I was wondering about how Judaism views the issue of not speaking negatively about others when dealing with clinical therapy. Are there parameters governing what may and may not be said during therapy? For instance, what if I’m having trouble with my dad or my sister, and there are issues about them that I need to talk about? I’m sure that the more honest I am, the more likely it is for therapy to be helpful. Thank you!
Your question is a good one and often asked. You wrote about clinical therapy, but your question applies equally whether you speak to a professional therapist or an “amateur” — e.g., your best friend, your spouse, your barber…
Speaking “bad” about others is forbidden. In general, however, you’re allowed to say negative things about a person for a beneficial purpose. For example, to help your relationship with that person.
However, certain conditions must be met. Among these conditions:
- You must know what you say is true. “My sister makes fun of me.” If you heard the information from someone else, you must mention that it’s not first-hand. “My cousin says she makes fun of him too.” If what you are saying is just your opinion, it should be stated that way.
- Don’t exaggerate. “She never misses a chance to be mean.” If appropriate, say some positive things so the listener won’t form a totally negative picture of the person.
- Say only as much as necessary. The fact that she makes fun of your cousin is probably irrelevant, and should not be said.
- Most of all, your intention when you relate the negative information must be to improve the situation, and not to speak out of animosity.
When speaking about parents extra care must be taken, since it’s a Torah commandment to honor them. Nevertheless, if all the conditions are met, it’s allowed.
The listener has to walk a tight-rope: He has to take the information seriously, but he must not accept it as the absolute truth. If possible, he should help the speaker see the person in a more positive light.
Our Sages say that prior to the coming of the mashiach, family discord will be rampant; this description fits our generation all too well. Through careful speech, judging people favorably, love and understanding, may we merit the fulfillment of the verse “And he will return the hearts of the fathers to the sons, and the hearts of the sons to their fathers.”