My five-part series on toxic people brought an avalanche of responses the likes of which I have not seen in my four years of writing this column. To my pleasure, all except one, were positive letters and e-mails. Many commented that they found the advice helpful in their dealings with people they saw as toxic. I found the individual stories heart- wrenching. The pain that we as a holy nation seem to inflict on each other with our words and deeds, is frightening.
Not knowing the individuals involved, and accepting that there is always another side to any story, I am not going to relate the details of the terrible stories people have shared. I do believe these things happened and the horrible comments were made. The actions speak for themselves. Whether it is a physical fight at a family gathering, not allowing the immediate family to attend a simchah, banishing family from contact, verbal glee at a death of a close relative or so many other events, people have been terribly hurt and families torn apart. The hurt emotions and raw pain – blatant in each e-mail – are very real.
Most of the people who wrote to me asked how to deal with the hurt that they were feeling. Words do hurt and leave scars. They cause great pain, but only if we let them. For many years I kept two sayings always in sight. They were on my desk at work and in my home. I attached them to my refrigerator and placed them as a reminder throughout my house. One said that, “No one has the power to make you feel hurt, angry, upset, insecure or intimidated without your total cooperation. No one has that power but you.”
The other, a quote by the prominent educator, Haim Ginott, was written for teachers. I preferred to see its message beyond the classroom. It reminded me that what I will say this morning and throughout the day will affect the very being of everyone I meet; family, students, colleagues and friends. And that I will be, at least in part, responsible for the kind of day they will have, good or bad.
“I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can humiliate, humor, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.” (Teacher and Child, by Haim Ginott.)
I think what Dr, Ginott was saying is clear to us all. Let me comment on the other. It is important to accept that we can change no one but ourselves. We cannot control another person nor can we assist them to change, unless that is something they desire. You did not cause the toxic behavior nor can you cure it. And though his or her life may look idyllic, no one knows what goes on behind anyone else’s closed door.
The only person you can do anything with is yourself. When we are bothered so very much by what others say about us, it is usually because, deep down, we give the accusation some validity and wonder if it might be true. In order to move on and truly forget the whole thing, we really need to look at what we are being accused of. Why is it upsetting us so much?
Dr. Twersky relates in one of his stories that a woman came to him in tears because her husband has accused her of being a bad mother. He responds that he’d be more concerned about the scar on her face. “What scar?” is her reply. The comment has not upset her, because she has no scar. And that is exactly the point. We only get upset by what others say to us when we, to whatever degree, consciously or unconsciously, give what they say some credibility. And that is what you have to work on.
Take a look at what you have been accused of. Examine it carefully. If it is not reflective of whom you are, toss the emotion away. If you think there is even a speck of that trait in you, then work on getting rid of it. When you accomplish this, you will have no problem with what people say to you. And you will not take responsibility for how they treat you. This is a process of self-growth. It will take time. But it is worth it.
As we enter a new year, let each of us work on ourselves and commit to let only positive words that help leave our lips, and commit to do only actions that help. And, if we need to rebuke, negotiate or criticize, that we do it in a way that brings a person up and doesn’t tear him down. May we merit the coming of Moshiach speedily and soon.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org