When the Chafetz Chaim brushed off the man's praise, implying that the Chafetz Chaim wasn't actually so great, the man hit the Chafetz Chaim for having the galling chutzpah to denigrate such a great tzaddik.
Yet upon their arrival, the shame-filled man realized his mistake and begged forgiveness.
But the Chafetz Chaim wasn't angry at him.
“I deserved to be beaten,” said the Chafetz Chaim, “because, as I have learned, one may not speak lashon hara - even about oneself!”
Being Aboveboard or Going Overboard?
So even if you are allowed more leeway for speaking negatively of yourself than speaking of others, it's still something you need to do within certain parameters.
Yet this idea is largely ignored in American culture.
Within American culture, there is mounting pressure since the Seventies to be "open and aboveboard" and "honest" in the effort to destigmatize a whole array of problems and to provide support and reassurance to the lonesome-feeling afflicted.
(I just want to point out that overall -- other than temporary initial relief -- this process hasn't worked. Recent surveys show that people feel more lonely and less empathetic than ever before.)
Even the American frum community has swallowed this, although some frum communities are more reserved about their negatives, but this is generally because they are afraid of what others will think, and not due to the prohibition of lashon hara and upholding self-dignity and the kind of privacy that allows you freedom to improve yourself.
When & How to Speak of Your Faults
But Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender discusses it with great feeling in Words of Faith, Vol. I.
Rav Bender extracts the mussar below from the following sources:
- Chayei Mohoran (Rebbe Nachman's biography), which quotes from Vayikra Rabbah 89:9: "One does not great his friend in unclean places."
- Avot 4:23: "Do not strive to see someone at the time of their downfall."
- Tehillim 32:1: "Fortunate is one who covers his sin."
- Brachos 34b, which states that one who publicizes his sin is considered brazen (because it shows he's not ashamed of his sin)
He explains (page 376):
"Meaning that the tikkun of sin is only through confessing before Hashem Yitbarach or the true Tzaddik. For few are those who are able to hear confess without it causing the confessor to be discouraged."
As he indicates above:
- Revealing your sin to others doesn't do anything concrete for you, other than providing momentary relief (IF the listener responds properly); only telling Hashem (or a particularly high-level tzaddik) actually repairs the spiritual damage
- He doesn't want even the worst sinner to become discouraged or despondent
He further advises (page 373):
"Know this: To join a friend in personal matters, especially in sins and iniquities, does much damage."
"In practice: Do not desire to know another's personal matters for it is only the work of the yetzer and his seductions. And it is the complete opposite of why friends bond."
That was always the cultural message, particularly to females.
But thinking it over, I realized he was right.
In the secular USA, your friends often end up doing things very harmful to themselves and you can't say anything for fear of seeming judgmental or controlling, and causing them to feel rejected. So you just put up with it and act like they're okay, when they actually far from being okay.
And they do the same for you.
And it's really not good for anyone.
Openness & Honesty: For God's "Eyes" Only
Yet you likely didn't do it out of lack of shame or brazenness, but to relieve the overwhelming shame that plagued you, to receive comfort and reassurance, and to give hope to others by reassuring them that they aren't alone.
So please don't think that if you revealed negative stuff about yourself that me or other frummies are thinking, "Gevald! What a brazen shameless self-slanderer you are!"
Believe me, I understand the impulse all too well.
Yet I still don't know exactly where the balance lies.
However, Rav Bender advises:
"Keep both the good things you do and, chalila, the bad things hidden from others. Only Hakadosh Baruch Hu has to know of them by means of confession and daily hitbodedut.
For there is no one around now who has the power to hear another's secrets without causing him to feel down. It can make him discouraged. The benefit is outweighed by the loss."
Apparently, being unreservedly "open and honest" is not the Jewish ideal, even if your intentions are beneficial (whether for yourself or others).
I'm not trying to put anyone down or make anyone (including myself!) feel bad for doing or having done this.
It's just keeping an eye on the real goal, despite conflicting messages from our emotions or culture.
But perhaps the example of the great people themselves can give us more direction.
Rav Bender: Light & Inspiration
He provides wonderful chizuk (soul-restoring encouragement) in many areas, without specifically saying it was his personal struggle too. But the implication is there.
Rav Bender also acknowledges the need to turn to others in sichat chaverim, but the objective is to receive chizuk. He cautions us to only reveal our general struggle without all the gory details, expounding on his definition of friendship (page 376):
"The entire matter of talking with friends is as the Rebbe writes in Lesson 34:
'Each person should speak to his friend in fear of Heaven in order to receive inspiration from his friend's special point that he doesn't have.... This point is the aspect of "Tzaddik" relative to his friend. It shines in the other's heart.' "
"This is the whole point of speaking among friends:
--To unearth and illuminate your friend's unique good points
--To shine to him from your special point.
But not more than that."
And as far as he's concerned, this is the only purpose for sharing with each other.
Nechoma Greisman: Practical Lessons & Guidance
Born and raised in New York, Nechoma came as a young Chabad emissary to Tzfat and she possessed exceptional humility, warmth, and emuna.
She was charmingly open about her struggles with her yetzer hara (which were on a much higher level than other people's yetzer hara), such as overcoming her innate shyness to approaching Jewish-looking strangers on the New York train to encourage them in mitzvot and offer support and more information or dealing with feelings of inferiority when facing a doctorate-educated highly skilled professional.
Yet she overcomes her yetzer and shares the lessons she learned with us.
Never pretending to be more than she was, Nechoma openly admitted "I'm no model housekeeper" (although she actually was an excellent homemaker and mother) and encourages women to ask other women for advice in areas of personal weakness -- just as she herself did.
In order to benefit others, she told of her mistakes and what she learned from them.
And despite the common romanticization of the early years of motherhood as easy and enviable, Nechoma found herself in a "particularly difficult period" after only her second birth:
"I was very tense. At the same time, my conscience bothered me...I could not return to my normal pre-baby activities."
"I poured my heart out to him, telling him of my conflict between being a mother who was presently tied to her home, and being an active shluchah [Chabad emissary]....
"You, as a young mother, are obligated to know that there are different periods in a person's life. The months immediately after birth must be dedicated to your baby. Afterwards, you can return to your other duties."
"We spoke for a long time about various pressures on the Rebbe's shluchim...He admitted there were very few people who had the same kind of pressure on them.
Nevertheless, he added, a woman must react differently.
Her first obligations were to her family.
I thanked him very much for the advice and his clear understanding of the situation."
(The entire book is like this, by the way.)
Speaking of Yourself: Necessity and Benefit
- beneficial purpose
Nechoma wasn't just venting to the psychologist; she was in a truly difficult situation which demanded chizuk and advice. Of course, validation is also part of the package, but it didn't stop there.
Likewise, Rav Bender and his colleagues didn't merely vent to each other. They received chizuk along with the validation.
And when Nechoma revealed her vulnerabilities and mistakes, she always concluded them with the lessons learned in the process. Her revelations contained clear and beneficial purpose for her listeners.
Rav Bender didn't get as personal with his listeners as Nechoma, but he still spoke of certain aspects of spiritual struggle as an insider, all with the intent of benefiting his audience.
I'm sure there are other examples, but this is all I could dig up for now:
a Breslover tzaddik and a Lubavitcher tzaddekes.
So to sum up the possible parameters for revealing one's faults:
- Do I need to reveal this?
- If so, why?
- Do I benefit from revealing this?
- Do others benefit from my revelation?
- If so, how?
Avoid Excess Damage
- If I need to reveal this, how should I do so?
- What is not necessary to reveal?
- What's beneficial and what's not beneficial in the revelation?
Again, this is just my extrapolation from only two examples.
As mentioned above, I'm still in the process of learning and fully understanding this concept myself.
Power of Empathy: 3 Ways Empathy Can Improve Your Life
(Provides research on the increasing decline of empathy in modern society)
4 Things to Know about Beneficial Lashon Hara
How to Listen & How to Speak
Friendship & Encouraging Words