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‘How Do I Stop Being an Asshole?’

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Hey Polly.

How do I stop being an asshole?

Last night, I went out with my husband to enjoy a big festival in town. We both noticed a sign from a distance, but as we approached, another reveler stood directly in front of the sign to read it. “Wow, I hope no one else wants to read that sign, maybe from another angle,” I commented to my husband loud enough for the reader to hear. My husband quietly chuckled and hugged me, saying “Oh, you.”

Later, a woman with a pram cut across our path, not looking where she was going. “We get it! You’ve spawned! You’re more important than us!” I said to her. Another quiet chuckle from my husband.

And I realized this is … common. My outbursts. Maybe too common? Throughout my life, I’ve been told I’m opinionated, brutal, delightfully honest, brave, have balls of steel … a bunch of words presented as flattery and accompanied by laughter, but underneath there may be discomfort from others when I open my mouth — but I don’t feel it.

I have friends who delight in my company, but only when I’m in the right mood. I’ll call out perceived assholes in public, tell men to stop leering at my friends, get impatient and roll my eyes when I am expected to nod and smile. And to be fair, it doesn’t take much for me to be in the right mood. Other friends will only ever take me out to dinner to get my advice. “I know you’ll be honest with me,” they say, and I am. Even more say, “Gosh, I wish I could be honest about my feelings like you.”

I learned my sister once told her friends, in advance of my visit, that I was autistic so they shouldn’t be shocked if I said something blunt or inappropriate. She may not be wrong — I struggle with social interactions, reading emotions, and connecting with people, but I also seem to miss the day-to-day filter that everyone else has, where your mind comes up with the rude thing to say but doesn’t blurt it out for all to hear.

I can rein it in. I’m careful around people I need to impress, or with bosses at work. But I slip back into it outside of these environments — in fact, anywhere I feel comfortable. And I’m not punished for my bullshit. No one calls me out. At worst, I’ll get a nonresponse, but many people encounter my commentary as some form of entertainment. When I was younger, I thought this was cool. I was witty. I’m starting to realize I might just be a plain old asshole.

The one redeeming quality in my outspokenness, I think, is that I will intervene if I feel someone is being treated poorly. I’ve scared off numerous creepy men from women I don’t know at nightclubs and gotten them home safely, put myself in the middle of stupid fights, and stood up for shopkeepers who were being abused. This kind of assholery seems useful.

But how do I stop being that asshole who punches down? I am, at heart, cynical. I have a deep distrust of others, a shitty upbringing, and worse genes that have stuck me with ongoing depression (treated). I am not that happy-go-lucky girl next door.

So how do I become a nice person who cares what people think and has patience and bites their tongue when someone cuts in line or has no awareness of their surroundings? But more important, how do I do all this without imploding from built-up rage?

Not Witty, Just an Asshole

Dear NWJAA,

You do sound like an asshole. You also sound (somewhat paradoxically) like a very sensitive, emotional person who not only assumed a defensive crouch at a very early age but took on a full-fledged Asshole Belief System. Because you aren’t just stepping on toes without noticing it. You go out into the world believing, at some level, that you’re a brave and fearless soldier serving an important function. This means that you can only take in the first layer of what your friends and acquaintances are willing to tell you about yourself, while ignoring other, possibly more dramatic feedback that would surely paint a more negative picture of how you’re perceived and understood. It’s ironic that you’re obsessed with people who have no awareness of their surroundings, because the energy and effort you’ve put into the nonpermeable membrane between your very emotional core and the outside world is so complete that you might as well be wearing a Hazmat suit everywhere you go. (Yours even comes with a handy Husband Assistant who tells you that everything you do and say is not just amusing but righteous and helpful!)

Even if we ignore all of the clear evidence that you navigate the world in a defensive stance so extreme that you’re ready to engage in hand-to-hand combat at any minute (you must be exhausted!), the fact that you don’t see the link between your anger and your underlying sadness indicates that you’ve barely scratched the surface of examining the complexity of your emotional experience. But most of all, your letter suggests that you do to yourself what you do to the people around you: categorize them unfairly, then conclude that they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. What they deserve is open scorn and embarrassment. They need to be corrected. They need to be put in their places, permanently.

You treat your own emotions the way you treat people on the street: When you’re vulnerable or you need something or you feel sad, a voice enters the picture and tells you that you’re pathetic, you need to stop it, your feelings are an embarrassment and an inconvenience to everyone around you. Now get back into your goddamn space suit and get out there and do battle with the real enemy! (Your Husband Assistant has your back on this front, too, probably because he encounters his own feelings with the same repulsion and shame that you do.)

If you want to live in reality and breathe the same air as the rest of us, you’re going to have to take off your space suit. It’s going to feel unbearably vulnerable to do that. And you’re going to have to trace your current emotional and cognitive reactions back to a time you can barely remember (and probably don’t want to).

Because your rage is a manifestation of your sadness. Your distrust is a manifestation of the emotional neglect you experienced as a child. Your depression is a manifestation of your melancholy view of the world, your anxiety around intimacy, and your fear of your own insecurities. You can treat your depression, but you might find that it still leaks out no matter what you do. That’s true because some of the nongenetic underlying conditions that cause your depression (and rage and distrust) are still there. You need to address your deep-seated beliefs, your core fears, and your terror at being mistreated and misunderstood by others (who are presumed to be callous) in order to tackle your depression at a deeper level. You need to face your own callousness toward yourself, which lies at the heart of your callousness toward others.

So ask yourself this: Do you deserve forgiveness? Do you deserve love?

When I was younger, questions like those made me laugh and squirm and roll my eyes. I wanted love, but my core belief was that I was rotten and unlovable, that no one would accept me for who I was, that I needed to charm and entertain and also be ready to fight if I were going to survive.

Like you, I felt that the world needed more people like me, people who weren’t afraid to tell the truth and confront bad behavior and mock shallow status-seeking twerps and roll their eyes at predatory dicks and wave off all butt-hurt onlookers and naysayers. I felt like I was doing the world a service by being loud and unforgiving.

But some of the energy behind that stance was defensive. Because I didn’t feel like I deserved love. Showing up and asking for love without having anything to offer in return was out of the question. I would have to be of service in order to earn love. I would have to be sexy and funny and larger than life. I would have to dance on tabletops. I would have to win and keep winning. I would not be able to rest. Even though I acted unconcerned when I pissed people off, that reaction was enabled by my inability to feel my feelings in the moment. The big picture was far more insecure: I had a recurring sense that the people around me not only disapproved but found it hard to connect with me. In other words, I was reproducing the conditions of my childhood everywhere I went: I was acceptable to my parents when I was entertaining and “fun.” I was scary when I was sad or upset or I needed help.

But by age 31 I was exhausted. People told me I was great, but they always seemed to do so from a safe emotional distance. I didn’t have anyone to lean on when I felt sad or weak. I pushed boundaries everywhere I went, and it made me isolated. I was distrustful because people didn’t trust me. I lacked compassion for others because I lacked compassion for myself.

When I started seeing a therapist for the first time in my late 20s, I began to recognize the value of vulnerability. I started to understand that showing up naked, and broken, and ugly, with nothing — no witty remarks at the ready, no armor, no detailed explanations, no charming monologues — was not just forgivable and acceptable, it was divine. (This was just a belief, mind you; I wasn’t close to being able to manifest it in my life back then.)

I started to notice that I had always experienced human connection as a form of bartering. And I started to understand that real connection depended on being able to say, “All I have for you is my fragile, fearful heart.”

But I didn’t want to say shit like that.

I still wanted to be the swaggery motherfucker I’d been since high school. Yet I knew that my anger was making me depressed, and only by letting go and softening myself would I find a path to contentment. Finally, after a traumatic breakup in 2002,  I wrote down the words STAY VULNERABLE in big block letters on a piece of paper, and I taped it up in the living room of my apartment. Thanks to being in the middle of a major life crisis, my heart was wide open for the first time in years, and I wanted it to stay that way. I didn’t want to go back to waging battle every day. I wanted to let the world in. So even though it embarrassed me, I made it my goal to humble and embarrass myself by telling other people the truth. I resolved to put aside my anger and show the sadness underneath it.

Then it took me another decade to do it consistently.

Your path forward from here is long and difficult. I don’t think you can just decide to stop being an asshole overnight. You not only have to notice how being an asshole hurts you and compromises your ability to have intimate relationships that are vulnerable and trusting, but also you have to recognize how you lead with anger in order to climb on top of your fears and your sadness. You need to become aware of the gigantic cloud of shame that hangs over you around the clock and guides your actions and keeps you in your space suit at all times.

There are a LOT of privileges to behaving like an asshole, too, and it’s not that easy to let them go. It’s much, much easier to do whatever the fuck you want than it is to take other people’s feelings into account. It is much easier not to feel your own feelings. Feelings are slow and inconvenient and they can ruin a good time quickly. But — hear me on this! — when you don’t feel your sadness, you also can’t feel your joy that well. I didn’t feel happiness until I learned to welcome in my fear, sadness, and shame. I didn’t feel inspired and energetic until I stopped holding back a giant wave of melancholy that I was sure would drown me. In order to feel good as a person, I had to surrender to the reality of my very volatile and unpredictable emotions. I had to throw myself at the mercy of my own nature.

Your current personality is partially enabled by a culture that’s passive-aggressive and fears confrontation. You can behave in abusive ways and insult people because very few people expect it or are prepared to defend themselves. Passive people still act like assholes, but they mostly do it by refusing to take other people’s movements and experiences into account: They drive recklessly on the freeway, endangering countless innocent humans around them. They stand in front of signs and block people’s path without a second thought for how they move through space. They blast videos without headphones in public spaces.

These things have always pissed me off, too. But I would guess that becoming obsessed with how passive and reckless other people are is a pretty specific side effect of having parents that were emotionally neglectful, withholding, or abusive. We experience this neglect as mean-spirited and callous because that’s how it felt to us as children. We needed help. We asked for help. Nobody came. So we had to start yelling and fucking shit up. We had to dance on tabletops and shout and make a mess just to be seen, just to be acknowledged — with a glance or a word or a shout or a fist.

One of the reasons you’re encouraged to be outspoken, beyond your entertainment value, is that people are almost pathologically afraid of asserting themselves these days, so they admire your ability to do it. And let’s face it, many public and shared spaces today require an extremely assertive human to keep the clueless, self-centered citizens in line. I’m not saying we need someone who’s insulting, the way you are. But we do need someone who’s willing to politely school the populace on the fact that living in a community means occasionally taking the needs of others into account, and not actively harming or harassing or impeding others with your careless movements, actions, and bad choices.

Your most shameful weaknesses always live right next door to your greatest strengths. I want to encourage you to use what you have. Use your brave personality for good. I think you have a very strong desire to help others that’s buried underneath your anger (fertile topsoil!) and your deep-seated insecurities and your shame (rocky clay!) and also your sadness (bedrock!). And you can help others without feeling bad about it, once it’s not a defensive, shame-driven compulsion of yours, and once you subtract the unnecessary aggression from the picture. You can value the things that make you unique and use them to make the world better; you just have to explore all of the baggage and trouble and confusion that comes along with those unique qualities. You have to dig a well through all of these layers. It’s going to wear you out. And then you have to sit in the bottom of the well, where it’s scary and dark and cold, and accept that this is what you’re avoiding: this fear, this darkness.

In the bottom of the well, your heart starts to open. You feel vulnerable. You mourn the past. You feel sorry for yourself. But you also feel joy, and optimism, and a new sense of connection to the other flawed, humbled human beings around you.

You don’t have to give up your unique power, your wit, your fearlessness, or your courageous ability to confront injustice. You don’t have to give up anything. You just have to understand why you are who you are, and you have to recognize which of your defense mechanisms serve you well and which ones keep you confused and disconnected from others. Personally, my strengths and weaknesses mingle and collide in the same goddamn neighborhood every day. And the more I understand the forces acting on me, the more I’m able to enjoy my strengths without shame. I can entertain and show off, as long as I balance my grandiosity against my vulnerability, as long as I try very hard to serve the people who really need me, to show up and listen and help.

Like you, and like all complex humans on the face of the earth, I have to recalibrate, humble myself, ground myself, and strip myself down to nothing over and over again. I have to remind myself that I can’t fix anything, I am not in control. For you, maybe that means that you practice leaving the house without commenting on what everyone around you is doing wrong. Look for signs of vulnerability in others. Tune in to their stress and their pain. Cultivate your compassion.

It’s nice that your Husband Assistant loves you for exactly who you are. It’s also convenient, given what an asshole you can be. It’s also, probably, necessary for a person with your troubled past to be loved unconditionally. I know that it’s made a massive difference in my own life. But you need to examine how you and your husband demonize the world in order to keep it at arm’s length. A shared dyspeptic worldview is often reinforced within marriage. It might feel good for a while, but it’s no way to spend your life. You and your husband need to explore what it means to open your hearts a little and to be more vulnerable in each other’s company.

I would also consider calling a few of your friends and asking them, humbly, if you’ve hurt their feelings with reckless words in the past. I would ask them to tell you the truth, the way they count on you to do.

None of this stuff is easy, and it’s always a danger that you’ll overcorrect your personality and wind up feeling like an ashamed shell of your former self. That’s why it’s so important to look closely at your self-hatred and your lack of compassion for yourself every step of the way. Your shame lies at the heart of your compulsion to lash out at others. Paradoxically, the more you become aware of that shame, the more patience you’ll have for others AND the more you’ll allow yourself room to be your outspoken, funny, assertive self.

Once you feel your feelings and humble yourself, you won’t be in any danger of imploding from built-up rage. And you won’t have to remind yourself that human beings deserve compassion — even annoying sign-blockers and clueless spawners and people who’ve never owned a pair of fucking headphones. You’ll see, with clear eyes, that everyone around you has their own unique struggles and their pain, and you can’t teach them a thing if you’re too harsh, and you refuse to see straight through their confusion and blundering to their fragile, mournful hearts.

You start by seeing your own fragile heart. You start by admitting that it’s there, and it’s heavy, and it needs more than this.

Polly

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