Andy Blumenthal
Leadership With Heart

Two Ways to Make Someone Feel Worthless

Credit Photo: RDNE Stock project via

A short while back, I saw a child in a Jewish setting being yelled at, berated, and put down by their parents for something they presumably did wrong. Unfortunately, this was done humiliatingly in front of a large number of people, so on top of this child being verbally and emotionally abused, they were shamed publicly.

This led me to think some more about abuse in terms of aggression and passive-aggressive behavior against others (like children, students, workers, and others) who are vulnerable to abuse.

In short, I believe that there are two common ways that people abuse or hurt others and make them feel worthless: One is by yelling at them and telling them all sorts of negative things about themselves, and the other is by giving them the ice-cold shoulder and implicitly telling them that they aren’t even worth your time, thereby marginalizing them virtually out of existence.

Yelling and Put-Downs

I’m sure you’ve seen this happen, whether to youngsters or even to people at work. Parents or teachers yell at children, or bosses yell at subordinates and emotionally abuse them, telling them that they (not their actions) are no good and that they will never amount to anything. Often this is accompanied by curses and telling the other person that they are dumb or stupid, that they are a loser, and even that the person is sorry ever to have given birth to them, met them, or hired them. Often the yelling and verbal abuse are repetitive to be mean, drill it in, and drive the other person nuts. In some cases, this can escalate to physical abuse with children, including hitting, punching, starving, etc., or at work, with bosses throwing office items at their workers or perhaps sending them to dangerous locations or giving them impossible assignments to show their disapproval and disdain.

Silence and Passive Aggression

On the flip side of yelling and put-downs is giving someone the silent treatment, distancing yourself emotionally and physically, and being passive-aggressive by rolling eyes, making facial or hand gestures that the other person is stupid or a loser, or paying attention to or showering praise on others, in your face, implying that you’re not nearly as good while ignoring you, putting you off to the side, and marginalizing you as if they don’t even exist. This form of abuse is where actions and body language essentially say, I disapprove of you, despise you, and wish you were figuratively and literally gone. I know of cases where parents left their children alone to fend for themselves and teachers who would lock kids in the closet or sit them in a corner with a dunce cap on. These days, social media friending and liking, trolling others, and sharing personal secrets or pictures can be a vote for the person or a sign of rejection, and on the job, workers may be marginalized until they take another offer somewhere else or die a slow, worthless death in the office basement.

Which is Worse?

Is it better to be screamed at and actively told you’re an idiot or worthless or to be left alone in silence and neglect, ignored, and marginalized so that it is crystal clear that the other person is angry at you, perhaps hates you, wants to punish you, and/or wishes you were gone? Let’s just say this shouldn’t even be a choice!

I suppose there is a third way to be abusive to others, and that is through utter indifference, which is different than being aggressive against them or passive-aggressive to them. In being indifferent, the person just doesn’t care, perhaps whether you are alive or dead. I saw something like this firsthand, from a leader nonetheless, when someone came to them and told them of a recent tragedy of sorts that happened to them and their family. Instead of seeking to console them and looking at how they could help, this is the short and long of what they said:

It’s okay. You’ll be alright.

After which, they abruptly turned away and rushed off to go and speak with someone else. Maybe they didn’t want to hear about someone’s problems or they were really “busy”, but the callousness and outright indifference from someone portending to lead others was at first shocking, but more than that, disheartening that this is what has become of much of our leadership nowadays, and that is putting aside the various abuses of power, corruption, and self-enrichment at the expense of others.

In context, however, actions may be bad, but most people aren’t inherently bad, and no one deserves to be verbally, emotionally, or physically abused or treated by society with abject indifference. This is especially the case when it comes to helpless children; no one—whether parents, teachers, bullies, etc.—should be abusive to them. Children need safe, nurturing, and loving people and the environment around them that enable them to learn and grow to be the best people that they can be without being put down for mistakes they make, limitations they may have, or just being flawed human beings as we all are. Similarly, adults and workers should not be mistreated just because they are on your dime and can be. They have an inherent right to equality and to be treated with respect and dignity. There are no dumb questions or stupid mistakes when a person is trying their best.

A mature, psychologically healthy, and good person looks to help others succeed and builds confidence in them to do just that. Anger, aggression, and abuse have no place in raising children, teaching students, or managing people. Tikkun olam means that we make the world a better place, and we can do that by working to understand others, have compassion, and help them, not by being abusive jerks just because they think they can.

About the Author
Andy Blumenthal is a dynamic, award-winning leader who writes frequently about Jewish life, culture, and security. All opinions are his own.
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