Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, DHL, LCSW-R
There are times that the people we love say self-deprecating and critical remarks: “I am such an idiot”. What is the respectful thing to do? On the one hand, people do not like to be corrected and also want to be validated. On the other hand, it is risky to be quiet because the person may feel insulted, thinking, “So you agree that I am a fool.” And then, of course, sometimes the person really did something foolish, and you are annoyed and may quite well agree with him or her.
There is a story about the Chofetz Chaim who was traveling on a train and sitting next to another Jewish passenger. When his seatmate found out that he was from Radin and unaware that he was indeed sitting next to the Chofetz Chaim, he said, “I am jealous of you that you live in the same town as the saintly Chofetz Chaim.” The Chofetz Chaim was uncomfortable hearing such praises about him, and tried to deflect. He responded, “Eh, yes he is a feiner yid but he isn’t such a super special tzaddik.” The person became enraged, punched him and said, “How dare you speak that way about such a great man!” The Chofetz Chaim said, from here we see you should not even say l’shon hara about yourself.
Our Gemara on amud beis discusses a distinction between when the husband makes a vow that prohibits intercourse versus the wife making such a vow. Since there is a period of time where abstaining from intercourse is not yet cruel (Beis Hillel says one week), there is no need to compel a divorce, as perhaps he will seek to have the oath nullified. The Gemara considers that this would only be valid when he is the one who made the oath, however if she makes the oath and he does not nullify it, they should become divorced immediately. The reason the Gemara offers is that when he is the one making the oath, she thinks: He vowed because he is angry with me, but soon he will calm down and dissolve the vow. But here, since the mishna is explained as a case where she vows and he is silent and does not nullify it, she thinks: Since he is silent, this means he despises me, and consequently she desires a divorce because she feels immediately rejected (see Tosafos.)
This is an oversimplification of a complex legal discussion in the Gemara, so I am not giving it over with all the details. One interesting point we see is that the woman is more hurt by the man validating her own self-recriminations than his own angry lashing out. When he lashes out, though I am sure it is hurtful, she has the ability to rationalize and tell herself that he was angry and will calm down. Yet, when she makes a self-destructive vow and he is silent, she thinks, “Oh…he really must hate me.”
We see from here that when a loved one puts themselves down it is a good idea to object. Of course, there are limitations, such as persons who put themselves down insincerely as a manipulation to get the other person to say, “no you are not so bad” instead of owning up to their irresponsibility. Even so, such situations are best handled with care and tact. It still is a good idea to object to the language and tone, such as “I am uncomfortable with you characterizing yourself with labels and name calling. If you think you made some mistake and want to talk about it I am open to hearing your thoughts and also offering my opinion if asked, but I do not like hearing you calling yourself a fool or an idiot.”
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation .)