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Mom with a View


How to effectively deal with insults.


We were having dinner with friends recently when the husband turned to me and, in response to a comment I’d made, said something extremely critical of me. I was a little taken aback as was my husband who immediately had his dukes up (figuratively of course), ready to defend my honor. I quickly recovered my composure and resumed my meal as if nothing had happened. My husband, relieved, got down off his white charger and continued eating as well.

How were we able to diffuse a potentially tense situation and keep the friendship alive?

For starters, we had recently had a conversation at home about how to deal with insults. Each of my children, without batting an eye, quoted to me the statement of our Sages that says the Almighty loves those who are embarrassed and don’t embarrass back (I don’t even want to think about many thousands of dollars in day school tuition that cost!). So I had that idea in mind. To my kids, that reaction was instinctive and obvious; for me it required some work.

I knew I wasn’t the real target.

I also knew that this friend was going through some personal challenges. I was able to quell my oversensitivity and ego (an admittedly rare occasion) and recognize that I wasn’t really the source of his frustration. I knew I wasn’t the real target and so I didn’t feel compelled to speak up in my defense or otherwise assert myself.

This experience is actually a fairly common one (no, not my ability to quash my ego needs). Frequently the wrong person bears the brunt of another’s frustration. For example, one spouse (we’ll call him the husband) may have had a long day at work -- a project didn’t go well, there was an accident on the freeway and he ate lunch too many hours ago. When he finally arrives home, fatigued, frustrated and famished, he discovers that dinner won’t be ready for another half hour. He lashes out at his wife, demanding that dinner be prepared on time in the future.

While not defending her husband’s behavior, the wise wife refrains from screaming, “You sexist pig! How dare you?” and brings out some crackers and cheese to tide her husband over. Maybe later, when he is sated, she suggests more effective forms of communication. She's able to do this because she knows she's not the real cause of her husband’s aggravation.

And while I am not on the level of those who understand that every insult operates as an atonement for past misdeeds and are therefore grateful for the opportunity provided, I can step back and examine whether there is any truth in the criticism. Is there something I could learn from it? Does it highlight a way in which I need to grow? Honesty requires that I examine myself to see why I had even the smallest role in provoking this reaction.

I’m definitely going to be more careful about what I say in the future and probe a little deeper into my character in an effort to root out any trace of the suggested flaw.

When the Jewish people are attacked from the outside, we need unity.

There are many other reasons not to respond to insults -- not to give anyone else power over you or your emotions, not to lower yourself to their level, because their opinion doesn’t really matter to you, because you were created in the image of the Almighty.

But perhaps one of the most important reasons of all, especially right now, is that when the Jewish people are attacked from the outside, we need unity. We need to strengthen our sense of togetherness, to build bridges with each other and not create further wedges. Too much is at stake.

This is the time to repair relationships, to mend fences. It is a time to pretend you heard wrong (maybe you really did!) and to let bygones be bygones. Most people don’t think so carefully before they speak so it’s a mistake to take their words too seriously.

The Almighty loves us to be quiet in the face of insults because, like all parents, He wants His children to live in peace and harmony. I think I could swallow a few insults in order to give my Father in Heaven that nachas.

Maybe if all just do our small part, if we don’t fight insult fire with insult fire and instead work on building closer relationships, the power of our love will turn back any future flotillas.

June 12, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 20

(20) Logic, August 4, 2011 3:21 AM

It's not exactly fair yet fire doesn't extinguish the flames.

I believe in being thoughtful about what we say and to whom it is said. That is why I would try never to behave as the husband did to his wife in the hypothetical situation. Sure, he had a bad day, but it was wrong of him to take it out on her. In my opinion, an approach between the two extremes of fighing back or acting completely passive and submissive would have been best for the wife to take: "I'm sorry that you are frustrated but I have done nothing to wrong you so please do not take it out on me." Personal attacks should have no place in true criticism. It depends on the insult and your good judgement as to how to best respond and, yes, most insults should be ignored but it is also good to have each side understand the other. Peace and harmony comes with knowlege and understanding. It is good to try to see if you truly did do something wrong but sometimes also to realize when you have done nothing wrong at all. You might not get the apology you should, but at least you can take comfort in that, should it be so. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, it is equally as bad to underestimate yourself as it is to overestimate yourself. Still, getting him something to tide him over while he waits is still a pretty good idea.

(19) Anonymous, June 22, 2010 10:36 AM

swallowing insults (or projections)

How fabulous to read the article on not responding to insults, I was attacked twce by a cousin for doing what she is the one doing. Her exact words about her sister I will tell them it is to be like ths...and there are to be no arguments, some lines later in an email I was told not to stir her up. I did defend myself, no accusations included, and copped it again by phone. I realise there is 100% projection going on, and her Mum is dying, so I just did not answer, said once again Never did I mean to cause any pain, & if I have done this inadvertantly, I am sorry. I hung up seething. It took hours to calm down. Now, several hours later, I read your article on insults and am so glad I just kept quiet. Nothing to be gained by arguing with someone obviously in her own pain. I am slowly calming down and will of course, and I will let it go, hoping I am 'forgiven'.

(18) Eliana, June 18, 2010 3:27 PM

Hashem is sending us a message

Such great timing for this article. I was recently publicly called a liar at work when it was actually the accuser who was being dishonest. I did respond because I needed to defend myself- I held back from slinging any insults. And I have to say that it has been a real test of emuna. Trying to remember not to be angry at the agent of ultimately Hashem's message (because everything is Hashem) and taking what I can from the insult. Although I was not dishonest in this case, it has made me reflect on my life as a whole. When I am really honest with myself, I realise that I am not living up to the standard of honesty in all aspects of my life, especially work life, that I should be. And I think Hashem was giving me a wake-up call. I'm not saying that there is truth in every insult, but surely every insult or distressing situation that we encounter is from Hashem and we should do our best to react appropriately and take what lessons and "wake-up calls" that we can.

(17) Anonymous, June 18, 2010 12:57 PM

It's really worthwhile to try this.

It's hard to swallow insults; but if we remember that almost 100% of the time the person insulting us is upset about something totally not related to us! I had someone yell at me in public with nasty insults - I knew that she was terribly upset about something and I walked away. The next morning she was unable to face me so I walked over to her and hugged her and walked away. The incident was never referred to and I felt fine about it.

(16) Leah, June 18, 2010 3:55 AM

Excellent article! Thank you

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