Ask Polly: Why Are Other People Always Messing Up?

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Dear Polly,

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to be a more compassionate person, and I would appreciate your help. I have always had a strong moral compass. It’s one of my favorite things about me. I like feeling that I’m, if not improving, at least not actively making the world a worse place. I like having a sense of wrong and right, without a need to constantly make exemptions for my own actions. I feel like a good person on average, and that gives me strength and a feeling of grounded-ness if not happiness. I feel guilty easily, and doing bad things often just isn’t worth the ensuing waves of shame and self-hatred. Observing cycles of messing up, regretting it, and doing it all over again in my friends just strengthens this conviction. Lest you think I’m moralizing people’s tastes in books or their right to birth control, I should clarify up front that my compass operates largely on the axis of “actions that hurt other people–actions that do not.”

This moral compass, however, is accompanied by a lot of judgment, which I’m aware isn’t very nice of me. Because I have such a clear idea of wrong and right in my head, people who fail to meet my standards drive me into fits of despair. I’ve spent countless nights crying because I cannot believe people I consider friends are such flawed creatures. Sometimes it’s over actions that directly affect me, but often it’s not; sometimes, it’s even things that only affect my friends themselves. I’ve come close to ruining some friendships because the flagellation I subject them to in my head sometimes turns into actual voiced reamings. Yet, I can’t seem to stop and I feel like the people around me are getting worse, not better. I used to comfort myself by thinking that it was because we were young, but as we’re all nearing our 30s or 40s, I truly do not know what to do about nearly daily hearing about someone cheating, people being excluded and cliques forming, backstabbing, professional dishonesty, gossip, and smack talk. I don’t think those in my circle of friends are a particularly sad sack of horrible people, either — I’m assuming they’re your average humans. I just hold them constantly on trial, keep careful notes of their crimes, and never forget. So it builds up.

Similarly, seeing a picture of my ex still sends me to hysterics two years after our breakup, despite therapy, crying it out, raging it out, journaling, meditating, and reading endless self-help books. I’m sure my reaction is the result of many feelings, but one of the topmost is the feeling of having been wronged. This is where I originally wrote a long list of his crimes, but I think that’s symptomatic of my problem. Instead: He was not very nice to me, and I don’t think he’s a very nice person in general, yet he bounced back from our breakup immediately and is now, by his account and others’, having a very happy life. Observing this happen while I was still a crying, depressed, hysterical mess filled me with endless bitterness that I can’t seem to shake. Even though a rational part of me knows this is not how the world works, our breakup shook a fundamental faith I had in Bad Things Happening to Bad People. You will note I didn’t say Good Things Happen to Good People — I was shocked that my efforts to be a supportive partner during rough times were rewarded with getting my heart broken, but this was nothing compared to my outrage at him not getting his comeuppance.

And herein lies the heart of the matter. I am resentful. My moral compass comes with a side of entitlement, judgment, and lack of compassion. It causes me to be unhappy and constantly upset, and makes it difficult for me to relate to others and support them. How do I find a balance between maintaining a sense of right and wrong and dragging myself and others down with moralizing?

Yours sincerely,

50 Shades of Black and White

Dear 50 Shades,

Your feelings and thoughts about morality are completely natural. If they weren’t, the world’s religions wouldn’t exist. Human beings parse the world in radically different ways. The aim of religion is to standardize some “right” way of thinking and behaving, masking the differences between us by corralling us all into the same narrow corridor of acceptable behavior.

I know you’re thinking, “But that’s not what I want! I just want the people I know to stop being careless and hurting each other — and me!” The problem is, behaviors you view as careless or hurtful could be, for someone else, a matter of survival. For example: People talk shit and gossip for the exact same reasons you moralize — they’re frustrated and annoyed with the people around them, and they need to let off steam. Gossip can seem casual or mean-spirited on the surface, but the real message is usually “What the hell is she thinking?” or “Why is he doing that? Who acts that way?”

I’ve been on the receiving end of gossip lots of times, and I don’t love it. But I’m also someone who feels disingenuous if she doesn’t talk about the things that are bothering her. Telling the (sometimes ugly) truth is comforting to me. I’m grappling with my own strong reactions to the world. I’m sensitive and things get under my skin and a lot of the time, I don’t know where to file those things. Sometimes I want a little backup: “This is nuts, right? It’s not just me, is it?”

This is how many people reassure themselves that they’re not alone in the world. If someone is talking shit about me and I find out about it, it might make me angry and a little paranoid about what it all means, but I try hard to step back and allow some room for it. Everyone talks. People are perplexed by each other. Some of my friends are better friends with each other than they are with me. And why should I outlaw other people being annoyed by me, when I’m easily annoyed by other people? Sometimes you have to say, “They have mixed feelings about me. That’s okay.” After all, whom DON’T you have mixed feelings about, in this world? Your cat, maybe?

We’re all conflicted. We all say too much and contradict ourselves and backtrack. Doesn’t it make simple sense to try to give each other room to breathe and not take everything so personally?

Your ex wasn’t that nice to you. That’s the way someone acts when he’s ambivalent. Being nice to someone you’re over is pretty tough. You can love someone and still be clueless about how to move on without going scorched-earth. Maybe your ex wasn’t taught how to express his emotions to another person without either loving or hating that person. He either adores you and says so, or he’s a complete jerk and you’re a menace. Plenty of people out there were raised not to recognize any gray areas. This is another side effect of seeing the world in black and white.

Getting up on your high horse repeatedly isn’t healthy. Some people can follow strict rules of behavior without much effort. They believe in x, they’re against y. Personally, I can be rigid about plenty of things. I’m against cheating, because it’s needy, dishonest behavior that can haunt your partner for years to come. Cheaters want to have their cake and eat it, too. When I cheated on my boyfriend in college, I was in a weak state. I wanted to fall in love again, but I didn’t want to lose my best friend.

You hope that people grow out of that kind of immaturity eventually. You hope that they can see how much their dishonesty hurts other people. But you know what? Some people don’t grow that much. I think one of the big shocks of your 30s is looking around and realizing that half of the people you know are still growing and learning and changing, and the other half are hardening into perpetually confused adults, doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over until they die.

But you know what those perpetually confused adults think of you? They think you’re the one who’s repeating the same mistakes over and over again. They think your pride and arrogance in assuming you’re right about everything is starting to make you intolerable. They think you want to control everything around you. They think that your disappointment in others is your way of not facing your disappointment in yourself.

When I start to draw conclusions about someone, I try to challenge myself to look at my own flaws the way the other person would. This helps me to loosen my attachment to being the One Who’s Right. All close, old friends have mixed feelings about each other sometimes. It’s okay. It’s great to have friendships with complicated people who are very different from you. But you can also bail on a friendship when you really don’t trust or love your friend enough to make it worth it.

Your feelings about your friends — not your thoughts and judgments about them — should guide your actions. You can be surprised and annoyed by the aggressive carelessness of a friend and still love her because you understand her and know that her intentions are good. But you can also reach a breaking point. When friends become jaded about each other’s intentions, the friendship starts to look more like a bad marriage, characterized by resentment and contempt.

Whatever you decide about any individual friend, you should know that your current stance is a path to resentment and contempt for MOST of your friends. Judgment of the sort you describe is not just “not nice,” it’s blind to reality. You need to understand at a deeper level that different people are very different from each other. Your ideas about how people “should” be are honorable and well-intentioned enough, but they’re also very immature. It’s immature not to listen closely and work hard to grasp WHY people who are different from you do the things they do. It’s immature not to recognize how hard people struggle just to come up with a system for dealing with their disappointments and frustrations. It’s immature not to recognize that most people DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT LOVE IS. Most people don’t feel loved enough. Most people feel abandoned and lost. Most people are trying, with every word out of their mouths, to get more love — MORE MORE MORE — from the people around them. Most people chase money, real estate, stuff, fame, attention, sexual intrigue, gossip, just for a little taste of love, just for a momentary glow of acceptance and happiness from the world.

You need to know that bad people will suffer? They’re already suffering! Meanwhile, who are YOU to say who’s bad and who’s good? Look in the mirror. You feel disappointed in yourself. You want more. You want what other people have. You want more freedom. You aren’t giving yourself an inch. You aren’t allowed to fail, to be flawed, to be soft, to be fallible, so you’re taking your anger at yourself out on everyone else.

I get it! I’ve been there. You’re intellectualizing your feelings, whipping yourself into a lather of rage and judgment, instead of admitting that you feel rejected and sad. You’re not vulnerable with your friends, so they’re not honest and vulnerable with you. As a result, you don’t understand what they’re going through.

Your ex has moved on, but you haven’t, and it makes you furious. You think you have to be RIGHT in order to set things right. But that’s not true. You actually have to be WRONG. Admitting that you’re wrong will release you from this purgatory.

Your way of doing things is not the only right way. Walk outside and look at the people you see. Do you think they aren’t in pain? Do you think they aren’t lonely? Not everyone can lift their heads above what’s immediately in front of them. Not everyone has the hope onboard to fuel new excursions into the unknown like you do. Some people are just clinging to whatever is within reach.

Make this your project for 2015: Look at the people around you, and listen to them instead of talking. Crawl inside their experiences for a change. Find out how they were raised. Find out what formed them. Find out what they want and why they want it. Find out what they believe will “fix” them and save the day. You can do this without losing your sense of right and wrong. You can hold what you believe close, and still step into someone else’s experience. Look past their bad decisions to their soft hearts.


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All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: Why Do Other People Always Mess Up?