My brother’s kind of a jerk — what if it’s not his fault?

What do you do when there may be a neurological reason for why someone is making you miserable?

Today’s Jam

A few people in my life have traits so difficult to deal with that I suspect that there is a diagnosis involved. One is my brother, who frankly is kind of a jerk — he always talks on and on only about himself, never asking questions about anyone else, and ignoring social cues.

He is really unpleasant to be around. But I increasingly suspect that he also has Asperger’s, which could help explain some of his behavior. If I suspect that there is something going on neurologically, do I need to be more forgiving? Should I be helping him address these weaknesses rather than writing him off? I am sure he is not without his own anxieties and stresses, but it is hard for me to be sympathetic. He certainly has some friends, but no partner who could be helpful in giving him some feedback.

I have helped nurse a friend through mental illness that eventually got diagnosed as bipolar, but that wasn’t as difficult because it was so extreme — it seemed like it wasn’t really my friend, but a chemical thing that had taken over. How should I be approaching my brother? Even if I don’t “blame” him — am I supposed to grin and bear his behavior because it’s not entirely within his control? And in general, what should my stance be towards people with whom I have an important connection, but who are very difficult to deal with because of a neurological or mental health condition?

Rabbi Dan Berman says…

13-09 Rabbi BermanIMG_1684Opening our hearts to compassion and forgiveness for people in our lives may be our most important spiritual work — and it may also be our most difficult.

One of my favorite ancient rabbinic texts is from Mishnah Sanhedrin: “A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the Holy One, blessed be God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human, and each one of us is unique.”

I love this text, because it forces us to not just respond to behavior, but to see the goodness and holiness in people. Each one of us is created by God–not only unique, but a kind of miracle! We have a common bond in our utter humanity– full of flaws and pains and challenges.

I encourage you not to “write off” your brother. Even if he is simply a difficult person, those who hurt others are so often hurt themselves. They need care and support to help them more deeply integrate into structures of family and friendship that are strong, supportive, empathic, and caring. This may be particularly true, of course, for one who has Asperger’s.

You need a starting point to help you open your heart to forgiveness and support. I don’t think that will come from a diagnosis, but from your ability to see the unique soul of your brother. Let that guide you as you respond to him.

Finally, be sure to save some of that compassion for yourself as well. It is extremely hard and often painful to struggle with people who are difficult, whatever the reason. Care for yourself. You are not singularly responsible for your brother. Try to build a team of support for both him and you.

Rabbi Daniel Berman is the Spiritual Leader at Temple Reyim, a traditional, egalitarian, and spiritually focused community in Newton, MA. He trained in pastoral chaplaincy at Massachusetts General Hospital. Prior to receiving his ordination from the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, he practiced law as a trial attorney at Mintz Levin in Boston.

Sue Fendrick says…

e.SueFendrick HeadshotI agree with Dan that “…open[ing] your heart to forgiveness and support…[won’t] come from the diagnosis of a developmental or mental health condition.” But I wonder if a diagnosis might come from opening your heart to support.

The Asperger’s/Autism Network identifies a tremendous benefit for people with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in getting a diagnosis (or, at least when services per se aren’t needed, self-identifying one). As Lucy Berrington, a health and wellness writer and a clinical instructor in Family Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, an AANE board member, and the parent of an Aspergerian teen writes: “[AS diagnosis is often] about identity, self-understanding, and self-acceptance…as well as access to a community that ‘gets it’ and can provide varying kinds of support.”

When I spoke with her about your letter, she pointed out that a diagnosis could actually help take the pressure off you (a way to build the “team of support” that Rabbi Berman mentions). Is there sufficient good will between you (and perhaps a history of his talking about the difficulties in his life) that might make your brother open to exploring this avenue at your suggestion? Is there anyone else who might be helpful in opening this window?

Getting him the support and help that would come with a diagnosis (if appropriate) could also have two benefits for you: lightening the load of your responsibility toward him, and easing the difficulty you feel being with him. At the same time, you’d have to find the place within you that genuinely does want to help him; otherwise, if he senses that you’re just trying to “fix” him to make him less annoying to you, your “support” is likely to be experienced as anything but.

The question of how our stance towards someone is shaped by a neurological or mental health diagnosis is a complex one. Compassion is almost always called for on some level, but so is knowing what you can and are willing to tolerate. Loosely in the terms of Jewish mysticism, that is a balance between the qualities of hesed (lovingkindness) and din (clear limit-setting). The suspicion or knowledge of a diagnosis might move the bar, but the need to discern an appropriate (and livable) balance is always there.

Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick, a Conservative rabbi, is a freelance editor, writer, and spiritual director, and co-editor of Turn It and Turn It Again: Studies in the Teaching and Learning of Classical Jewish Texts (Academic Studies Press). Her writing appears in numerous books, journals, and online publications. She has served as a rabbi at American University and Brown University, as founding editor of and managing editor of MyJewishLearning, as a consultant and teacher of adult Jewish education in a variety of settings, and as an assistant faculty member to Peter Pitzele in the bibliodrama training program at the Institute for Contemporary Midrash.

Jeremy Wexler says…

jwexlerI want to pick up on Sue’s theme of din and hesed. On Friday night, some of us add water to our kiddush wine. One explanation is that wine represents din, the principle of justice and the setting of limits; water represents hesed, the lovingkindness and compassion without which — according to one midrash (rabbinic parable) — the world couldn’t exist. When they are mixed, it is impossible to point into the cup and say, “This bit is water, that bit is wine”.

Similarly, being clear about your limits may not feel like kindness, but when it is done with empathy, it can be one of the most loving acts there is.

Except in extreme cases, the formula for helping people who do things that are hurtful — whether they have a diagnosis or not – is a mixture of curiosity and empathy for their experience, clear feedback about the effects of their actions, and (if they want it) concrete help in changing.

Talk to your brother privately. Say something like, “You rarely ask how I am. You talk about your interests a lot. What is that about?” Listen to him. Ask questions about what you don’t understand. He may say something surprising. He may ask for your help. He may try to get out of talking about it. Hang in.

Once you’ve listened, you can say, for example, “Here’s what is going on for me. I feel angry/frustrated/hurt when you do that. From now on, please ask me how I’m doing and listen for at least five minutes before talking about your things.” Be short, clear, and prescriptive.

This can be hard; you may believe that your request won’t be met, that your brother should know what you need, or that you will come across as “mean”. But tell him. Thank him for any positive changes. Let little lapses slide. Politely but persistently, remind him of the impact of his behavior. Continue to be curious. Your brother is your best resource for understanding him. And yet whatever his reality, you are allowed to want what you want, and to ask for it.

Loving directness and curiosity feel risky, but they honor the other person’s dignity by taking into account both their uniqueness (as Dan pointed out) and their responsibility. Being clear with your brother about the impact of his behavior embodies din; being curious and empathic embodies hesed. Blending them may create a space in which you both can live.

Jeremy Wexler is the social worker for the Methadone Maintenance Program of the Herzl Family Practice Centre, Jewish General Hospital, Montreal. He also has a private practice as a psychotherapist and couple and family therapist specializing in high-conflict couples. He blogs and writes frequently on mental health and public policy issues. For more information, check his website.

Now, what do YOU say?

What happens when someone who makes you miserable turns out to have a neurological reason for offensive behavior? Do you have anyone in your life with confirmed or suspected Asperger’s?

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Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via