| Family Reflections |


We need to know the difference between bad middos and mental illness


"And then he told me he regretted the day he married me, and he wished he never had to see my face again....”

Batsheva cried the whole night after hearing this from her husband. She felt as if she would break in two. This wasn’t the first time, either. In fact, for 15 years, not a week went by in which there were no such words. Yehuda’s poison spewed forth daily, prompted by nothing, anything, and everything.

Mental Illness

Batsheva thinks her husband’s chronic complaints and disparaging remarks stem from his unhappiness in the marriage and blames herself for not being the woman he wants. She doesn’t know enough about psychology to recognize the mental illness she’s living with.

People who seriously attack, blame, insult, diminish, verbally and/or physically assault others on a regular basis are sick with something. Physical illness or brain injury, substance abuse, mental health disorder (depression, personality disorder, PTSD, or many others) — something is causing this behavior, and a diagnosis is required to discover what it is.

No, it’s not bad middos. Normal, mentally healthy people have self-control, and they use it to preserve their important personal and work relationships. When they feel attacked, hurt, or otherwise provoked, they may speak unkindly in response, but such communication would happen rarely, as opposed to regularly. And although not nice, it wouldn’t be verbally violent or aggressive. Most importantly they can, without medical treatment or clinical intervention — that is, specific treatment for mental illness — reduce these lapses and improve their interpersonal communication.

When it’s just bad middos — a lack of being appropriately respectful and sensitive, for example — they’re able and willing to change their behavior pattern when they’re made aware of the pain it’s causing their loved ones. Counseling, an intervention designed for normal, healthy people — as opposed to medical treatment or therapy designed to address mental illness — would be a sufficient form of help.

Mentally unwell people are unable to feel enough compassion for others or understand the cost of their behavior to themselves in terms of relationship harm to even want to correct their behavior. Moreover, should they find some motivation to change (such as intervention by family services or the law), they won’t be able to improve their behavior until their primary condition has been treated; counseling won’t resolve the difficulty.

Family members will not be able to tell whether their loved one is badly behaved or unwell just by observing their behavior. However, a chronic pattern of severe emotional dysregulation is suggestive of illness.

Even if hurtful words are coming from bad middos, blaming oneself for the verbal abuse perpetrated by another person is inappropriate. But when mental unwellness is the culprit, then it’s particularly important for the victim to ignore the verbal content of abuse, and to disregard the message being conveyed.

Stepping Back

“When I finally learned that my mother suffered from a personality disorder, I was relieved. It wasn’t my fault. This knowledge liberated me from believing all the horrible things she said to me.”

Of course, it’s very sad to learn that your parent, spouse, child, or sibling is sick. But it’s even worse to believe that you are a despicable person. Being clear that your loved one’s brain is the cause of the attack, and not your behavior, can save your own mental health.

“My father regularly accused me of horrible things. It didn’t make any sense. I was a good kid. It wasn’t until I entered therapy as an adult that I learned that his behavior wasn’t just behavior — it was a collection of symptoms of mental illness.”

When a loved one’s speech or actions make no sense, we need to trust our perception that it makes no sense. This means that the speech or actions may be originating from a broken mind. With that knowledge, we may be in a position to get the person the professional help he or she needs.

But even if we’re not, we’re definitely in a position to walk away from the conversation and stop wasting our time, energy, and  emotional resources trying to defend or explain our behavior. We can just move on, knowing that we don’t need to engage, and most importantly, that we don’t need to believe or internalize the hurtful words generated by a disturbed mind.

The words aren’t about us. They’re about the person’s darkened and distorted inner world, caused by untreated illness.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 755)

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