Before we continue with illustrative stories, some vital ideas to keep in mind:
It's important to emphasize that while using the undesirable behavior of others as a message to yourself & inspiration for self-scrutiny works & is often what Hashem wants us to do...
...it is not the only reason for their undesirable behavior toward you.
It could also be meant as yissurim, cleansing atonement for sins done in your past, including your past lives.
It could be a lesson in what NOT to do in the future—before you ever even think of doing it. But now you'll be prepared when faced with the situation in the future.
Other reasons also exist.
But as you'll see below, just seeking out Hashem's message for you in the undesirable behavior of others helps so much.
(But again, please make sure to do this with love & compassion for yourself—the message itself from Hashem is meant as an act of love.)
A Story of Undesirable Behavior
While this friend occasionally displayed passive-aggressive behaviors since I'd known her, it got much worse over time.
While she always knew she tended to engage in passive-aggressive sniping (she admitted this outright several times), she also gave the impression she was working on it.
(And I think she really was working on it at one point.)
So it got confusing when the behavior increased.
She could respond with great insight, validation, and empathy—or verbally kick you when you were already down via a verbal barb—shot into you with a little laugh.
I found her behavior increasingly difficult & painful, but I thought maybe I was doing something wrong too, like maybe not being sensitive toward her needs or something.
Yet an indication of how far she went in this undesirable behavior came when she laughingly revealed she strove to restrain her verbal barbs when dealing with others—except for her husband & a challenging son.
"They deserve it," she sniggered.
That was a splash of icy water in my face.
Her husband was an exceptionally fine person, learning & working as he should, plus behaving with exemplary middot at home.
Even more, whenever told he needed to adjust his behavior for the needs of his wife or children, he actually did so.
He never acted out any anger, no matter how much his wife provoked him or how his children behaved. (And they have a couple of very challenging children.)
Several times, she expressed frustration regarding not feeling justified in complaining about him because she did not suffer the problems she heard from married friends & shalom bayit classes—meaning, she knew her husband was better than almost all the rest.
But she still felt irritated by him at times, so she found herself stuck in her self-made quandary of feeling dissatisfied, but not feeling she had a right to complain.
Her complaints against him related to his inability to read her mind—an issue she had with most people, including friends & her parents.
And due to her feminist background, she also felt she had the right to do this simply because he was a man & "deserved" it.
In addition to her son's difficult personality, she felt her son's maleness also justified her behavior.
And, like most other verbally & emotionally abusive people, she considered her behavior cute, funny, and clever.
(As discussed here before, that is how people enable themselves to continue abusive behavior—it's not really "abusive" in their mind; it's cute, clever, and funny!...not.)
Also, her cutting into her son like this concerned me for another reason.
Her son was born with a very aggressive personality—which she understandably found aggravating.
Interestingly, where she was passive-aggressive, he was aggressive-aggressive.
When you needle these aggressive types, keeping them on edge & making them feel bad (but not quite sure what's wrong because passive-aggression is usually too subtle for a preteen boy to identify exactly what bothers him), it makes these aggressive types WORSE.
They feel angry, confused, on edge, and resentful.
And they don't act in. They act OUT.
They take it out on others, not themselves.
So why was she treating him in a way that makes him WORSE—and laughing about it?
Needless to say, this all meant she crossed the line into bullying & chauvinism.
I started distancing myself from her.
At one point, I decided to write to her about her increasing passive-aggressive behavior, making sure I addressed her behavior with sensitivity & giving her the benefit of the doubt.
She responded by making fun of me for putting up with it so long, then pretended she hadn't been aware of her behavior, insisting that she wasn't intelligent enough to do such things on purpose.
Unfortunately for her, Hashem gifted me with a decent memory for conversations.
I recalled the times she stated her awareness & enjoyment of making passive-aggressive barbs.
Furthermore, she grew up in a family which prized their superior intellect, which included skipping grades, acing honors classes, and early entrance to top universities where they aced the academics there too.
Ever since I'd known her, she'd shown pride in her scholastic accomplishments & superior intellect—though to her credit, becoming frum influenced her to re-examine her priorities & focus on the character strengths of herself & others.
But her response demonstrated her unwillingness to take responsibility for her behavior or even to take seriously her transgressions of ona'at devarim.
If she thought it was both funny & also convinced herself that she "wasn't smart enough to be aware" of her nasty hurtful barbs, then how could I trust to her behave decently in the future?
So at one point, I wrote her a thorough apology of everything I thought I'd done wrong in our friendship—just to clean my own slate, regardless of her behavior—and received a discomfiting reply.
Basically, she said nothing I mentioned bothered her (though I knew her well enough to know that at least some of it did—and I truly regretted that insensitivity at times), but her only complaint was that I distanced myself from her...the one thing I hadn't apologized for.
Because of this, she called me "inconsistent."
That told me all I needed to know.
First of all, she still wanted to lie to herself (and me).
She refused to acknowledge that my distancing had anything to do with her hurtful barbs, which she certainly had been made aware of by this point (and really, despite her fake protestations, was perfectly aware on her own).
In other words, she twisted the picture around to show me as the problem, not her.
Secondly, I could not apologize for distancing myself because I wasn't at all sorry.
It was HER fault I needed to minimize contact. She pushed me away with her intolerable behavior.
And why, out of all the behaviors, did she feel my distancing was the only & worst thing I did wrong in our entire years-long relationship?
Well, it's common with abusive people that the worst thing their victim can do is remove themselves from the relationship.
There are 2 reasons why:
- The abuser enjoys the abuse & resents losing their outlet for pleasure.
- It is an in-your-face statement that their behavior is actually WRONG & hurtful (and can no longer be dismissed as cute, clever, or funny).
Yet despite the negative portrayal above, I wouldn't call her "an abuser."
She also possessed many good qualities.
Also, she's the type of her person who, if someone would really confront her with her behavior & not let her get away with excuses, would acknowledge the truth & make some effort to change.
I don't know how long-term an effort she would make, but short-term effort? Yes.
Anyway, I didn't even bother replying because what would be the point?
After all, she refused to take any responsibility for her behavior & I could not apologize for removing myself from her nasty barb-shooting.
Shortly after that, she told all our mutual friends (in a sympathetic, oh-so helpful manner) that I needed time for myself, and that everyone should respect my privacy by not contacting me.
However...I never said or even hinted at any such thing.
She completely invented it.
I no longer received emails or phone calls from those friends, but didn't know why.
Not long after that, one of our mutual friends from that area called me and tentatively asked if it was okay for her to call.
I was like, sure! Why not?
Then she innocently revealed what the person above had told all our mutual friends.
"Oh," I said. "I never said anything like that. I also don't need so much time for myself, so I wouldn't make such a request anyway."
And that was that.
Intriguingly, her false announcement ended up being a blessing in disguise.
At that time, I was developing my relationship with Hashem more & doing some intense work on myself, so it helped not to have old relationships & old patterns in the way.
Because of that, I ended up not actively clarifying the issue with our mutual friends.
Hashem used the whole saga to open up a new & much-needed window.
So it very much worked out to my benefit, plus I developed new relationships & renewed old friendships over time.
What Happens When a Posture-Obsessive Meets a Passive-Aggressive
Throughout the time this passive-aggressor had been increasingly shooting barbs at her husband, her son, and me, she encountered a nemesis of her own.
When going out shopping, taking kids to the park, picking kids up from school, she often ran into a woman who enjoyed offering helpful observations to others about their posture, and so on.
You know the kind of person who cheerfully reminds you to bend at the knee if she sees you bending from the waist?
So whenever she saw my "friend," this well-intended woman would call out to her, cheerfully informing her that her posture had gotten worse, and offering her tips to help straighten herself up.
You know the people who are relatively good-hearted & well-intended, but lack the sense to know that saying tactless things in a cheerful way don't make saying them okay?
Yeah...that kind of person.
The passive-aggressive woman found this interaction increasingly distressing.
"I know my posture has gotten worse and I don't always carry things is the healthiest way," she said. "But I wish that woman would stop harassing me about it. I can't always work on it. Sometimes, I just need to do what I need to do without worrying about how I'm standing or holding things."
And yeah, it was weird. How often to you run into someone obsessed with your posture?
That's not common.
Anyway, the passive-aggressive woman started taking inconvenient detours to avoid the cheery posture-obsessive woman.
She tried to hide if she saw her coming.
She tried to run past her, saying, "I'm in a very big hurry right now—no time to chat—sorry!"
But to her chagrin, the posture-obsessive woman would pursue her, reminding her how bad she looked & calling out helpful tips for improvement.
It was weird & very distressing for my "friend."
But I remember wondering at the time.
My "friend" seemed so distressed by the well-meaning woman who cheerfully reprimanded her about her posture—it puzzled me.
Why was she so insensitive to the effect of her critical barbs (which were NOT well-intended, but meant to hurt) on others, especially since the things she said were so much worse than what that woman said to her?
Clearly, she knows insensitive comments & criticism cause serious distress.
So why did she indulge in them herself?
Why did she find it so distressing when it happened to her—but cute, clever, and funny when she did it to others?
What's the Message? Let's Look at the Parallels.
Hashem brought her a critic who criticized her for things she didn't have much control over—and things that aren't so important anyway.
After all, the way you stand isn't as important as your middot. It's focuses on the external flaws of a person, not the all-important internal flaws of a person.
No one is denied entrance to Heaven because they slump.
Likewise, her passive-aggressive criticism of her husband, her son, and I had to do more with her bad middot than ours.
She criticized us for things that we don't have much control over (like the inability to read her mind or in their case, being male).
She criticized us for things that aren't the main priority (like while it's important to strive for sensitivity toward others, no one needs to strive for mind-reading—nor do males need to strive to be NOT male).
Furthermore, her nemesis criticized her for something she already knew about & was already working on...
...just liked she criticized us for stuff we already knew about and were already working on (when her criticism wasn't imagined, anyway).
Her nemesis focused on the flaws of another, rather than her own flaws...
...just like she focused on the flaws of others without investing in serious work on her own severe flaw (onaat devarim).
Also, just like she shot verbal barbs with a smile & a laugh, her nemesis harassed her in a very cheerful manner.
And my "friend" discovered she couldn't get away from the woman's harassment, no matter how much she tried...
...just like her husband & son couldn't avoid her harassment of them (because they all lived in the same home).
I also think the criticism of "you need to straighten yourself up" sounds very similar to "you need to straighten yourself out."
Had she had the knowledge of this message of self-scrutiny combined with the integrity to actually do it, she could have carried out the following procedure:
I repeatedly encounter a very distressing situation. (Thank you, Hashem—I know it's all for my benefit!)
What is the message here? Is Hashem trying to tell me something about my own behavior?
What is it?
Well, let's see...
First of all, this lady constantly harasses me with her criticism about something I already feel bad about, but can't always deal with.
And she's so loud about it!
Do I do that to others?
Well, I'm never loud & never physically pursue another person to criticize them.
But am I ever critical? Do I unnecessarily criticize others the way I'm being criticized?
Also, she harasses me so cheerfully, with a big smile, as if she doesn't mean to hurt me—but it all distresses me greatly.
Do I do some version of that to others?
In this way, by taking a step back & compassionately examining herself, this "friend" could have arrived at the conclusion that yes, she also engaged in unnecessarily critical & distressing behavior.
She also could've arrive at the conclusion that, just as this woman's behavior was neither clever nor cute (the woman meant to be informative/clever & cheery/cute), then neither was her own passive-aggressive behavior cute nor clever.
And despite how her own behavior was hurtful & halachically forbidden, please note in the theoretical scenario, I had her go easy on herself.
I never encourage people to see themselves as "bad" or "abusive" or "mean" or "a narcissist" and so on.
In fact, I discourage it.
Not only is such an approach counterproductive, it's also false.
At the very moment you decide to examine your own behavior for Hashem's message, you make a wonderful inner upgrade.
At that moment, you are not bad or abusive or mean or sinful.
You're on the road to teshuvah!
That's not my idea; it's in Chazal and Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender discusses it in depth in Words of Faith.
How Viewing the Distressing Encounters as a Divine Message Could Have Helped Her
Because it's so internal & personal, there's usually no other way to get this message.
For example, in the above scenario, who would have told her the truth about her situation?
Heck, she told me and all I did was sympathize. (At that time, I was still rejecting this idea & so did not even know how to do this method.)
Sympathizing is what most people would do.
And that's good!
Just for the record, I do NOT think you should respond to someone's outpouring of pain & distress by telling them, "Well, you're probably doing something equally awful! Look at the message Hashem is giving you!"
As stated in Part I, I think that's a really mean thing to do.
It's like giving someone a strong, sharp kick in the ribs when they're already lying on the floor.
That's why they really need to do it themselves.
Sometimes, an aware & sensitive friend can help you do this—if you're also open to it with that person.
But that's rare.
Furthermore, what if my "friend" consulted someone about how to deal with this difficult woman?
What would she get?
Anyone knowledgeable in psychology would validate her feelings (which I support), and then help her figure out how to assert herself appropriately by using "I" statements, and other verbal techniques, body language, strengthening self-esteem, reframing, and so on.
None of which would solve her problem at its core.
While I'm all for using assertive or deflective protective techniques when dealing with difficult people, if the difficult situation derives from Hashem's intention to send a message to you about YOUR difficult behavior...then how does using protective techniques or building self-esteem solve the problem at its core?
When we don't accept the initial message, Hashem sends stronger & stronger messages.
So even if she managed to deflect this particular nemesis, another one (whether human or situational) would simply come in its wake.
Likewise, her son's continuous aggression should have also been a wake-up call for her to introspect her own behavior—Rav Arush fleshes this out thoroughly in Garden of Education.
After all, the initial messages to her were fairly soft.
Her husband sometimes asked her to please speak nicely to him or to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I also wrote her a very sensitive letter asking her to please change her behavior.
Maybe others spoke with her too.
But she chose to dismiss those messages.
So she started receiving stronger ones.
And that's how it goes.
(Sometimes, we see Hashem gives up on getting a person to change. They no longer receive messages or atonements. That's a very bad sign because it means they are really going to get it after they die.)
Understandably, there is no socially acceptable way in general society to elicit a personal message out of a difficult situation.
Anyone she would speak about this distressing situation would only ever give her empathy, validation, and techniques for communication & self-esteem.
None of these would ever reach the nitty-gritty of WHY Hashem made this happen to her.
So using the undesirable behavior of others as a message from Hashem is really the only way of getting across a particular point of self-improvement.
And it's a loss when people refuse to utilize this their entire life.
- Using the undesirable behavior of others as a springboard for your own self-scrutiny is often the only way to access certain aspects of self-awareness and thus, self-improvement. So it's pretty valuable.
- Seeing undesirable behavior does not ALWAYS mean you do it too (but it's just good to check whether that IS the message).
- Self-scrutiny (cheshbon hanefesh) should ONLY be done with LOVE & COMPASSION for yourself.
- Self-scrutiny can be grueling & cringe-inducing (especially if you discover something very distasteful), so please view yourself positively—it's wonderful that you're willing to examine your deeds!
- During self-scrutiny, please BE NICE to yourself. BE GENTLE.
- Avoid thoughts of self-condemnation, self-flagellation, self-loathing, despair, or getting bogged down in unhelpful philosophizing like: "What does this say about it me? Does it mean I'm a really bad person/parent/spouse/daughter?"
- Even if you really are an awful person, viewing yourself as awful will make you worse, not better.
- At the very moment you decide to examine yourself, you are no longer bad, but very good & courageous.
- Using other's undesirable behavior for self-improvement makes you one in a hundred-million because the vast majority of the world will never even consider doing this—yet you actually do it!
Part III will feature a more personal story of how this method was successfully used.
Here are related posts:
- part-iii-a-personal-story-of-how-to-use-the-undesirable-behavior-of-others-as-a-message-how-why-it-works-plus-what-to-do-what-to-avoid.html (This is the next part of the series.)
And a quote from Rav Miller on the topic (torasavigdor.org/a-random-selection-of-short-qas-3/):
If I see a fault in someone else does that mean I have that fault as well?
If you see a fault in someone else does that mean that you have that fault as well?
No, not necessarily. But it’s a hint. Absolutely it’s a good hint.
Why? Because the person that you’re looking at – does he see the fault in himself?
You can be sure not. So maybe you’re looking in the mirror.