Keeping Your Why Nearby

imagesIt is said that that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing and hope for a different result. Nevertheless, today, I joined Weight Watchers for the umpteenth time, with gritty determination that this time it will be different, and as I sat in the unfamiliar room, I took stock of my surroundings while waiting for the meeting to start. On the wall hung a poster with the slogan: “Keep your why nearby.” Worth the price of admission right there, I thought, as the crux of any endeavor is to align what we do with why we do it.

If I could sum up the directive of Eikev, where Moses uses his remaining days to instruct, inspire, and strengthen the Jewish people as they were about to cross the Jordan River without him, it would be those same words: “Keep your why nearby.” As long as we were still in the desert, we lived in a sort of cocoon, not just with each other, but also with the overt presence of God. We were cared for with daily open miracles. Foes were vanquished; transgressions punished.

Like a newborn emerging from the womb, however, we were headed to an entirely different reality and experience. We wouldn’t see an obvious connection between our actions and subsequent reward and punishment. We would face individual and national challenges where we would have to rise to the occasion or fall dismally apart. And so, whether in the heat of battle, the challenge of the market place or the grind of daily living, we could come to feel disconnected from God.

And instead of dwelling together in an orderly encampment around the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle), we would become spread out over the land; eventually throughout the globe, as we would be forcibly exiled from the homeland we were about to conquer. How would we remain a unified people connected to each other under those circumstances? How would our hearts break when we hear news of Jews being murdered thousands of miles away, and what would we be willing to do about it?

What is Your Why?

Says the famous visionary Simon Sinek, “Everyone has a Why. Your Why is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you to do what you do.” During the 40 years of wandering in the desert, we were learning laws, laws, and more laws. Why? What was the point of it all? Declares Moses; the point is to love God, to attach to God, to emulate God and to walk in His ways. But what does that look like outside of the desert? It looks like acts of loving kindness to each other: taking care of the needy, the poor, the widow, etc. Unless these tenets drive the “why” of what we do, the “what” will be rather inconsequential.

Give and Take

The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments are rounded at the top. It is not a coincidence that these shapes allude to a woman’s breasts. Kabbalah teaches a beautiful idea that God’s giving the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people is like a mother nursing her children. Just as an infant needs to suck, however, so does a nursing mother need to give milk. And so the role of giver and taker is as one; giving and taking need each other for fulfillment.   When we give to the poor, for example, it is not a one-way street; the giver and recipient are part of a bigger reality that embraces them both. Thus my life does not revolve around a self-centered “I” but encompasses a greater communal and shared identity; and those of my actions, which are rooted in empathy, will have a greater and more meaningful impact.

The Why of Relationship

How does this play out in relationships, especially marriage? Successful and happy marriages are based less on conflict resolution and more on sharing (and consciously keying into) a mutually created culture of a shared “why.”

According to relationship expert John Gottman:

Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together – a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become….Developing a culture doesn’t mean a couple sees eye to eye on every aspect of their life’s philosophy. Instead, there is a meshing. They find a way of honoring each other’s dreams even if they don’t share them. The culture that they develop together incorporates both of their dreams. And it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop.[1]

And so the poster on the wall reminds me that if I want to achieve a certain result, keeping my “why” nearby will keep my values in the foreground so that the choices and decisions I make are congruent with my goal. Without a strong commitment to my own “why” my behavior will be haphazard and ineffectual. Simon says: “Values are not simply posters on the wall. In order for a culture to be strong, your values must be clear and your values must be lived.” So what is your “why,” how will you keep it nearby, and how will you honor the shared cultures of your life?

[1] John M. Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Three Rivers Press: NY) pps. 243-244.

3 Ways to Transform Curses into Blessings

“Love covers up all iniquity.”

-Proverbs 10:1

indexFrom a Curse to a Blessing

“How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.” “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishk’notecha Yisroel.[i] This verse, which is this week’s Torah portion, Balak, is said upon entering a synagogue, is part of the daily Morning Prayer, and even if you don’t recite it, you may know it, as it is one of the most famous verses in the Torah.

And so, one would think that these words of praise were uttered by God, or by Moses, or at least by someone “very holy.” And yet, these words emanated from the mouth of a notorious Jew hater, Bilaam, who was hired by Balak, (the newly-appointed King of Moab), to curse the Jewish people in the desert.

Three times, Bilaam tried to curse the Jewish people, and yet each time, he blessed them instead. Prior to the first two attempts, Bilaam and God had a “conversation” whereby God either instruct Bilaam what to say or put the words directly into his mouth. Despite his pure hatred and single-minded intention to cause harm, Bilaam could only utter words of blessing and praise for the Jewish people.

Therefore, before the third and final attempt, Bilaam decided to take a different tact, since these “conversations” with God were not going his way. This time, Bilaam concentrated on the so-called faults and transgressions of the Jewish people, trying to discredit them so as to overcome God’s benevolence and whip up a host of spiritual negativity against the Jewish people.

A Godly Lens

And so, after he was all fired up, Bilaam lifted his eyes to blast the Jewish people once and for all with his “evil eye.” But when he raised his eyes and looked – truly looked – Bilaam noticed how the placement of the tents was designed for the utmost respect for privacy and dignity. He saw orderliness. He saw righteousness. He saw goodness. And he was moved. Incredibly, The Torah states, “He changed his mind to be like God.” And in so doing – even if it was a very temporary shift – Bilaam saw a new reality, a Godly reality, and his curses were transformed into blessings.

So, the question is, how could such words of praise come out of Bilaam’s mouth and of his own accord? It’s true but a not-funny joke, that if a notorious anti-Semite says something nice about the Jews – then it must be true. It’s just human nature – we have a hard time believing certain ideas when they originate from sources very close to us. After all, how credible is it when we sing our own praises? Thus, if a gentile praises the Jewish people, that’s good, but if a Jew-hater genuinely and effusively praises us? Wow – what could be better?

Loving Ourselves

Now let’s take a deeper look and find a lesson we can apply to our lives. Besides our tendency to discount positivity from close sources, I think that most of us have a hard time being kind and benevolent to ourselves.   When is the last time you checked in on the inner dialogue in your head and your running thoughts and feelings – about you? I decided to pay attention to my inner voice the other day, and I was shocked at how intolerant and cruel I can be to myself.

Many of us have a hard time liking ourselves. We think it’s selfish and egotistical. But if I don’t like myself – why should you like me? If I don’t value or love myself – why should you?   We are also afraid that if we have self-compassion or like ourselves, we would never change because we mistakenly think shame is the best impetus for growth. And so, we can become our own Bilaams – in effect, cursing ourselves. I can assure you, however, with 100% certainty, that shame and blame are never the paths to sustained change or growth. Ok, you may ask, so what is?

When Bilaam decided to “change his mind to be like God,” that’s when the transformation happened. That’s when the curses turned to blessings. I believe that’s the key. In our Morning Prayers, we acknowledge that the soul God placed in us is pure. Further, we are made in the image of God, and we have Godly souls. When we don’t judge ourselves favorably, we are insulting our Creator.

Seeing is Believing

Ponder this. The more I love myself – my real self, my Godly self – and the more order, righteousness and good that I see when I look inside, the more I will naturally align my actions to be congruent with that vision. So, may I suggest the following:

Step One: Notice the toxic inner talk. But please don’t criticize the inner critic or you’ll stay in the same loop. Have compassion and understand that it’s a habituated form of thinking. Don’t get hooked – it’s not you. Rather, it is a bad and unconscious habit, and increasing your awareness of this bad habit will help you break it

Step Two: Counteract the negativity with positivity – lots of it. In Five Steps to Better Relationships, I wrote about the Losada Principle and the Gottman Relationship Ratios. In a nutshell, we weigh negativity more than positivity, and so to maintain loving and benevolent and thriving relationships, we must offset critical or negative comments with three to five positive ones – or suffer the consequences. I never realized that it applies to our own self-talk as well! And so, every time you hear yourself making a negative comment to yourself, offset it with three to five positive comments that are constructive

Step Three: Give yourself permission to see yourself with Godly reality. As Marianne Williamson has says, “Maturity includes the recognition that no one is going to see anything in us that we don’t see in ourselves…. Joy is what happens when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.”

And when we can live from this joyful place, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. Imagine a world where all curses were transformed into blessings, where we looked with inner and outer eyes that only saw order, righteousness and good – and not for a brief inspired moment – but as the natural state of continuous connection to our Source. Let’s start now.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Using the steps above, every day this week write down every negative thought you had about yourself. At the end of the week, look in the mirror and read them aloud. Pay attention to the language you use and the way you speak about yourself. If you wouldn’t say these statements to someone else, then stop saying them to yourself.

 

  1. Look through the statements you wrote down from the week. Take one that kept repeating or that was the harshest. Now counteract it with three to five positive statements. Write them below. Ideally, do this for every negative statement you made during the week.

 

  1. This one may be hardest as this may not yet be your reality. But the more you start to envision it, the sooner that shift will change. Write down how you want to see yourself and to do so, envision that you are speaking to yourself as a soul and not who you are in your body. If you could speak to your essence before you even came into this world, in your perfected state, what would you see and say?

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Bamidbar/Numbers 24:5.

Listen Up and Speak Your Truth

images“Are you listening or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?”

– Anonymous

When I hear people complain about a spouse’s lack of backbone and initiative, describing their loved one as a person who lets others walk all over him or her, otherwise known as a doormat, or in Yiddish, a “schmatta,” I halt them in mid-rant with this observation: “Ok, I get it.  But then I guess that makes you Mrs. (or Mr.) Schmatta.  There now – do you feel better?”  I enjoy seeing the dawn of understanding in their eyes when they realize that when they put down their spouses, they indict themselves as well.  Most of the times people are not malicious, and they may genuinely feel that to correct the shortcomings of others, and to put them in their rightful place, is simply being helpful, kind, or responsible.  In other words, it’s the loving thing to do.

Shame, however, whether inwardly directed or outwardly projected – is never a catalyst for growth, change or transformation.  How then, can we avoid shaming people with whom we have a bona fide disagreement?  How do we prevent the trap of the position-based power struggle?  And how can we communicate with others when the topic of conversation is in the red zone, meaning it’s sure to set off emotional triggers, resulting in anger and defensiveness, or its opposite, which is withdrawal and stonewalling?  Borrowing the words from the title of Adele Farber’s famous book, how do we talk so that people will listen and listen so that people will talk?[1]

Listening With No Ego

The Torah portion, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” is always read before the holiday of Shavuot, which is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai.  The best state in which to receive Torah is when we make of ourselves a desert, meaning that we nullify our egos, enter into a state of total humility and create the internal space to take it in.  As Marianne Williamson says, “When the ego steps back, the power of God steps forward.

Being able to access this state is a prerequisite for handling tense conversations and emerging through conflict with a higher state of awareness and connection. There are any number of constructs for active listening.  My favorite, “Imago Dialogue,” was created by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.  In a nutshell, the listener has to be able to mirror back when the speaker has said – sentence by sentence and then check in that they have repeated the words accurately, followed by a genuine expression of empathy or compassion for the point of view that was just expressed.  The beauty of this model is that for the listener to be able to do that, the listener has to tune out all of their internal thoughts that would otherwise be flooding their minds with counter-arguments, defenses, shifting the conversation to themselves, and other ways of blocking what the speaker is saying. Just like you can’t have simultaneous live conversations, you can’t truly listen to another person as well as the voice in your head at the same time. 

 When you listen with deep presence, attention, and curiosity, sometimes it’s enough for the argument to subside, in that the other person simply wanted the opportunity to be heard without interruption or invalidation.  Other times, you can hear – finally – what the other person has been trying to communicate in vain for years and you can have a whole new perspective. 

For example, for years, my husband and I would have a big upset over our different perceptions of time, and how early or late we should arrive at events, like a wedding.  I make the assumption (which is true) that no wedding ceremony ever happens at the time stated on the invitation.  I also am fine with arriving moments before the couple makes it down the aisle.  My husband, on the other hand, would prefer to arrive at an event early – possibly before the caterer even showed up.  For years, I brushed off his complaints:

“I like to get there early and talk to our friends.”

“But you see them pretty much every week anyway, so what’s the big deal?”

“But I like to get there for the smorg.”

“That’s just a lot of unnecessary calories, on top of a fattening dinner and dessert. Do you really need it?” Etc. Etc.

One day, we sat down to have a conversation about this conflict and we used the technique of active listening and mirroring, and for the first time, I actually heard what my husband was trying to tell me.  By being curious and listening without preconditions, I didn’t reactively defend against what I had perceived to be a control issue.  I was open to seeing what a reasonable request it was to drive to an event leisurely and then enjoy all of the varieties of experience and connection and fun that are part of a joyful wedding.  I was also able to see how being on time could be an expression of personal integrity and even more important, showing love and respect to the people who had invited us.

Talking With Appropriate Ego

The first line of Bamidbar ends with God’s command to Moses to take a census. Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that God loves us and counts us, just like we like to count our prized possessions.  So, on one hand, to receive Torah, we should be lowly, like the shifting sand of a barren desert.  But on the other hand, each soul is a precious and unique possession and we are tasked with striving for actualization as well as being a light unto nations.   For that to occur, we must live Torah, that is, to stand tall and be counted and know who we are.

 If you continue to express an issue in a relationship, you can assume that it is based on experiencing an unmet need – and, as radical as this may seem, all unmet needs are valid issues.  It is simply not acceptable for others to summarily dismiss your needs and concerns as invalid, and you don’t have to justify or argue why you have the feelings that you have.

 But you do need to recognize that your needs and feelings are not universal.  They are not the objective truth from on high.  Therefore, take responsibility for unmet needs as being your issue, and don’t automatically make the other person wrong for not meeting your unmet need.  Once you make your issue about you – and not the other person – you are able to communicate in a clear and powerful way.  You can describe events and facts such as, “You were really late coming home,” versus being critical: “You’re such an inconsiderate jerk for being late.”  And then you can explain exactly why you are upset (because the surprise dinner you had made is now ruined).  And now you can make reasonable requests about how your partner can meet your need for certainty around the time of arrival.  Since only you truly know what would satisfy your unmet need, you need to ask for what you want.  And now you and the other person can be creative about finding solutions that work for you both.   Making space for another’s reality while also being able to stand up for your own self is a never-ending dance of give and take, that when done with love and respect, can create an unbreakable bond of love, connection, and joy.

[1] Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So That Kids will Listen and Listen So That Kids Will Talk, (NY: Simon and Schuster 1980).

Making Mistakes and Fixing Them – The Right of Repair

indexBy repairing our relationship with God, we will repair our relationship with everyone and everything around us.”    –Author Unknown

The Joyless Relationship

Oblivious to her surroundings at a crowded boarding area in the Philadelphia airport, the woman seated across from me loudly informed her husband in clear and unmistakable terms exactly what she expected from him. Your job is to make me happy.  Your only job, she continued, adding a little oomph for emphasis is to make me happy. It is not my job to make you happy.

Judging by the blank look on her husband face and his utter lack of acknowledgement that she was even speaking to him, I gathered this was not a newsflash. And by the looks of their worn-out elderly faces, I imagined he had heard this directive hundreds of times.

The Guilt-Ridden Relationship

With the hundreds of commandments given to us in the Torah that seemingly regulate our every move albeit to serve God, one could conclude that God’s overriding message to the Jewish people could sound like the wife in the airport. Listen up people. Your job is to make Me happy. Your only job is to make Me happy. It is not My job to make you happy.   One could kinda get that feeling – right?  It’s not that much of a stretch.  But it would be dead wrong.

Previously in the story-line, we committed the sin of the Golden Calf (not good). But then we were forgiven, and we faithfully built the Tabernacle (good), which became the vehicle for the Divine Presence of God to connect with the Jewish people (really good). But now, in the Torah portion, Tzav, God is instructing Moses about the sacrificial offerings that the Jewish people will have to bring to atone for their sins – their future sins – as in the ones they haven’t even yet committed!

What’s with the Eternal Rub-in?

Wait a minute. This seems rather dis-affirming, doesn’t it? After the Golden Calf, we were just getting back on track with God.  Did God have to rub in the fact that making mistakes is inevitable, thus ruining the moment of reunification with this “buzz-kill” from on high?  Imagine getting married and before you even check into the hotel on your honeymoon, you have to sit down for a lecture on conflict resolution, fair fighting and how to appease your spouse.

Some Simple Truths

Each and every one of us make mistakes, and we will continue to make mistakes until we are either dead, or we lack capacity. Along with free will, making mistakes is simply wired into the very mechanism of creation.  Perhaps if Adam had understood that fact, he would not have stayed hidden behind a bush and he could have come clean.   It is crucial to understand that while we in fact “make” mistakes; we are not the mistake itself.  Confusion on that point keeps us stuck in shame.  Hence, when confronted with a mistake we lash out and blame others, and therefore we fail to learn from our errors and we cannot grow.

That’s not what God wants for us.  We need to understand that we can atone for mistakes and we can change our thoughts and behaviors. Thus, Tzav, God lays out the way to deal with mistakes as part of the process of growth and restoring connection, otherwise known as the “right of repair.”

For example, marriage expert, John Gottman, often talks about how a key factor in protecting marriages against divorce is for couples to learn the art of the repair attempt, because it stops negativity from escalating, and it corrects a couple from heading off course.  In all relationships – and especially the one we have with ourselves – we need a way back in.

The Joyful Relationship

The laws of the sacrifices gave us a way to process and rectify mistakes, to repair and restore our connection with God. And we needed to know that was possible from the very outset, or else we could get lost in self-condemnation, blame and shame.  Hyper-focusing on our mistakes, and thinking we are beyond repair, leads to disconnection and an outward expression of anger that traps us in a downward negativity spiral.

Furthermore, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, “korban” is related to “karov” which means “to draw close.”  It is specifically after we have messed up and feel so far away that we are given an opportunity to come back to the One who loves us and forgives us.  The separation we can feel at times is not that God is far away from us, but that we have removed ourselves from God. The sacrificial offering is the “right of repair” that draws us close once again.   The mechanism is already in place.

And that kind of truth, that amazing gift, can’t wait to be told. God was telling us something about fundamental human nature and relationships. We needed to understand that we are not perfect and that we will surely make mistakes – but the relationship will endure nevertheless! We need to be able to take risks, to be vulnerable and to be authentic; otherwise, we can become paralyzed by the constraints of perfectionism, which is a life-crippling syndrome.

The Eternal Relationship

In Tzav, God also instructs us to ensure that an eternal flame is lit. Providing the means to process and metabolize and move through our errors is the vehicle for growth, and it frees us to maintain our connection with that which is eternal – our connection to God and our inner flame.

What God is telling us, through all these commandments, is that our job – our only job – is to connect with God, and in so doing, we will be connected with our truest, deepest eternal selves. Appreciating the critical difference between making a mistake and being a mistake and utilizing the “right of repair” will help get us back on track with keeping lit the eternal flame of our soul, and living our life’s true mission.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. If you weren’t scared of failure and making mistakes, what risks would you take right now in your life?

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  1. What do you fear will happen if you make mistakes, especially in your relationships? What are you most scared you will lose? When thinking more about it, is this based in any kind of reality? If so, is the relationship really solid to begin with?

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  1. List a few mistakes that you have made that you felt there was no way of repairing. Now rethink them and recognize that making mistakes is human and unavoidable. Write yourself a message acknowledging that while you made a mistake, you are not a mistake, and forgive yourself. How does telling yourself that you are not your mistake make you feel?

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Where Are You Is a Very Good Question

where-are-youQuestions are powerful tools. They can ignite hope and lead to new insights. They can also destroy hope and keep us stuck in bad assumptions.”

– Michael Hyatt

In the face of questionable or annoying behavior, we often make the mistake of asking “why?” For the most part, asking someone “why” questions, such as, “Why are you so disorganized? Why did you leave your wet towel on the floor? Why did you forget to take your lunch to school? Why did you leave on all the lights? Why did you blah blah blah…” are bad questions. How so?

“Why” questions are often less of a genuine inquiry into the truth of the matter and more of a veiled accusation and criticism. When your spouse comes into the kitchen in the middle of the night craving that last bit of beef with broccoli, for example, and finds the empty Chinese food container surreptitiously buried in the trash, there are no really “good” answers to the interrogation that is sure to follow.

Killer Communication

Relationship expert, John Gottman, famously uses the phrase “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to refer to the four communication styles that kill relationships and Horseman #3 is “Defensiveness.” When we feel unjustly accused of something, we defend ourselves by denying, fishing for excuses, blaming, and turning the tables on the accuser to make it his or her fault.

Sometimes, however, because of past experiences, we can get triggered, and “hear” an innocent or good question as being a verbal attack – when it wasn’t. We’re all familiar with the story of Adam eating the forbidden fruit and then hiding from God.
God never asked Adam “why” he ate of the forbidden fruit, however. God simply asked, “Where are you?”

The Existential Inquiry

Obviously, this wasn’t a literal question, with God playing Hide & Go Seek, peering at the bushes saying, “Come out, come out wherever you are.” But neither was it a verbal attack. It was an existential inquiry. In asking, “Where are you?” God was probing the internal mechanism whereby Adam made it OK to disobey God. No matter how destructive the behavior, there is always an inner voice that convinces us that it’s OK, justifiable, or even a moral imperative. No one, I dare say, eats chocolate frosted donuts or is unfaithful to a partner by accident; the mind can distort any reality and excuse any behavior.

In asking Adam, “Where are you?” God wanted Adam to contemplate the grave consequences of his behavior, because if Adam was hiding from God, and thus, disconnected from his very Creator, where, then, could he possibly be?

Response – Ability

The antidote for defensiveness is simple – own your stuff. Take responsibility for your part, however big or small, in creating the issue. God was hoping that the first man would “man up,” learn from his mistake and reconnect with God.

Adam’s disobedience, however, had created in him such a deep sense of shame, that he processed God’s inquiry as a “why” question, as a verbal attack, and thus Adam engaged in typical defensive behaviors. Adam blamed his wife for giving him the fruit of which he ate, he upped the ante by blaming God for giving him a wife to begin with, and even worse, Adam failed to show remorse.

The Sages point out that in the text, the verb “ate” is in the future tense. Incredibly, Adam was in effect admitting that even if he had the chance for a do-over, he would commit the same sin again, that for all time, Adam will always eat that apple, because he is not capable of or interested in changing. He’s just that guy. Having rejected God’s overture and bid to repair the relationship is it any wonder that at that point, God responded, “You’re outta here!”

The True Nature of Sin

The Hebrew word for “sin” is “chet.” It means, “to miss the mark,” and so we are to understand that it is the very nature of transgressions to take us off course. As anyone who uses GPS knows, we often miss a turn, but the first thing that happens when the system re-routes is to pinpoint our locations. Fundamentally, however, we also have to have a destination. “Where are you?” exists in a context. And so, implicit in the spoken question is the unspoken assumption of a location: “Where are you going?” In Judaism, it’s both the journey and the destination.

As we go through the trials and tribulations of life, as well as its joys and delights, we can imagine that embedded in each situation is God’s question: “Where are you now… and now… and here… and here… with this ordeal and that triumph?” Are you in relationship with God? Are you connected? Are you likely to hit the mark? And if not, then how can you course correct? Are you willing to ask for Divine direction? Are you willing to recalibrate your assumptions? Can you take responsibility for your actions and respond appropriately? Let’s not ever be “that guy,” unable to come out from behind the bush, bitter at life and who doesn’t know where he’s going?

Shelach – 5 Steps to Better Relationships

“In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent. This is man’s problem: that he learns to talk before he learns to be silent.”

– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

But…

 Have you ever been on the wrong end of an unwanted question, such as, “Will you marry me?” Or, “Will you be my date for the prom?” Or something less serious, such as, “Hey, can you do me a huge favor?”

 If the answer is “no”, there is going to be a “but” somewhere in that sentence, such as, “I really love you – but – I’m just not in love with you.” Or, “you’re such a great guy – but – I’m already going with Mr. Wrong.” Or, “I’d love to help you out, but I think I have to do my colonoscopy prep that night.”

 And no matter how nice or apologetic or convincing the first part of the sentence is, for the listener, it’s only what comes after the “but” that matters, because that’s where the truth of the message lies.

 And so, it’s hard to believe – but – this one innocuous word, “but” is responsible for the downfall of the generation that left Egypt and it caused them to be condemned to die in the desert.

 If you don’t know the story, the Jewish people had just left Mount Sinai after receiving the Ten Commandments and were poised to enter what was then known as the Land of the Canaanites. The people were nervous and didn’t know what they were up against, and so they asked Moses to appoint a group of men to go spy out the land.

 After forty days the spies returned and issued a glowing report. “It’s a land filled with milk and honey. Here are its fruits.” And then they said the word “efes” (which means “but”) after which they painted such a negative picture of the land, that people were scared stiff and wept through the night, thus sealing their fate that where not only would they not enter the land, but future calamities (such as the destruction of the First and Second Temples) would occur on the anniversary of that date.  

The Weight of Criticism

We often mix compliments with criticisms and wonder why the listener is offended.

I gave my son a compliment about his appearance, but I ended the sentence with criticism.   “Mother giveth and Mother taketh away,” he said. And I was surprised. After all, I said something nice – also – so why the drama?

 Plain and simple, it’s what follows the “but” that counts. And we can’t neutralize or offset a criticism with a compliment. It’s not an even wash because we don’t hear or care about the compliment. Evolutionists will explain that we are wired to focus on negativity because the negative carries valuable information about possible danger.  

Whatever the reason, a ratio of 1:1 (compliment/criticism) will destroy the quality of your relationships as surely as it destroyed that generation of the Jewish people. So can we ever criticize? Of course we can, and sometimes we must, but there are ways to do it without harming the relationship.

 In a business setting, there is something called the “Losada Principle,” which tells us that unless a negative or critical remark is offset by at least three positive comments, the work environment is considered toxic, and employees will not thrive and be productive.

 In personal relationships, the ratio is a bit higher. A critical or negative comment needs to be offset with 3-5 positive comments. Dip consistently below that ratio in your marriage, and your relationship is in peril, because you are statistically headed for a divorce.

So here’s my advice:

  1. If you must say something critical (and sometimes you must) make an effort to offset it with multiple positive remarks.
  1. If you must say two contradictory things, switch the order so that the nice comment follows the “but.” For example: “You did a great job cleaning your room, but the bathroom is a mess” – versus – “The bathroom is a mess, but you did a great job cleaning your room.” Do you hear the difference in those approaches?
  1. After you get the hang of that, try to stop talking after the compliment. “You did a great job cleaning your room.” Full stop. The bathroom is another conversation for another time. Don’t ruin the compliment.
  1. Don’t ruin the compliments you receive. When I get a compliment about a meal I prepared, for example, I often would deflect it with a “but,” such as “but the chicken is too dry.” Don’t diminish yourself and make the person giving you a compliment feel silly for doing so.
  1. And finally, consciously transform the “but” from “destructive” to “constructive.” “I hear that your teacher is a demanding perfectionist, but it’s going to make you up your game.” Or, “I don’t know how I can deal with this, but I know it’s going to make me stronger.” Use the “but” to focus on the positive aspect of a challenging situation.

If only the spies could have read this blog, Jewish history could have been completely different! Let us not make the same mistake in our lives, and instead, pay attention to the “but” and infuse our relationships with conscious kindness and create a legacy of positivity.

Internalize & Actualize

  1. Think about a recent argument you had. What could you have said differently that would have changed the outcome of that interaction? What can you say now to help rectify it? 
  1. Think about someone you are likely to criticize. Now write down five positive attributes or compliments you could give that person that would be sincere. This week say one of those compliments daily and then write down any changes you notice from that person.
  1. The way we talk to ourselves is just as critical as the way we talk to other people. Using the 3-5 compliment ration per criticism, write down something negative you often think or say to yourself. Then following that, write down 3-5 compliments you can give yourself (without a “but”) to help offset the damage from that negative statement.