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Dear Captain Awkward:

I am trying to not make this question sound like a pity party, but will probably slip up somewhere. Apologies in advance and gratefulness for making this the space you do.

I feel like I am just plain mean a lot of the time. 

It’s confusing because I try to be really caring and positive and encouraging to my friends, there’s just this fucking mean streak too. I also work in Profession where Being Kind and Supportive is a huge part of my job and I don’t have any trouble there. The few times my friends have been my clients (which is ethically fine in this field) I have felt lucky because I feel like they finally got to see me at my best.

But outside of that I feel like there’s just this continuous stream of negativity that slips into conversations even with people I love, and I dig at people in subtle and not-subtle ways and don’t even notice it until the words have already flown out of my mouth. 

I think it is a defense mechanism because I don’t do it as much when I’m around people I feel comfortable with, but when I’m in a new social setting or around people I’m not sure like me I am just like…negative thought machine word vomit spout. It used to be way worse, but it is still often enough to sting and be totally inappropriate. 

I avoid getting involved with people who I can tell are no-bullshit and have good boundaries because I feel like they would automatically dislike me because of it, which sucks because I really respect people who have those skills and I am working on them myself. Simultaneously, I try to avoid becoming close with people who aren’t necessarily good at standing up for themselves, because I’m afraid of hurting their feelings.

I’m also really hard on myself, like 24/7 negative self-talk, which I know is my stuff to deal with, and I’m working on getting back in therapy. I guess what I’m wondering about is how to deal with Jerkbrain: Externalized so I’m not always hurting people I care about and feeling like I have to avoid social situations so I don’t ruin them for the people who are there to enjoy them, not be insulted.

I already know that what I’m doing is shitty and I am trying to find tools to be able to stop, because shaming myself about it is, surprise, totally ineffectual. Tips? Tricks? Personal red flags to look for? Mantras to repeat under my breath in bathrooms at parties? 

Thanks,

Jerk but Trying

Dear Trying Jerk:

The negative self-talk and the negative other-talk are connected. So yes, please go back to therapy.

I’ve been in the headspace you describe, for sure. I believe the clinical term is “total misery.”

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Dear Captain Awkward:

I’m a 23-year-old in Chicago who’s had a pretty smooth transition out of school and into a job I like.  I get to use some of my skills from my history major, I have flexibility and can afford to live on my own, and I’m getting professional respect from doctors and physicists who value my work.  In the year since I started I’ve been offered the chance to go from contingency to full-time work and been promoted.  In a year or so, I plan to take them up on a tuition credit that could allow me to go back to school for very nearly free (I’d pay for fees and books).  I work in pediatric radiology research, managing the studies and making sure that they’re carried out efficiently and ethically.  The work we do allows children to get an MRI instead of a biopsy, or avoid being exposed to radiation just to figure out why they’re sick.  If I sleep poorly at night, it’s definitely not because I’m irradiating children.

But can I honestly say that I love not irradiating children?  It’s good work and I’m learning a lot, but the issue that makes me mad and breaks my heart isn’t childhood illness, it’s poverty.  I’m still proud of the activist I was when I was younger, but I’m not like that now.  I was vice president of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance during its most active years.  When I was 15, I was protesting in downtown Chicago the night we started bombing Iraq, and I was back the next year serving dumpstered vegan food to the protestors from a bench in Federal Plaza.  Those things are great, but what have I done lately?  Mostly: given some money, signed some petitions, and not irradiated some children.

I’m thinking about ways I can grow in my work to address this.  Pursuing an MA in medical ethics then going to law school would allow me to teach, write, pursue human rights work, and speak with some authority on the things that really bother me.  Getting out of school and into work has already been clarifying, and I know the answer to my career path might be something I develop, not something I find.  But I’m doing my thinking with a lot of guilty asides about how much my employer has done and will do for me.  In a way, I feel like I’ve gotten it too good too soon– I don’t know that being a 23-year-old with something to lose is a very stable situation.  And I’m not sure how much my activism needs to be part of my work if I can find some other way to make it part of my life.

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