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Love and Criticism

May 26, 2019 | by Emuna Braverman

If we see someone we care about engaging in self-destructive behavior, we need to speak up. But how and when makes all the difference in the world.

Our sages teach that if we truly love someone we should reprimand them. If we really care about someone and we see them in engaging in self-destructive behavior, how could we not tell them? How could we just let them follow a path that will be so hurtful to them? We behave that way in our parenting, so why not with others that we love?

Obviously, we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We have to be very careful. And that’s why the Torah sets conditions in how we reprimand.

We can’t have any personal agenda (love for them isn’t an agenda!). For example, sometimes I get letters in my Dear Emuna column from oh-so-helpful husbands (or wives) who just want their partner to grow and can’t understand why they are responding to their constant barrage of criticism with anger and frustration! If that is your behavior, it is clearly not about love; it’s about some need of yours that isn’t being fulfilled. It’s about how you want your partner to behave, how you want others to view your marriage, ways you want your spouse to cater to your wishes. If it was truly only about them, you would approach the matter with sensitivity and thought. You would limit your rebuke to one small thing. You would offer it very rarely – and accompanied by lots of love.

The same is true with our children. Yes, we see it as our job to help them grow and yes it is our job. But as every grandmother knows, “You catch more flies with honey.” A thoughtful parent tries to guide their child with love, not criticism. An experienced parent knows that we can only nudge our children in the better direction; we can’t force them to go there. And a parent who only thinks of their child’s welfare and not how others will view them is focused on the long-term. They want to raise a successful and healthy adult and are willing to allow a tantrum in the grocery store, with millions of eyes on them and judging them rather than indulging their child and creating a spoiled brat – or worse.

It’s not easy to have no agenda. If you can’t manage to only think of the other person, then keep your mouth shut.

#Rebuke must come from genuine love, not anger or frustration.

Rebuke must come from love. This is connected to the first point. I’m not doing it out of anger or frustration. It’s not because you came late yet again or because I’m doing all the heavy lifting in the relationship or because you are inconveniencing me or because I’m annoyed. I’m doing it only because I care. I have found people almost always accept a reprimand if it comes out of hurt and almost never if it comes from anger. Anger is self-reflective. You did something to me. It’s not about love. Hurt is about the relationship. I love you and you are important to me and that’s why it bothers me that you didn’t come to my daughter’s wedding (oops! That example just slipped out!).

The recipient must be able to hear it and accept it. How do we know if they can or not? We need to use our best judgment. Have they demonstrated receptivity to “helpful suggestions”? Have they asked for some? I remember I once taught a class in another city and the person who had invited me “kindly” listed for me all the ways in which my teaching hadn’t been up to par. I hadn’t received any fees for my teaching so it wasn’t about that. I was a little taken aback. I had done her a favor. I hadn’t asked for anything in return – and certainly not this!

“I know you want to grow” was her response. She’s not wrong about that but I want to choose the time and place – and the source. I wasn’t ready to hear her critique.

From the perspective of the person receiving these “tools for growth”, the source makes a big difference. The timing makes a big difference. Whether it’s solicited or not makes a big difference. The type of criticism makes a big difference. Does it go right to the heart of who I am or is it a small side point? Is it something that’s easily corrected or is it a life-long work? Is it solicited? Is the speaker someone whose opinion matters to me? Whose perspective I value? Whose interest in my welfare I trust? Is it work-related or very personal?

I would venture to say that in the latter category there is a difference in response between men and women. When I am frustrated with one of the women in my life (yes it can happen!) my husband always encourages me to discuss it with them, to clear the air. I am usually (always) reluctant to do so. Because I know they won’t react well. Not necessarily because of my insensitive delivery (although that’s possible) and not because they don’t want to grow. But because it will feel very hurtful and personal. And while men can certainly be hurt also, I think they are better able to hear it and move on. I think they can distance themselves and the relationship from the criticism. I think they can argue about ideas and even character traits and then shake hands.

Bottom line: we should be very reluctant before giving rebuke, but if someone we love is making a serious mistake (and we are confident it’s a serious mistake) we should try in the most sensitive, thoughtful, selfless and loving way to help them. And if we are truly seeking to grow, we should ask people who love us to help us stick to the straight path and give us a kind nudge if we veer off.

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