An Imbalance in the Ratio of Positive to Negative
In general, I'd been working on speaking more positively to my husband & children.
I mean, I always strove to behave with good middot at home, but decided to up my game.
Dealing with young children presents a greater challenge because their not-yet-matured brain demands a certain amount of curbing so they learn to be civilized & also not harm themselves.
So they need to learn tact, manners, plus tons of safety rules.
This makes it hard to be just positive. Also, some children will not listen when you caution them too nicely (like about not darting into the street, or climbing up to play with the saw you put on the shelf all the way up near the ceiling because you thought he wouldn't reach it there, etc.).
Anyway, I made some major adjustments to deal with one child's very complex personality, and enjoyed the positive results.
I felt good about my self-improvement program & kept going with it.
Around that time, my schedule led me to frequent meetings with an old acquaintance as we passed each other out and about.
She always greeted me warmly & often had a good word to say.
Yet sometimes, she called out some helpful advice or constructive criticism about something.
Many times, her advice or criticism was correct.
But after a while, it got tiring.
I didn't always feel like explaining why I was doing something a certain way — even when her way really was better.
Sometimes, I just couldn't manage to do things "right" at that moment (or even that week).
Also, she assumed reasons that weren't always true.
For example, if you pass by someone who looks tired, it could be she needs more sleep.
Or vitamins. Or maybe she just received troubling news or feels depressed.
Maybe it takes her a long time to wake up fully & she's out and about before she's completely awake after a night's sleep or a daytime nap.
So cheerfully calling out to such a person, supportively encouraging her to go to bed earlier could be a good solution for her, but if she's still looking tired for OTHER reasons...then it's not helpful.
Or you tell the well-meaning advice-giver, "Thank you for your concern. I went to bed as early as I could, but the baby was particularly wakeful that night."
And like I said, she's genuinely nice & often responded sympathetically with, "Awww...yeah, that happens sometimes — but you're doing a great job!"
So that's what I mean.
She was very positive & went out of her way to give chizuk to others. She also was very generous with whatever chessed she could do, like giving people really good recommendations or money, and so on.
But at one point, I just felt like I'd rather not see her at all, even though her positive comments really give me a lift.
If I had to have the helpful hints & constructive criticism with all the praise & encouragement, I started feeling like I'd rather have neither.
Here's How to NOT Shoot the Messenger
I procrastinated because of emotional laziness.
But finally, I sat down with Hashem & combed through the pattern.
Basically, the bare-bones description of the interaction came out like this:
Here's a genuinely good & sincerely well-meaning person giving lots of positive feedback — but with constructively intended negative feedback that (though often correct) was really getting to be too much, and NOT outweighed by the positive (even though it was often correct!).
But it was simply too much.
Am I also doing that in some way?
The answer, of course, was...yes!
I realized 2 things:
- I still hadn't achieved the best ratio of positive to negative with my youngest child.
- The necessary instructive aspect of parenting was too intense; I needed to tone it down.
(Meaning, even if you need a child to be ready on time in the morning or go to bed on time at night — with all the instructions & warnings that entails, depending — it's good to note how stressed you are when doing it. Maybe the emotional intensity needs to be toned down.)
So I thanked Hashem for this message & asked Him to help me carry it out effectively.
And I got to work on myself.
In fact, several days went by without seeing her.
(I felt both relieved & disappointed — relieved because I was happy not to hear the less positive comments, but disappointed by the sudden absence of the very positive comments.)
After a few days, I saw her from afar, from where she gave me a friendly wave & a big smile.
From then on, we only ran into each other sporadically — and she was almost always positive when we did run into each other.
Isn't that interesting?
It all changed overnight.
At that point, all I'd done was identify the flaw Hashem highlighted & taken upon myself to correct it, and just barely started — and the messenger already changed.
Now, it doesn't always work that fast. But a lot of times it does.
(At the same time, please know that some "messengers" barely improve at all, despite doing your best to glean the message. There are other spiritual reasons for unpleasant interactions & relationships.)
As so often emphasized in Judaism, Hashem does not expect us to be perfect.
He DOES expect us to TRY.
Often, just starting down the right path sweetens things.
Once you've shown you've gotten the message, then you no longer need the messenger.
Either the messenger disappears or changes.
(Again, that's IF the reason for the other's unpleasant behavior was SOLELY to give you a message about your own behavior.)
We All Have Our Blind Spots
How else could I possibly have realized the change I still needed to make?
After all, many people commented throughout the years that I tend to speak to my children with warmth & positivity.
And I'd just embarked on a new self-improvement program & had already improved in that same area.
My young child responded well to the improvements I'd already made, and his behavior gave no indication of a lack on my part.
Furthermore, I wouldn't have felt any need to consult with anyone because my child's behavior was fine.
Had I been in a chinuch class, I would've felt like I was following the positivity-negativity ratio proscribed by the chinuch pro.
So for all the above reasons, what could possibly indicate I still needed to stretch myself further in this area?
Yet I DID need to step up my game a bit more.
And how else could I possibly come to this conclusion on my own?
But Hashem saw I could be doing better, so He sent me an encouraging message via this particular messenger.
There was no other way for me to know.
And THAT right there says why this method is vital for any program of self-improvement:
Sometimes, there is no other way to know.
Why Standard Techniques for Dealing with Difficult People Cannot Always Work & This Method Will
Had I used any therapeutic tips for dealing with difficult interactions, it wouldn't have solved the main issue.
For example, had I exhibited the socially encouraged self-esteem & healthy assertiveness and "I" statements by telling her something like, "I appreciate so much your encouragement & concern. But I'm not finding the helpful advice as beneficial as intended. The positive encouragement helps me the most."
Or if I avoided her by taking a different route or just blankly saying "Thank you!" as a brush-off to anything she said...then how would that help when the real issue was something lacking in ME?
The whole reason she behaved this way was because of me — not because of her.
Her behavior was a message from Hashem.
So how would being assertive or avoiding her remedy the situation?
Even if it remedied her behavior, Hashem would just send the same message from somewhere else (and possibly even stronger & more unpleasant).
(Anyway, we saw in Part II how the avoidance technique did not help the woman who needed to stop her hurtful sniping.)
At the same time, sometimes assertiveness or avoidance ARE what Hashem wants you to do!
I don't mean to completely negate those options.
I just believe that looking for Hashem's message should either come first or be part of the response.
Also, if you have a mentor or a therapist, you could do this with them IF they're open to this method.
Sometimes another person can help so much in getting to the bottom of it.
Other times, it's too personal & you need to do it yourself.
So whichever way works for your needs.
Cultivating Yourself Positively & According to Your Real Capabilities
Hashem knows your ACTUAL capabilities.
He knows where you REALLY could be holding at your present level.
Other people (including experts, professionals, consultants, etc.) can mess you up by pushing you beyond your capabilities OR in a direction all wrong for you (but maybe appropriate for someone else).
They don't mean to; they genuinely want to help. And many of them do genuinely help & aim for sensitivity toward their subject's real level & real needs.
But they aren't perfect, some have burnt out but don't realize it, and some either aren't capable of complex thinking or haven't done enough inner work of their own to help others beyond a certain point.
Sometimes, they can make you feel so bad & hopeless, either because they think that's what you need or they didn't realize their approach would make you feel that way.
And by the way, even if someone really is a bad parent or spouse, it's rarely effective to make them feel bad or hopeless about themselves.
Most dysfunctional people got that way from being toxically shamed, so shaming them further shoves them further into their dysfunction.
(This also includes good people who suffer from some dysfunctional aspect. Their dysfunctional aspect developed from an overdose of shame, so shaming them further either makes that aspect worse or brings only a temporary improvement before they fall back even more deeply into the dysfunctional aspect.)
There is a place for using intense shame, but rarely. It almost always makes things worse, so better safe than sorry.
Anyway, if someone is basically good & well-intended, but really messing up in one aspect — why make them feel like they're awful overall?
So that approach generally proves either untrue or ineffective or destructive — or all three.
And just to be clear: I'm not saying you shouldn't turn to another person for help.
If the person is genuinely helpful, then you SHOULD turn to that person!
If you found a mentor, rabbi, rebbetzin, therapist, friend, or consultant who genuinely helps, then that's a gift from Hashem and He definitely wants you to use it!
So go for it.
But this method (using other's behavior as a message from Hashem) provides an extra angle, plus it's a message from Hashem Himself Who loves you more than anyone else could, and also knows what your true capabilities are...so He will not push you past your level or push you in a direction wrong for you.
The Main Points for Using Other's Undesirable Behavior as a Message to for Your Own Self-Improvement
- 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/child?"
- 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!
Again, it's important to stay away from the whole "What negative does this say about me in general?"
If you conclude you are a narcissist, an abuser, a psychopath, Erev Rav, or any other wholly negative & hopeless label...then how does that possibly help you?
Even if you ARE any of the above, it doesn't help to see yourself that way overall.
I emphasize this because so many people think seeing themselves positively is apologist psychobabble and dishonest.
By condemning themselves as a whole, they think they're being honest.
You comprise a tzelem Elokim, Hashem breathed His qualities into you (Genesis ), and you possess a uniquely human soul unlike any other living thing in the world.
If you're Jewish, you possess a Jewish soul too, which is a pristine & lofty entity.
Just work things one step at time without the wholesale negative labeling.
A Self-Image based on Authentic Torah Hashkafah
Even in oneself, see only good points and do not consider yourself wicked — despite the fact that you well know the low place you are in.
How you are filled from head to toe with destructive traits.
Nevertheless, the Rebbe teaches us that one should never negate himself.
Because if someone will cancel out and judge himself to be completely bad, he will not be able to do teshuvah and draw close to Hashem Yisbarach.
By seeing only bad in himself, he closes the way completely.
This is part of Hashem's Mercy, that He runs the world with chessed.
He lifts up a person who has only one point of merit and brings him to a very high place...
— Words of Faith, Volume II, pages 286 & 288