong, preventing him from ever doing teshuvah and mending his ways because he believes he has done nothing wrong.
2) Feel Regret
Regret is not self-hatred or self-denigration or feeling "bad."
Regret means, "I'm better than that. I wasn't living up to my God-given potential. I really regret that I behaved that way and wish so much I could change it. I could have handled that better."
It's a ploy of the yetzer hara to convince a person to wallow in self-denigration because people who do so rarely complete the teshuvah process, unconsciously feeling like because they've "punished" themselves enough by feeling bad, then they don't need to do more. A lot of times, they'll resentfully admit they were wrong and reluctantly apologize, but never consider how to actually deal with the root middah that caused that behavior in the first place.
Teshuvah is not about punishment. Actually, teshuvah is about avoiding the need for punishment. People who do teshuvah don't need to be punished. Thinking that feeling punished actually does anything to facilitate teshuvah is a twisted idea that many people received as children from misguided adults.
3) Accept Upon Yourself to Act Differently From Now On
This is the part that a lot of people get blasé about.
In American culture, it is acceptable to believe that admitting a fault automatically excuses it without any need to work on it. People commonly say, "I'm always late" and then do nothing further to address that problem. Or they say, "I just can't help myself" and let that be the end of it. Or they say, "I'm sorry, but it/you/he/she just made me so mad...." - even though they clearly aren't sorry and clearly think that feeling are facts and therefore justify inappropriate behavior.
Unfortunately, this attitude can also seep into the frum community without fine Jews even realizing it.
The only way to change behavior is to form a conscious and specific plan of action.
Foggy statements like, "I'll try to behave better in the future" or "I'll try not to get angry next time" or "I'll work on being more understanding" or "I'll work on speaking more calmly next time" do very little practical good.
How will you behave better? What will you do to stop yourself from getting angry next time? What does it mean to be "more understanding" and how can you achieve that? What actions or thoughts help one to speak more calmly when faced with frustration?
4) Make Amends
You need to ask for forgiveness for whatever you did wrong. Even if the other person won't forgive you, at least your slate will be clean and your judgement in Shamayim will be sweetened.
It helps to know the difference between a real apology and a fake apology. (Scroll down to the bottom of that page for a kind of checklist.)
You need to do your best to repair whatever you did wrong, whether it is financial reimbursement or otherwise.
What You Don't Need to Apologize For
You do not need to apologize for setting healthy boundaries. In other words, you do not need to apologize because someone is offended that you politely asked them to get off your foot. You do not need to apologize for telling them that they are hurting your foot. You do not need to apologize for maintaining a safe distance from them after they refused to stop standing on your foot.
Some people get very offended about being tactfully told they are doing something wrong. They get very angry about being told they are hurting you. They get very angry about being told that they need to stop a behavior forbidden by the Torah (onaat devarim – such as criticism, belittling, name-calling, etc - lashon hara, rechilut, lying, baselessly judging you unfavorably, getting angry or violent). Unless you were excessive, rude, mean, insulting, or loud about setting the boundaries, you have nothing to apologize about.
Some people think that you telling them they are hurting you and need to stop is criticism. They accuse you of being critical and verbally abusive because you said, "Ouch! Excuse me, but I would appreciate it if you would please get off my foot and not step on it again. Thank you." Like the above examples with the two acquaintances who could not differentiate between setting healthy boundaries and nakamah, many critics and other confused people cannot differentiate between setting healthy boundaries and criticism.
The difference is that people who are critical are consistently critical and they criticize many different aspects when there is nothing halachically wrong. For example, they may find fault with the way you manage your house, feed your children, your appearance, your level of skill in some area, your emotional state, your style of speaking, and so on – even though there is nothing halachically wrong with being excited about something, having a house that is a bit messy, not being good at spelling, and so on.
You are only asking them to stop regarding this one issue, an issue which they are halachically obligated to observe.
The Benefit of Setting Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries actually benefits the offender even more than it benefits the victim, although usually it's the victim who practically experience the benefits more. The more someone indulges in person-to-person prohibitions, they more sins they rack up, which will eventually lead to an extremely unpleasant shock in the Heavenly Court after 120 years. While you can't control anyone's behavior except your own, the act of protecting yourself against a halachically forbidden attack of, say, onaat devarim spiritually benefits the offender even more than it benefits you. The offender may not stop or may go on to another victim, but at least you have done your part.
Feel Happy about Doing a Cheshbon Hanefesh
There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov who was searching for a chazzan for Yom Kippur. (There are other versions of this story. This is the one I remember.) One chazzan sang Vidui with a joyful melody while dancing. When the Baal Shem Tov expressed surprise at such a lithe attitude toward something as serious as Yom Kippur Confession, the chazzan answered that confessing one's sins is like a weeding a garden. And why shouldn't one rejoice at getting rid of all the weeds and cultivating such a beautiful garden?
The Baal Shem Tov hired him on the spot.
So even as you feel uncomfortable and regretful, try to experience some real joy that you are doing the right thing, giving tremendous pleasure to Hashem, wiping away your sins and creating openings for more blessing to pour into your life, sweetening the judgment over all Jewish communities worldwide, and for greatly increasing the size and quality of your eventual eternal life in the World to Come.
Everything is from Hashem – Including Your Flaws and Bad Middot
I heard a lecture by Rav Ofer Erez in which he said that because everything is from Hashem, you should even thank Hashem for your flaws – including the worst ones.
YOU aren't bad.
Your flaws don't actually say much about your actual essence. They are merely aspects Hashem infused in you (whether you were born with them OR adapted them due to a dysfunctional childhood or other traumatic experiences) in order to facilitate your particular journey in life and enable you to complete the personal work, achieve the goals, and make the corrections that your particular soul needs.
Put in that perspective, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Hashem put those flaws there for your ultimate benefit. So feel free to liberate yourself from self-hatred and joyfully delve into your innermost workings.
Denial Just Makes Things Worse
If you decide to ignore your flaws, minimize their severity ("It's not so bad" "It doesn't really matter" "No one's really bothered by it" "That's just how I am!") or justify your indulgence of them, you are merely playing into the hands of the yetzer hara and will pay a price. If you don't clean up your act in This World, you have to get cleaned up in some kind of Gehinnom or come back and do everything again, but with more baggage the next time. So you're not really saving yourself any pain by playing "Hear No Evil, See No Evil" with yourself.
Furthermore, you actually suffer more now. Flaws get worse the longer they're ignored. People who can't manage to work on themselves find themselves losing friends, jobs, allies, and even parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Sometimes this happens physically, meaning the person just gets up and leaves or cuts you off in some way. Sometimes this happens emotionally, in that they detach from you or are polite to your face but despise you in their heart. You never get satisfying relationships because people are either trying to protect themselves from you or they do things to temporarily appease you or get what they need from you. But there is no real love or connection.
So dealing with the temporary shame of facing your flaws now ends up making your life better in both This World and the Next.
Shamayim Knows Everything about You Anyway
And you thought Google was invasive!
At some point, you're going to stand in front of the Heavenly Tribunal. We all will. A group of holy beings will present you with your good and bad stuff and the angels you created from it. All of it.
Think of the worse public humiliation you can imagine.
This will be much, much worse – if you haven't been honest with yourself Here.
Furthermore, Hashem gets so much pleasure from hearing you admit you were wrong, how you were wrong, and that you really regret it. He wants you to 'fess up so that He can erase your sins and cancel any punishments. He doesn't want you to suffer anymore.
Tips for Side-Stepping Toxic Shame and Figuring Out What You Really Need to Work On
What Do You Find Easy?
It's common to maintain attitudes that feel humble, but actually demonstrate some gaavah and ingratitude.
Do you say things like, "High school was so easy – getting straight A's was a cinch! Anyone could do well in high school"?
"It's not that hard being pregnant. I mean, some people have complications, but a lot of women just make a big deal out of it when it's really not that difficult."
"I don't understand why people get all worked up, or get into arguments and stuff. I just don't get upset. I just let things roll off my back; I don't let stuff bother me."
"What's so hard about having guests every Shabbos? It's not such a big deal if you're cooking anyway."
It's good to recognize that if you find something easy, then that is a gift from Hashem. There are people who don't find it easy – and it doesn't necessarily mean they are stupid or defective. If someone flunked out of public high school, then that is their challenge from Hashem. If you were able to breeze through with minimum effort, then say, "Thanks, Hashem!"
If Hashem gifted you with easy pregnancies (or maybe the sudden need to vomit into the bin while cooking dinner just doesn't bother you), then that is something to be grateful to Hashem for, not take pride in.
Digging deeper, you might feel proud of yourself for having overcome a difficult childhood. You might notice that your marriage is better than that of your siblings or that you are raising your children better than your parents raised you. Some people are very proud of overcoming a fatal illness or of keeping up a positive attitude while falling out of remission for the second time. Are you proud of beating the odds? Of showing your teachers they were all wrong about you? Are you a wildly successful writer who smirks upon remembering how your creative writing professor said he'd rather read Dick and Jane Take a Walk than anything you wrote?
This is called "survivor's pride"
Survivor's pride is very healthy at first. It is what galvanizes people to overcome trauma and fulfill their potential. But after a while, it starts limiting one's inner growth because at the end of the day, pride is still pride.
Your ability to beat the odds (even if only some of the odds) is a compassionate gift from Hashem just because He loves you.
People often think that attributing their successes to Hashem diminishes them.
It does the opposite. As you start to recognize all the lucky things Hashem has done for you and how he saved you from living a worse life, you start to feel special (not haughty or superior, but special) and beloved by Hashem. This naturally makes it easier to face your flaws (even the really ugly ones) because you are doing it with Someone Who really loves you and cares about you and sees you in such a positive light. Furthermore, increased gratitude toward Hashem naturally decreases gaavah and arrogance and ego, which are the basis for most other bad middot.
Sarah Chana Radcliffe emphasizes the importance of taking pleasure in your accomplishments, not pride.
Enjoy Hashem's expressions of love for you.
So even if your denial is so great that you aren't actively working on discovering your flaws, thanking Hashem for all the things that seem easy or "no big deal" to you will naturally make you a better and kinder person and relieve a tremendous amount of unnecessary shame (which will eventually help you do a true cheshbon hanefesh).
Realize that You're Not So Bad – Really!
Hashem often sends us messages through other people, but it's important to separate both the emotional tone conveyed and the other person's personal definition from the actual message.
Separate the message from the messenger.
For example, when the emuna-chirpers were driving me crazy with their chirps of "Just daven! Just have emuna! Just daven! Just have emuna!" – they were right! I did need to learn how to daven and to daven more. I did need to develop emuna.
But not their definition of davening or emuna.
Their definition of emuna was escapist; it was denial and repression. In addition, their condescending attitude was all wrong, too. It implied that I was this totally inferior nitwit. I wasn't. I was just a bit lost.
In that same vein, recognize that if someone says, "You are the laziest person I've ever met" – you probably aren't. In fact, you may not be lazy at all in the way that person means. Maybe Hashem is trying to tell you that you're lazy in some small way in your spiritual avodah and not your physical avodah.
Or if your child is being rebellious and it's making you feel very distressed, don't get caught up in the emotional tone. ("Am I behaving as horribly as my child?") Just take a mental step back and look for how you might be rebelling against Hashem in some small way. (Nearly every family has at least one child who is rebellious or chutzpadik. This is because Hashem is giving us at least one last chance to polish ourselves down to the tiniest detail before Mashiach comes. And due to the overpowering illusion of This World, most of us are at times somewhat rebellious against Hashem, even if it's only in a small way.)
Or Maybe It's Not Something Wrong with You at All
The difficult situation could mean something else entirely. Maybe Hashem is trying to teach you how to strengthen yourself from within to handle rattling situations. Maybe Hashem is trying to tell you that a relationship or situation or environment is no longer good for you. Maybe you've been in this situation before and you need to finally handle it right.
The Emotional Freedom Technique releases a lot of shame and fear. Because it is simple and only takes a few minutes, it means you only need to deal with the disturbing issue in a very digestible, immediate way. Once the shame is greatly minimized or gone, your pathway to doing real teshuvah is completely open.
Mind-mapping can be a fun way to address an issue. You can use a piece of white paper and a gray pencil or you can get a huge lavender sheet and use different neon markers. You can make your circles and lines in the conventional manner or you can get creative with wavy lines and curlicues. Whatever suits you. Then you make a big circle in the middle and write in the topic you want to address. Or you can draw a picture of the topic. You can write "shame" or "cheshbon hanefesh" or "anger" or the name of the person you're struggling with or the name of the issue with which you're struggling. Then see what comes up, writing your associations and brainstorms next to lines stretching from the main circle. Seeing the issues on paper lends objectivity and clarity to thorny issues and emotional blockages.
Talk to Hashem
Thank Hashem for this nisayon as it benefits you in some way and facilitates beautiful inner growth. Then start talking about your issues, your feelings, and your desires. Explain how you want to do the right thing and be a good person, but you're not sure how. Ask Him to remove the shame so that you can see what's underneath. Or whatever else you want to say to Him.
Joy and dancing helps mitigate stern Heavenly judgment, so you can start dancing, singing and clapping to get yourself in the right frame of ruchniut.
You can also take this free course about talking to God.
So that's it, although I probably missed some stuff.
May we all merit to do true teshuvah with joy and from love of Hashem, and not through trials and humiliations. And may we thus merit to sweeten the coming Geula.