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?
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.”
The biggest thing I did to get out of it may sound cheesy and strange: I gave up “complaining” for Lent one year way back when Lent was something I still agnostically tried to celebrate. I wrote about it at the (now very defunct) food blog:
I had just turned 26. I worked ridiculous hours and was stressed past all recognition. And I was addicted to complaining in a work environment that was hooked on complaining and my work people were also my social people whose favorite thing to do was get together after work and complain. At least there we had liquor.
We wanted to change everything, so complained about the changes we would make if we were in charge, but when our bosses tried actually changing stuff, we complained about that too. I don’t remember exactly how I decided, but somewhere in there I realized the complaining was slowly killing me and I gave it up for Lent. Here were the rules:
- I would not initiate complaining.
- If people started to complain, I’d change the subject or politely extricate myself from the conversation.
- I would not tell people what I was doing or harsh on them for complaining –The goal was to change my outlook, not to give up complaining in favor of being a jerk to everyone.
I won’t say I was perfect but I will say I did pretty well at consistently re-routing my brain away from pointing out the flaws in everything to finding solutions. I think I became nicer to other people and to myself. And then I quit that job, dumped my unsuitable love partner, and moved across the country to start a new life within the following 4 months. The energy I released by complaining was incredibly productive when channeled into actually changing things…
A ban on complaining didn’t mean I had to react positively to actual bad news, i.e., death, taxes, romantic disappointment, injustice. To live in the world means being aware all the time of things that are unfair and wrong, and I don’t think we do ourselves or each other any favors by pretending things are okay when they are not okay. Activism requires a certain amount of complaining.
The complaining ban was meant to stop the constant complaining that I was doing at work and about work that was spilling into everything. The expense report system is wack! They are making a tiny change to this software I use and I don’t like it! I wanted to go on that assignment and they sent someone else! I hate my body! I never have any free time! What am I really supposed to be doing with my life? The bus was full! My feet stink! This coffee is burnt! They are out of my favorite brand of toilet paper! The cat puked on the floor again! Why am I paid $30,000 year to rewrite stuff that some old dude gets $200,000 year to write very badly? This job requires an expensive degree but doesn’t pay me enough to make the student loan payments! (Welp, we’re back to legit activism with that last one).
I know complaining isn’t exactly the same as being mean to people, but I was hypercritical of everything: work, myself, other people. My inner critic was in full outward mode, and I was definitely mean to people in some pretty shameful ways. Like High School-aged Liz Lemon, I thought being a smartass and having a mean mouth was the one thing I had going for me, and there are ways it made me feel less powerless and allowed me to feel like I was defending myself against bullies or a shitty status quo. In high school, that logic is understandable if not entirely forgivable: The Cool Kids are mean to me, therefore if I can be as mean as them I can be as cool as them! It was a fallacy at the time, and it sure as hell doesn’t age well.
So, Letter Writer, to bring this back to you and now and not some 13-year old experiment, I think:
1. Negative talk comes out of negative feelings that need to be dealt with at length in some safe space – a therapist’s office, a journal, with close friends.
2. However, you don’t have to change the feelings to start to change the habit, and negative talk (negative self-talk, criticism, complaining) is also a habit. When it’s in full force, it becomes your first instinct to react negatively.
We know some stuff about changing habits, and one of the biggest things to know is that sustained effort is better than perfection. How you treat yourself when you inevitably slip up is everything. People who will actually change the habit forgive themselves for slipping up, give themselves credit for doing what they can, and try again later. Perfectionists see any slip-up as a total failure and a reason to derail the entire affair. So if your mean self comes out, when you catch it: stop it, apologize, and then move away from those people and/or stop talking so much. Maybe you’ll have a shame spiral ( I would probably have a shame spiral), because that shit I just said about forgiving oneself and giving credit and trying again later is seriously the hardest thing for a recovering perfectionist to do. What matters is that you keep trying to stop saying negative things about yourself and others.
The other thing we know about changing habits is that it feels hard at first (when I gave up complaining, I felt like 85% of my personality went away) but it feels better the more you do it. Don’t expect it to feel good immediately, but over time, expect your actions to affect your feelings positively.
3. Negative talk has a place – in acknowledging hurt and wrong, in figuring out that a situation is bad for you, in figuring out what steps to take next. It’s toxic when it gets all over other people the way you describe in your letter, and also when it becomes what you do instead of taking action. If it’s robbing you of momentum and sapping your energy, it’s crossed the line into unhelpful. This is stuff to work on when you actually do find a therapist, but a good habit when you’re in “complain/criticize” mode is to try to figure out what parts of what is upsetting you is inside your control and what is outside your control. The stuff that’s inside your control will lend itself to action, such as:
- Ask the person directly to stop doing the thing that’s bothering you.
- Start looking for a new job/roommate/college major/career/life plan.
- Ask your crush out already, or break up with the person who is bringing you down.
- Make a needed schedule change/doctor’s appointment/reorganize the spice cabinet/home repair.
- Write letter to the editor or find some activist or volunteer outlet.
- Stop hanging out with x person or change the subject when x topic comes up.
- Stop reading/watching stuff that makes you feel bad, for example, one way to cut down on body shame and body snarking is to stop reading women’s magazines that are full of diet advice and Photoshopped idealized bodies.
- Break any of the above down into tiny steps. One tiny step in the direction of actually resolving something that is bothering you is better than complaining.
The things you are criticizing other people for sound like things that are outside your control, because what someone wears/listens to/who they date/what they eat or whatever you are criticizing isn’t really your business, at all.
4. Make apologies and amends where you can, but remember, apologies only count if you stop doing the bad thing and you don’t make them about yourself. “I’m sorry I was so mean, there is this thing going on where I hate myself and I feel like I can’t help it” = not actually an apology. “I’m sorry, that was really out of line” = an apology.
5. Practice some self-care. This means taking care of yourself around eating, sleeping, your living space, going to the doctor when you’re sick, getting a haircut when you need one, looking for a new job if you hate your current one.
It might also mean spending more time with people who make you feel good and comfortable and taking a break from social scenes that stress you out. Maybe your outbursts are borne of defensiveness and not liking yourself very much right now, or patterns you were raised with that come out in times of stress. Consider also the idea that part of this is your gut reactions to spaces that don’t feel good and people that don’t feel good. Maybe your Rageasaurus is trying to protect you. I don’t want to say “No new things or people”, but I do want to say that if you are going to be around people you don’t know well or outside of your comfort zone:
- Give yourself a time limit – one hour, one set, one drink, meet one new person and talk to them – and then give yourself permission to leave while things still feel good.
- If drinking is a factor in what’s going on, watch yours. Keep it to one, or don’t drink at all.
- Slow down, overall. Listen more than you talk. Stop trying to hard to make people like you (or have an opinion about you either way). Stop working so hard at this.
6. NO yucking other people’s yum. If you don’t know what to say, compliments and questions are a good place to start. “I like your bag, where did you get it?” “How do you know the hosts?” “This is delicious, how did you make it?”
In an answer full of tangents, allow me to rant about taste and the way we talk about pop culture and suggest an alternative way of talking about taste. Because this is a common, sort of socially acceptable way that I see adults being mean to each other.
We have to learn a better way of talking about things that other people like that we don’t like.
There are a ton of Geek/Pop Culture discussions when people are meeting the first time that go like this:
“What kind of _____ do you like?”
“I like ____.”
“Really? They SUCK. Here are 11,000 reasons why that thing you like sucks.” (Subtext: And you also suck for liking it. And I am smarter than you and my opinions are better than yours.Consider yourself DOMINATED. Side Note: If you start paying attention to the way people have these conversations, you’ll start noticing how often “girly” things are devalued. Whether or not you personally like the work of Stephanie Meyer, Lena Dunham, Amanda Palmer, or Beyoncé (and let me, with full moderator powers, make it clear how much I really do not care what your personal opinions of their particular works are. Like them, or don’t, as long as you do it elsewhere), much of the criticism that comes their way and the way of their fans is laden with misogyny, racism, and body-policing that does not get applied to men in similar prominent creative roles.
Stuff can be “good” (technically accomplished, made with talent & dedication) and you can still not like it. Stuff can be “bad” and entertaining/enjoyable at the same time.
A lot of people get really caught up in the stuff they listen to and watch and buy to the point where it becomes their identity. In a capitalist society, this is encouraged and rewarded. The question isn’t “Do you prefer a Mac or a PC?” it’s “Are you a Mac or a PC?” So people get very defensive, and yes, mean, when that identity is challenged in any way. Or they get overly invested in the meaningfulness of taste as a source of connection when someone likes the same stuff. As Commander Logic says:
“Look, the Jedi and the Klingon CAN be lovers. And LotR purists can make out with LotR movie fans (right after we pause (or not) to sing a requiem for Glorfindel… What’s important in a relationship is not your media, it’s your actions and respect.
This is another human being who is allowed to have thoughts and opinions that are different from yours. They are allowed to not give a shit if Greedo or Han shot first.”
Ranting about pop culture is fun. Sometime if we’re at a party, ask me about the movie Rent. Criticism is valuable and entertaining – in blog posts, in Tweets, in scholarly articles, in reviews – and snark has its place.
However, that place is not the first time you meet someone, or with someone you don’t know well, or with someone that isn’t comfortable having super-fun pop culture ranty times with you. And that time is not right after someone says “I really like ___!”
So if a lot of your conversations are going the way of the example, and you are the one acting as the Sole Arbiter of Taste and Style, try this approach.
“What kind of x do you like?”
“I like x!”
“They’re not really my thing/I haven’t really gotten into them/I don’t know much about them, but what’s your favorite (song, book, movie, painting, example)?”
The stuff you like will still be cool without you defending it or proving its superiority in this exact moment; truth and beauty are durable. Also, you can still feel whatever you want about what the other person likes. I mean, I do not understand Juggalos, but if I’m hanging at a party and there is an actual Juggalo there I want to find out all about that, don’t you? I’m pretty sure the Juggalos are pretty comfortable with the fact that most people aren’t also Juggalos and tired of having the “Juggalos: Cool or Not Cool?” discussion. You’re not going to accidentally become a Juggalo because you failed to fully critique the one you met that time at a your cousin’s wedding, so relax and let people be themselves.
This way you can actually have a conversation and find out a little bit more about someone else, which is the point of social interactions with new people. There’s this fallacy that “authenticity” always means talking about things with the most negative, critical eye. Not sharing every opinion that you have does not equal “being fake” or “lying.” Every dinner party doesn’t have to turn into a Platonic discussion of What is the Good?
I’m sure the community will have many helpful suggestions and tales of reformed Mean People, and I really do wish you luck in changing this aspect of your personality. The fact that you are self-aware and wanting to change it is a big, big step in the right direction, so practice giving yourself some credit for reaching out and asking how.
President of Recovered Mean Sad People Anonymous & Also A Member