Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski's new book: Growing Up

The book encourages assertiveness (but not chutzpah)

The writer’s latest book, Growing Up (photo credit: Courtesy)
The writer’s latest book, Growing Up
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Talmud says that one of the three middot (traits) that characterize a Jew is “beishanim” – bashfulness or shyness (Yevamot 79a). On the other hand, the Talmud also says, “a bashful person cannot learn” (Pirkei Avot 2:6). The Talmud is disapproving of chutzpah but encourages assertiveness.
Unfortunately, a child’s healthy assertiveness may sometimes be discouraged.
The popular axiom, “children should be seen and not heard” can depress a child’s self-esteem. Also, a child may get the message that the teacher does not like anyone who makes waves, and that the best thing to do in this class is to keep quiet.
Good teachers are those who stimulate a child’s asking questions for clarification of something that he does not understand. I was very fond of one Talmud teacher who encouraged our disagreeing with him. His typical reaction to when we disputed something was to say, “You a hondred prozent right! Now I going to show you where you wrong.” We loved it.
This Mishna also says, “and in a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader” – again, encouraging assertiveness.
In the workplace, one may find that the boss is in charge and that the employees are expected to follow policy even if they disagree with it. Good employers welcome suggestions from employees, and in many situations an employee’s suggestion has brought much success to the firm.
In the home, proper assertiveness is most important. It is not unusual for a spouse to be a controller, stifling assertiveness by other members of the family.
In more than one instance a wife has said, “My husband insists that his way is right and will not tolerate any dissent. For the sake of  shalom bayit [a peaceful home], I go along with it.” This is an unhealthy environment. Children who have complained that their father was a tyrant are just as often angry at the mother for not standing up for them, and their self-esteem may be damaged.
True shalom bayit is described in the conditions of the tenaim (the engagement contract) that both spouses govern the household equally. Respectful assertiveness should be instituted at the very beginning of the marriage. Each spouse has the right for his/her opinion to be heard. Together they should come to a decision. Control is not shalom bayit.
Remember, assertiveness is not aggressiveness. Both non-assertiveness and aggressiveness are undesirable traits. The aggressive person’s attitude is, “I know best. No one is going to tell me what to do. You’d better listen to me, or else! People are no darn good. I’m not going to let anyone get away with that.”
We know people with this attitude, and we try to steer away from them. Of course, if you are married to someone like this, you can’t steer away. I suggest you read Control Freak by Les Parrott, or my book Successful Relationships on what to do if you’re married to a “control freak.”
The non-assertive person has an attitude, “I’m a helpless victim of circumstances. Nobody loves me. I’m a failure. Other people are in control of my destiny. The world is treating me badly.” This attitude leads to resignation. Nothing can ever change for the better.
A person may have been beaten down in childhood and developed a view of himself as helpless and vulnerable, and cannot shake off that feeling. The problem is that these ideas can make one act in a way that will reinforce these feelings – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A person can change, but it takes effort and courage. A noted therapist said, “Even if you are now what your parents made of you, if you stay that way, it’s your own fault.”
If people have been accustomed to your being non-assertive, they may not be happy with your change to assertiveness and may react to it. That’s a risk you must consider. A person may say, “I don’t want to upset the applecart. I’d rather live in peace.”
That’s your decision, and you have every right to do so. In that case, don’t bother to read material on assertiveness, because that’s just wishful thinking. However, if you do wish to change and accept the risks, read my next column, and you’ll find some helpful suggestions.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski is a scion of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty and a psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse who lives in Jerusalem and is the author of 85 books, the latest being Growing Up (Menucha Publishers, 2019)