“Hey Sara, I can’t believe how amazing this kiddush is. Can I get you anything from the buffet?”

Sara was a friend who got married the day after I had an invasive fertility treatment that had left me hopeful. Since I wasn’t able to make it to her wedding the next morning, Sara had thoughtfully called me to give me a blessing. And now, her growing stomach was a constant reminder of the nine months that had passed since our hopes had been smashed.

Chana, I was thinking about you all morning. Listen, I have a solution for you. I heard that there is something special that a woman who cannot get pregnant can do in order to grant her more spiritual merits ... .” She proceeded to instruct me on a new practice that I should undertake.

I had chosen to be happy for her pregnancy andHer comment broke the dam of my emotions be a good friend, but her comment broke the dam of my emotions.

“No!” I responded too forcefully. Her brown eyes open wide, as my eyes begin to tear. It looked like I had startled a baby doe. But I didn’t care. How dare she!

”I see how that was insensitive,” she responded. “I’m sorry.”

I thought of bottling my emotions like I have a thousand times before, but as I was busy debating, I heard my own voice speak, almost on its own accord. “Really? Because it isn't the first or second time I have asked you not to comment on my fertility.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and I could see the bags under her eyes. Her frame looked so tiny under the weight of the pregnancy. She excused herself to grab a plate of food. I had lost my appetite.

Later, at home, I was playing out ways I could have spun that conversation differently. I was reliving hundreds of other insensitive conversations and comments that came before this one. I was crying, angry, raw and upset when my husband walked into the room.

Ariel, I need to do something about my social anxiety. It’s getting worse. I feel so conflicted. Part of me wishes I hadn’t held back and really spoke my mind to Sara. Another part of me feels disgusting for lashing out. I keep on playing out all the comments people have made. I project the most painful comments I can imagine and try to prepare a response. It’s too much. It’s come to the point that I can’t even bear the thought of having to leave the house!”

“Chana, what’s more real right now—the part of you that feels pressed up against the wall to answer past comments that you no longer can, or the you that’s sitting here in this room?”

I breathe in, and with my exhale I respond, “The me that’s here right now.” I washed my puffy eyes with cold water.

“You are putting all your energy into a version of reality that isn’t here right now. Can you find enough inner space to choose to identify with the beautiful, safe you that’s here at this moment?” Ariel’s voice was soft but serious. He had been through the same mental loop so many times and was determined to help me break out of mine.

And yet, I still couldn’t let go of the conversations that were playing themselves out. “But what do I answer the people in my mind?”

“Why don’t you talk to G‑d about them?”

I grabbed a book of Psalms and I found a quiet, shady spot overlooking the mountains.

G‑d, II want out of this toxic merry-go-round need your help. I can’t continue like this. I want out of this toxic merry-go-round. While Sara’s insensitive comment left a scrape, what is bothering me now is how insensitive I was to her. I don’t want to be a victim anymore. I am allowing these comments to make me into someone I don’t want to be.

If I had it my way, everyone would be sensitive to me. But I can’t control that. I need to focus on what I can control: being a sensitive person to myself and to other people.

Her business is how she treats me. My business is how I treat her. When I spend hours in everyone’s business trying to make them be more sensitive to me or mad at them for being so thoughtless, I suffer deeply.

I want to feel empowered. I want to be able to trust myself and have healthy self-esteem. But this has to come from me taking back control of my life.

My realm of control is my ability to be sensitive to others, including those who are insensitive to me. This is not for their sake; it’s not to educate them. It is for my own sake because I care about myself. It’s actually hurting me not to be the loving, sensitive person that I feel good being.

It’s almost like I received a free Ph.D. in sensitivity training. Thank you for teaching me so clearly what not to do! Now I can become an expert at treating people with that same sensitivity that I would like in return.

Here’s what I can learn from my experiences in how to treat others:

  1. G‑d, I wish people would just give me the space to set the tone of vulnerability in the conversation. I hate how people bring up my sore spot.

    ... Oh no, just yesterday, I brought up Chava’s divorce to her. We had been speaking about it the week before, but she didn’t mention it yesterday on the phone. I brought up her vulnerability. OK, that will be my first skill in my sensitivity training. Next conversation I have with her, I don’t need to bring her vulnerability into the conversation. I can just listen and ask genuinely how she is doing. Then she knows if she wants to share she has a loving space to feel held.

  2. G‑d, I would love for people to ask me how they can “be here for me” instead of guessing.

    The best friends I had throughout my cancer treatments weren’t the ones that walked on eggshells around me trying not to say the wrong thing or the ones that did grand gestures. It was those few who were humble enough to say, “I have no clue how to be a good friend right now. Please teach me how to be here for you.”

    I want to start being brave enough to admit to my friends that I don’t automatically know how to be there for them, that I need them to teach me. When a friend opens up to me I don't want to just react. I first want to understand how I can offer support by asking, “How can I be a friend to you right now? Do you want me to just listen, give compassion or coach you through it?”

  3. G‑d, I would love for people to genuinely ask me if I am interested in listening before offering unsolicited advice.

    Uh oh, just yesterday, I offered Rivka dating advice without even asking her if she was interested in hearing. I wonder if she just held her breath and waited for the conversation to be over, like I so often do.

    The next time I feel the overpowering urge to give someone unsolicited advice, I will remember how demeaning it feels. Instead, I will say: “I have a suggestion that may or may not be helpful, if you are ever interested, let me know and I would be happy to share.” This isn’t just a polite line, I want to mean it genuinely, as I know that with or without my advice, G‑d is guiding them on their journey and their destination does not need to match my expectations. They are the experts on their own life, not me.

  4. G‑d, I would love for people to stop giving me blessings and just see me as blessed. But if I am being honest with myself, don’t I do the same thing?

    When I know someone is waiting to meet their soulmate or has a hard financial situation, I often zoom in and only see them through that lens. It is hard to enjoy just being with them as I am hyper-focused on seeing them through that lens of lack.

    Then I make it worse. Out of my own discomfort, I give them a blessing. This is often to elevate my own discomfort. When I give someone a blessing, I want to leave the person feeling blessed not lacking.

    When I see someone for their lack, I am missing out on seeing them the way G‑d sees them: as a beautiful, whole, abundant, free and perfect human being, in this moment, in this breath.

    Rather than give a blessing, I want to allow myself to feel what a blessing it is to be with this blessed individual. When someone sees me as blessed, that is how I feel. I want to see myself the way I am. Blessed beyond belief. And the best blessing is to feel blessed.

I slip on my new turquoise dress to go to shul for the Kiddush of Sara’s baby girl.

“Chana, are you nervous about the kiddush today?” Ariel asks sweetly. “We can leave early, if you want.”

“Thanks, I am actually excited. I have a game plan.” Ariel raises a curious eyebrow. “And what might that be?”

“To raise my self-esteem by being the person I want to be,” I respond.

“But what if people make insensitive comments?” Ariel asks.

“I am actually kind of looking forward to anI am not going to bury my emotions insensitive comment, so I can try out my new game plan. I am not going to bury my emotions. If someone hurts me, I will feel my feelings and be there for myself and set boundaries, if I need to. But I am no longer putting my focus on that.”

“So what is your focus?” Ariel probes.

“To learn to be sensitive and kind to whoever I am speaking with, even if they make a stupid comment,” I share. “For six years, I was in a boxing ring, just waiting to be punched and then defend myself. It’s no wonder that I have social anxiety! But now, I am stepping out of the ring. I don’t want to feel abused anymore.”

“But how can you control people throwing punches?”

“I can’t,” I acknowledge. “But what I did to myself was more abusive. I was spending all my time trying to figure out how to protect myself, living hyper-vigilently. Being on guard like that has taken a toll on my nervous and immune system. It is kinder to myself to be present and support myself when a punch comes my way, rather than always having to be ready for battle.”

Ariel’s face looks shocked. For years, he has watched me defend myself or bottle my emotions. I think he had accepted this was something that was always going to be a struggle for me.

“I’m proud of you,” he says softly, looking off into the distance.

“Sara, mazel tov, she is so adorable.”

“Thank you, it’s so nice that you are happy for me considering ... well, you know. Anyways, any good news by you?”

Will she ever understand how her words cut like knives? Why did I even bother coming?

Wait, no. I came for a reason. I came for myself. What she says is her business. What I say is mine. Nothing, not even the most insensitive comments can take away my ability to be the person that I want to be. G‑d, give me strength. Please, help me be the person you know I can be.

“Yes!” I hear myself answering. “Lots of good news in my life! None in that department, but don’t worry, I am happy.”

Nice, I tell myself. I didn’t make her cry thisI didn’t make her cry this time time. And that surprisingly felt natural to say. It is true. I have so much good news in my life. My book just came out; my students are amazing in class; my idea of good news doesn’t need to match anyone’s expectations.

“It’s nice to hear that you’re happy,” I could hear the crack in her voice. “I need your help,” her whispers were unnecessary. The kiddush was so packed, no one would have heard us. “I know you coach couples, and, well, we are having a hard time.” Her face muscles looked tense and her grip on my shoulder said it all. “The last months of pregnancy and now with the baby, it has been a huge stress on our marriage. And well, I don’t know, I was just thinking ... .”

Really? Sara, is coming to me for advice? I was so busy defending myself from her comments that I never realized she was struggling. It must have been intense getting married and having a baby right away. It’s no wonder she needs support.

“Sara, thanks for trusting me.” I say. “How can I be a friend? Do you want someone to listen or for me to coach you through it?”

“No one ever asked me that before. Honestly, I really just need someone to listen. Everyone is giving me advice, and it would be amazing just to be able to hear myself think.”

“I would be honored to be your sounding board.” Her hand let go of my shoulder, and her sigh of relief filled me with a deep satisfaction.

Ariel gave me a nod from across the room. As always, he was checking in, if I needed to be saved from the conversation. I gave him a reassuring wave.

He raised his glass of wine in the air, toasting to my victory.

Thank you, G‑d, for helping me realize that regardless of what other people say, I can be the person that I want to be.