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Jewish Assertiveness Training

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R

Finding the balance between confrontation and pulling away.

In our relationships, when do you forgive and forget, and when do you demand redress from those who hurt you? When do you say "No"? When do you say "Yes"? When a person finds the correct balance, it paves the way for successful, stimulating and meaningful relationships with others.

There are a series of verses in the Torah that provide us explicit guidance on how to assert ourselves and how to tackle difficult topics and resentments in our relationships:

"Do not harbor hate for your brother in your heart, [rather] rebuke your friend and do not bear the sin. Do not take revenge or bear a grudge" (Leviticus 19:17-18).

If we want to avoid hating people, taking revenge or bearing grudges, we must let others know that they have wronged us and not let our resentments simmer until they boil over.

Let's study this a bit more. When we are hurt or disappointed in relationships, we tend to take one of two polar positions. Either we pull away from the person and enact what Bowenian family therapists call "emotional cutoff", or we respond to the person with aggression (physical or verbal) in order to fight for what we think is our rights.

Of course, both positions are not helpful. If we pull away emotionally, we may avoid the discomfort of conflict but we also freeze out the other person, which eventually leads to extinguishing the flames of love. Day by day, year by year, resentments can build until there is just a background of frustration and bitterness. Couples that follow this process often end up divorcing when they become empty-nesters. Once there is no glue left in the form of children to care for, they discover that the basic love and foundation of the marriage has long ago evaporated.

If instead of pulling away we become hostile and aggressive, this leads to more aggression and more pain. While in some ways it is good to argue instead of being in a state of cold fury, the pain of the resulting insults and hurt feelings leads to a breakdown in the relationship.

The Third Way

Instead of letting our resentments simmer, we do need to speak about them in a productive manner.

There is a third option, which seems to be the intention of the verses above. Instead of letting our resentments simmer, we do need to speak about them. However, the Torah instructs us to "rebuke your friend and do not bear sin", which is understood by many commentaries to mean that one should speak in a direct and gentle manner about the problem. This is what Bowenian family therapists call "connection without reactivity" -- don't recede or pull away, rather confront the person. However, confrontation should be in a manner that "does not bear sin," i.e. it is not in a hurtful or mean way. So we must let people know what we are upset about. This is what the verse means when it warns against "hating in your heart" – that one should not keep it bottled up inside.

However, the Torah continues with the following admonition: "Do not take revenge or bear a grudge." This means that once one confronts the person about how he or she caused hurt or pain, we are to wipe the slate clean, and no longer harbor resentment. We should not seek revenge nor should we bear a grudge. Letting go of our resentments (once we have taken the steps of informing the other) is a fundamental and valuable psychological and Torah precept in relationships. We are to live 100% in the present and not let the past influence how we treat our loved ones. If your spouse hurt you yesterday, or last week, or last year, and you have discussed it with him or her, you must now allow yourself to let go.

Letting go of resentments takes great maturity and wisdom; it is also incredibly liberating. There is a saying in the recovery community that illustrates this point: "If you hold grudges or resentments, it is like allowing someone to live rent-free in your head." How we feel and how we act should not always be the same. We must be true to our feelings and appropriately confront those who hurt us, and indeed we need to keep discussing it with them until we are able to feel that our needs are being addressed. Nevertheless, we should not bear a grudge, and we should not refuse to be kind and helpful to the other person. We should treat the requests and needs of our significant others totally in the present, and not evaluate whether or not we should help based on how we were treated in the past.

This formula is enormously helpful in relationships because it allows for resentments to be discussed and worked through, while also halting any escalation of the conflict. If we take ourselves out of "tit for tat" kind of thinking, we won't perpetuate a cycle of hatred and fighting that destroys many relationships. This kind of assertiveness ensures rich and rewarding relationships that spur us to constantly grow closer by confronting the problems, letting go of the grudges, and treating every moment as if it is new.

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