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October 7, 2015 / 24 Tishri, 5776
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Self-Image And Barking Dogs (Part II)

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In my previous column I wrote about the importance of assigning minimal value to the utterances of those who make nasty, ego-wounding comments. Their comments should have the same weight as the noises coming out of a barking dog. Nothing to pay attention to.

I want to make it clear that I am not against criticism. No one is perfect – only God possesses that attribute – and there are behaviors and choices and actions that a person can improve upon that should be pointed out – but it should be done in a benign and encouraging manner, not like the verbal equivalent of a punch.

One of the most insightful lessons I learned about human interaction was in first grade in my day school. Though I don’t remember the exact details, it had to do with a death that had occurred in the parsha. My teacher pointed out the wording of the pasuk that indicated how news of the death was gradually and gently given to the niftar‘s relatives so that it would not come as a wrenching shock. Bad news was to be delivered with tact and sensitivity. So, too, should criticism be given with verbal kid gloves. Instead of being blunt and abrupt and saying to someone, “Your hair is a mess” or coldly looking someone up and down and pointing out that she is too fat for the outfit she is wearing, thereby making the recipient of your criticism feel like a failure or inadequate, you should instead say, “You have such pretty hair and while you look great, by brushing your hair to the side you’ll look even prettier.” For the child/spouse/friend wearing clothes that don’t fit, you can suggest that the outfit probably shrank when it was washed, or that the child must have had a growth spurt and perhaps she can put on something just as pretty that might fit better. You can get your message across without decimating the person’s self-esteem.

One of the worse possible things a person can do to their child, spouse or friend is to label them, by repeatedly attributing to them negative traits. Telling a child, for example, that he is stupid, or lazy, or bad sends the message that that is what they are. Many accept these statements as being true and a part of who they are – like having blue eyes. It’s something they can’t change – so why bother to try?

Some people, parents in particular, believe that belittling their children by telling them they are stupid, or minimizing an achievement, “You got a 90, Yossi got a 97″ – will motivate them to try harder. Very often, tragically, that ploy backfires. The child gives up. Why bother even attempting to do better when you’re going to fall short? When, no matter what you do, you will not measure up because there is always someone on the radar who is better at it?

This business of comparing a person to another erodes a person’s self-esteem and actually doesn’t make any sense. Every neshama is unique and has his/her purpose in life. Why compare an apple to broccoli? Physically, human beings more or less look the same but each soul is special and has to achieve what he or she was meant to achieve. And in the big picture everybody is a major contributor. One might be in awe of the architect who designed the 100-floor skyscraper. And, indeed, he should be praised for his vision and talent. But so, too, should the worker hammering the nails into the beams holding up the structure. His contribution is just as necessary as the architect’s in achieving the finished product. Had he tried to be an architect – something he wasn’t meant to be – he would have failed miserably. It is wrong to put pressure on a child or spouse or friend to be what they aren’t. If your wife isn’t a gourmet cook, don’t berate her. Praise her for what she is good at – like negotiating with the repair people.

As I mentioned earlier, not giving weight to derogatory comments is the first step to a healthier lifestyle. Do not let others make you feel inadequate. Being yourself is the next. You are you – a unique entity Hashem created. Your job is to live your life – not attempt to live someone else’s image of what it should be. A big gadol, Reb Zusya exclaimed that when he died he wasn’t worried that he would be asked why he wasn’t like Moshe Rabbenu, but rather he was concerned he would be asked why he wasn’t like Reb Zusya.

(To be continued)

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