Monday, January 7, 2019

Recognizing Abuse

by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie

Mirror Theory

We can all think of a few people that we would describe as being 'impossible'. These are individuals who push the wrong buttons, irritate us to no end and annoy us whenever we talk to them. These are the people that we find arrogant, critical, and negative or possess some other character deficit. How do we handle impossible people?

The interesting thing is that we don't all find the same people hard to take. The guy that annoys me doesn't bother my wife and the neighbor that she dreads talking to I can communicate with easily. Why do these difficult people clash with some but not with others?

The Baal Shem Tov explained this with the "mirror theory". He taught that when we look at others we are looking at a mirror. When we observe and analyze the behavior of other people we actually discover ourselves in them. The profile we create for others is shaped by our own personality.

None of us are perfect. We all have our deficiencies and areas of personality that are underdeveloped and need work. But we are often unaware of these deficits. Self love often causes us to be in denial, preventing us from resolving and correcting these weaknesses.

When we observe character defects in other people and criticize them, it is really the undeveloped parts of our personality that are showing up. We are only so irritated by these blemishes because the very same issues are unresolved within ourselves. My spouse might not have the same area of weakness, and therefore does not notice it in others.

When we see faults in others it can be used as an opportunity for self reflection. If we think someone is arrogant we can examine our own egos. If we describe someone as being unkind we can examine our level of kindness, compassion and empathy. If our friend's judgmental nature bothers us we should think about how we view other people.

We should always endeavor to look at people in a positive light. But when it becomes difficult, it is an opportunity to look inwards.

Art: Jack Vettriano

What about Abuse?

Is the "mirror theory" always true? For example, what about a woman who stands up to her husband who is abusing her physically or emotionally. Does it mean that because she has identified the abuse, there is something wrong with her? Does it mean that she has an abusive side to her?


Thank you for asking this important question, allowing me to clarify the concept that I was sharing.

Inappropriate control, physical or emotional abuse is inexcusable. No one should ever have to be controlled or be the subject of any form of abuse. One of the most important aspects of a person is their dignity. In Halachic sources, we discover that there are instances where certain laws are suspended to preserve the dignity of the human being. The Talmud says that embarrassing or humiliating someone, particularly in public, is comparable to murder.

Victims of any form of abuse should never blame themselves in any way. Being the recipient of abuse is not a reflection of an abusive personality within the victim. A chronic controller or abuser is unwell, and identifying a sickness of another does not mean I myself am sick.

The mirror theory I shared with you is very different. What I was referring to was noticing deficiencies and weaknesses of other people that fall within the normal realm of human function. These deficiencies do not really affect or compromise us. They just seem to annoy and bother us even though other people do not appear to be affected.

It is these "blemishes" that we notice or highlight in others, which are really a mirror image of our own. It is these weaknesses that our sages refer to when they say that we should judge others favourably and focus on fixing ourselves first.


Anonymous said...

The distinction between evil and difficult people must be made clear. Evil pertains to utterly cruel people; such as the amaleikim and all those who literally go out to do harm to others.

Anonymous said...

So if the abuser is unwell, is sick mentally, let's say, then what is the point of punishing or condemning that person as evil? How can anyone know for a certainty that the abuser is bad, mad, or sad?