Last week, my husband and I went to a family simcha from his side. I would describe us as modern Orthodox, Young Israel-type people. We try to live with integrity, generosity, chesed, and sincerity. Though we both grew up that way, the majority of my husband’s family moved very much toward the right over the years, while we’ve remained true to ourselves and are very comfortable living the way our parents lived. Generally speaking, we live in a community with people who share our values and lifestyle, and it’s all good — except for the fact that both of our children have really gone astray when it comes to religion. And even though our friends are more or less similar to us, their children, by and large, have become much more religious than their parents and keep moving to the right.
I’m writing to you about the issue of feeling judged, beginning with simchas, like the one we attended this week, or even during conversations when our friends are talking about their children. I find myself feeling like some sort of failure both personally and as it relates to our children, and I dread conversations that somehow might dip into anything related to religion in any way.
When I’m in a logical place, I tell myself that I have a choice regarding where I’m holding, and I feel very strong in my beliefs and my lifestyle. No one is holding me back from taking on more, but, honestly, it’s not who I am or who I want to be. I believe I’m true to myself and don’t want to change for the wrong reasons. But at these simchas that we have to attend very often, since it’s a very large family, I’m always feeling judged, even by some nieces and nephews who are young enough to be my children. My husband thinks maybe I’m imagining some of this, but I’m not so sure. I see how they check out my clothing, uncovered head, etc. It’s probably alien to some of them. We stick out like sore thumbs. My husband is the only man not wearing a black hat or shtreimel, and I’m the only one in attendance without a sheitel. Not only don’t I feel accepted, but I feel like the black sheep of the family. It’s pretty ironic, considering the fact that we’re not the ones who have changed over time — they are!
I experience a similar feeling when friends talk about their children and their lifestyles, etc. Though my friends don’t share the same lifestyle as their children, they seem proud of them and joyful over the dozens of grandchildren coming their way. (We have no grandchildren yet.) I spend a great deal of time being embarrassed and worrying that no one should ask me any questions about my children, because answering those questions leaves me feeling full of shame. Even though I know that my husband and I did everything in our power to create a very different outcome, somehow…
Generally speaking, I feel like a “together” person who can handle herself in most situations. But in these situations, I don’t know how to act or what to say, or how to protect myself from the feelings of judgment that inevitably surface in me and make me want to fall through a trapdoor in the floor. Lately, I try to avoid such situations. My husband has started going to some affairs without me because it’s just too painful for me. He’s a good guy and allows me stay home, but in my heart, I don’t feel good about it. I feel like there has got to be a better way for me to handle the feelings of judgment and the annoying questions that do a real number on me.
I know you can’t tell me why people have to be so judgmental — that would probably fill a book! But if you can give me some tools for dealing with my feelings of judgment and shame, so that I can walk around with my head held high despite being “different” in certain situations and having children who are extremely “different,” that would be great. What do I say to these people who make comments or ask intrusive questions? How do I soothe myself from my own sad thoughts and feelings?
Wow, what a great question that I think many people can relate to for a whole host of reasons. Feelings of being judged are very hard to deal with and, frankly, they shouldn’t be something that we have to deal with on top of whatever else is troubling us.
There is a lot to say on the subject, but first I’d like to begin with an interesting conversation I recently had with a close childhood friend, who has always impressed me with her confidence, daring personality, and willingness to upset the status quo. I’ll call her Randy. Randy, who is married to a rebbe, raised a bunch of very impressive children, and she is quite learned in her own right. She recently told me that she just got another ear-piercing. Kind of surprised to hear this, I asked her what motivated this decision of hers (considering the fact that a number of her children were horrified). She explained to me that one of her pet peeves is the fact that she observes an enormous amount of judgment within her present community. Having moved around from city to city many times, as she’s married to a rebbe, she made many friends in small towns who were warm and embracing and could care less about another’s personal religious choices; in general, they lacked a judgmental attitude altogether. She missed these communities terribly and found herself wanting to challenge her current friends and neighbors with her ear-piercing.
Not only is Randy not afraid to be judged, but she is making a statement that is basically saying to one and all, “Bring it on!” She wants to open up that conversation and hopefully open up some people’s minds to a different way of reacting and judging — or not.
Before I give you a few concrete suggestions, I do want to suggest that perhaps you are projecting onto others your own feelings of being thought of as “less than,” and maybe you are overreacting in your thoughts about how others might be judging you. We often have strong intuition regarding subliminal messages coming from intangible thoughts and feelings swirling around us. So perhaps you are picking up on something, but it’s also possible that you are overly sensitive and are making it into more than it really is. Whether it is imagined, real, or exaggerated, the question is if your self-esteem is strong enough to withstand real or perceived judgment.
In other words, do you really have to care as much as you do? If you know in your heart that you are living a life you are proud of and, equally important, that you can’t take responsibility for adults in your life who have made their own choices, must other people’s tracking systems drag you down? It sounds as though you feel guilty, but what are you feeling guilty about? It’s important and even necessary for you to move into “ownership” of yourself and develop enough pride and confidence in who you are so that what other people think really shouldn’t matter that much to you. After all, they shouldn’t be judging you in the first place. And if they do, why is that your problem? Or, to quote my friend Randy, “Bring it on!”
Next, it’s important for you to realize that everyone is struggling with something. You would be surprised to know what is going on in the privacy of many people’s homes — people you may think are living perfectly wonderful lives. Most of them have their own hot buttons, their own aspects of their lives that are raw and open to pain. Some challenges are easier to cover up and some are out there in full view. But no one is immune from experiencing imperfection, and, therefore, if they are the least bit self-aware, they should be sensitive enough to focus on themselves. Maybe they are deflecting from their own pain by concentrating on the pain of others, in a judgmental fashion, which is truly messed up and unbecoming. It says everything about them and virtually nothing about you.
Finally, when you are faced with an invasive type who asks you questions that make you feel uncomfortable — sometimes totally innocently and sometimes intentionally — the best response is simply to say, “And why do you want to know?” Rather than feel the burden of discussing something uncomfortable that you really don’t want to talk about, put the onus on them to explain why this information is important to them. It works every time!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.