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
220 thoughts on “#463: Help me stop being mean.”
This was such a good article! Thanks. One thing that helped for me when I became a negative, complainasaurus rex, was to recognize that all the “venting” I was doing was not actually very helpful. I frequently felt worse after complaining because I was focusing my energy on it and thinking of the negative things instead of trying to change what I could and learn to accept what I couldn’t. It’s not that I never complain or anything now, but I really try to think about the point where the negative energy starts to feed on itself and stop when I get there.
More specifically on the meanness, I think I can speak to that a little bit too from my personal experience. I have a kind of sarcastic sense of humor, which is something I like about myself. But when I notice myself automatically responding to things with sarcasm, I sometimes feel that I am just being mean. I went through a period where I felt that I was kind of self-centered and mean, and not the super nice and caring person I had thought I was. The best thing I did for that was to really make an effort to listen to other people talk. When I was focused on the other person and what they were saying, it became much easier for me to know when it was appropriate to respond with humor, even sarcastic humor, and when I needed to respond in another way. It felt like the burden of having to be “witty” or “smart” all the time was lifted, and I like this version of myself much better.
Thanks so much for this, Cap’n (and LW). I literally spent my morning scrolling through the archives to see if there was anything about “How Do I Stop Being A Dick To The Person I Love Most.”
I don’t want to threadjack, but (as someone who is in therapy but isn’t really sure how to go about working on this with my therapist) if there are any Reformed Mean People who could talk in particular about the role therapy played in their reformation that would be excellent.
(Sidenote: Reformed Mean Person makes me think of a Rageasaurus wearing a nun’s wimple.)
Therapy helped me cut out my negative self-talk, which helped me cut out the negative other-talk.
Focusing on compassion, loving-kindness, and practicing gratitude makes it a lot easier, too.
Rethinking things like “He’s not a jerk, he’s just having a bad day” is a way into it, although it was only the very first step for me.
The last bit you mention–the “he’s not being a jerk, he’s just having a bad day” thing–is a very small, basic step, but it’s made a world of difference for me.
If something happens that upsets or annoys me (someone lets a door slam in my face when I’m carrying something, say, or cuts me off in traffic, or makes a thoughtless comment, or formats a document at work in a way that is against our standards and which means I’ll have to add reformatting to my other list of tasks), I do still sometimes have the knee-jerk reaction of thinking, “Jackass!” But these days I try to think of other reasons the person might have done the thing besides ‘s/he’s a jerk.’ Maybe the person has a head cold and is stupid on cold medicine right now, so they didn’t notice me behind them. Maybe they’re distracted because they dog is at the vet and so they just forgot to do the formatting–or they were given an outdated set of standards. Maybe they didn’t see me. Maybe they’re having a rotten day. Or just an off day. God knows I have had days where I was stressed, distracted, ill, or just off and did something that, afterwards, I was like, “Crap, I totally cut that guy off and didn’t even notice.”
Or maybe they’re a jerk, and if someone is consistently thoughtless or irritating, well, then maybe I have a legitimate issue. (And if it’s a repeated legitimate issue, like someone frequently says things that hurts my feelings or they always send me the document in the wrong format, I can address that in a calm and pleasant fashion.)
But frothing over relatively minor things is just not good for me, never mind anyone else. It’s not good for my stress levels or mental health. And the ‘why else might they have done that, besides just being a stinky jerkface?’ game really helps unwire the knee-jerk anger reflex.
Absolutely. I do this, too — for bad drivers, bad service, all kinds of things. People’s relationships implode, they and their loved ones suffer serious mental and physical illnesses, their cars quit on them, they struggle to pay their bills, and sometimes (too often!) they themselves are dealing with awful bosses and/or family members… all kinds of shit happens to people and for the most part, they still have to go to work, to the grocery store, etc. So I try to give the benefit of the doubt that someone whose manner is less than ideal may be having a shitty day, rather than that they are a shitty human. It’s astonishing how much nicer that makes the world for ME.
Exactly. It makes daily life nicer for ME if I can shake off these kind of things, especially regarding behavior from people I’m never going to see again. I have plenty of my own problems to bring me down.
A friend of mine has a card she showed me once – it’s just the size of a business card with a Q-tip on it and it says “Q-TIP: Quit Taking It Personally” and I’ve always really liked it. She says it helps remind her that 90% of how people are reacting to her (especially when it’s over the top or rude) is about what that person is feeling at the moment, which is rarely all about her. So if she examines what she did and it wasn’t jerky, she can just say “Oh, they’re having a bad day” and move on with her life.
> “he’s not being a jerk, he’s just having a bad day”
> And the ‘why else might they have done that, besides just
> being a stinky jerkface?’ game really helps unwire the
> knee-jerk anger reflex.
I learned the basics of this skill in a book called “Crucial Confrontations”. The gist is that when you are having an important conversation, you need to start from a position of not making assumptions about the other person’s motivations. A lot of the book is exercises for developing that new habit.
The authors have written other books but this is the only I have personal experience with.
I have a friend who imagines other cars on the roads as puppies. His reasoning is that getting mad at puppies doesn’t do any good because they don’t know any better. Me, I tend to use up all my suspension of disbelief on escapist fantasy and don’t have any left for turning other human beings into infants of non-sentient species’, but I’ve found that leaving the house earlier helps me be in a better mood on the road because I don’t feel like I have to rush to get where I’m going on time. This makes me more forgiving of things like bad traffic and slow drivers, which is good because I live in Los Angeles and there’s always traffic and always someone who’s going slower than you want them to. It just always seems to matter less if you know you have more than enough time to get where you’re going. And it makes you calmer, so you’re more likely to notice that guy who’s about to cut you off so you can slow down and let him in instead, which makes the whole situation less stressful and terrifying for everyone.
Failing that, if I am going to be late, I take deep breaths. Lots of them. The five minutes I could save by driving like an impatient moron aren’t going to make that much of a difference in the long run.
It just makes it much easier to, like you said, remember that other people aren’t doing what they do just to piss you off if you’re not caught up in your own personal crisis of ‘LATELATELATE.’
Rethinking things like “He’s not a jerk, he’s just having a bad day” is a way into it, although it was only the very first step for me.
ALERT ALERT ALERT. This is a good step to take, but it is not step one. Step one is acknowledging that something is bugging you. My mother very carefully taught me to do that every time someone bothered me for any reason at all, up to and including when kids were bullying me at school.
The result is that I would go into a guiltspiral for being hurt when someone does something shitty to me, because after all, they might hypothetically have parents divorcing or a dead pet or something else that I don’t know about, and besides, they’re at a difficult age and haven’t learned to control themselves yet (and I had?) I figured out much later that she was very conflict averse and that ‘try to understand their side’ is her way of dealing with angry/hurt without a confrontation.
It’s important to see their side of it, but it is JUST AS IMPORTANT to see your side of it. No one else will be your advocate if you can’t. (Including your mother, she said bitterly.)
We’re talking about two different things. You’re talking about when someone does something specifically hurtful. As to that, I agree — it is not your job to imagine all sorts of excuses for the other person. As Captain Awkward says, if you’re standing on my foot, I don’t care whether it’s because you’ve had a bad day or because you’re socially awkward or because in the culture you come from that’s acceptable conduct, you still need to get off my foot. Likewise, if you’re actively nasty, I don’t care if it’s because you had rotten parents, you need to cut that shit out.
I was talking more about the times when a sales clerk is a little pisssy, or the waiter is hopelessly slow or bad at keeping orders straight, or someone frazzled cuts in line… Instead of saying “bitch,” “incompetent idiot,” “effin’ asshole!” You just sort of note “jeez, somebody’s in a bad mood,” “whew, I hope he’s not always this bad!” “Huh, that wasn’t very nice,” or some other way of acknowledging the less-than-ideal without concluding that your world is filled with inconsiderate, stupid assholes. Cut slack unto others as you would have them cut slack unto you.
I mean, say you’re driving. You misjudge something and almost hit someone. But you don’t! If you’re like most of us, I think, if the other person gets all worked up and starts yelling and flipping you the bird, you feel like they need to chill. You didn’t actually hit them! The whole reason you only almost hit them is because you weren’t totally clueless, you just spaced out for a millisecond! In other words, in response to your imperfect driving, you expect perfect forgiveness out of them.
However, if the positions are reversed, don’t you tend to label them a fucking idiot who shouldn’t have a driver’s license? And act like you just had a near-death experience, when in fact you just had a near-fender-bender experience? Which would still have sucked, but is not the same as near-death.
What I’m saying is that it feels better to YOU, as well as for them, to remember that those other people we interact with in the course of our days are full-fledged people mostly doing their best, dealing with their own shit, and if their best isn’t what you’d like it to be in that particular moment that doesn’t mean they suck as human beings. Only that they are human, so they do get tired and pissy and distracted and all those things you do, and they are as entitled to their imperfection as you are. As counterintuitive as it is, it actually feels better when someone almost hits you to grimace but then smile and wave and convey to the best of facial expressions’ ability, “Whew! That was a little close for comfort, but no harm done!”
Because the world has its share of ninnies and assholes to be sure (and even some really scary people), but assuming that everyone whose behavior is less than perfect in your vicinity is one of them makes you feel like the world mostly sucks, except for the handful of good folks in your life. Whereas I think it’s mostly full of average people who can be both startlingly kind and a bit jerky, depending on the moment. (Like me!)
As a generally anxious person I find doing this sort of thing with myself pretty useful.
For one it cuts down on the guilt spiral of “I am a bad person for having these negative feelings they probably had a bad day what if they were stressed how dare I put my feelings about other people’s?” when I can say “This is how it made me feel and why, what should we do about it?” before the spiralling begins.
But for me personally it also helps me cut down on the complaining in a way. If I don’t accept that, say, someone not mailing me when they said they would make me feel upset and bad feelings for them I can end up jumping to “them doing that thing is objectively bad because x” when I should be working on “that made me feel y, how do I deal with that?”
This is great. I have a sort of flip-side version of this: I grew up (and still live) in a huge, crowded city, and there is always something to get twisted up about, especially on the subway. Younger-me used to look at the dude taking up three seats with his knees spread or the one using the pole for butt-floss and wish for Terrible Fates to befall them. And then I got a little older and thought about how Terrible Fates rarely make someone behave better; they just add to their misery– which, if they were a jerk to begin with, is likely to add to everyone’s misery. So simple, but so hard to remember sometimes.
i need help with this too. i am a completely pleasant “too-nice” of a person to everyone else in my life. when i get stressed, i snap and snarl. and immediately feel awful.
if anyone has any advice, please share!
Apologize for snapping later. I do that. At least half the time the person I thought I was really mean to, either didn’t think I was mean at all, or understood that it wasn’t about them, it was about my mood.
Yep. This for sure. I am a reformed Mean Snarker and I still catch myself doing it. If you say ‘wow, sorry, that came out wrong’ or ‘eep, that was a bit snappy, sorry’ people generally don’t care that you snapped at them. I think it’s also a good way of reminding yourself that a) Do not snap, it’s not nice and b) It’s also not the end of the world.
Yeah, apologizing is the best way to smooth things over. It takes me a while to apologize, usually because I feel so damn guilty, but when I’m snapped at, an apology usually does the trick in killing any side-eye feelings I have toward the snapper.
I used to have this problem too. I was conflict-avoidant, so I would gloss over irritations until they became unbearable, and then I’d snap. I got a reputation of lashing out unpredictably, because other people had no idea that they were bothering me, so my response seemed disproportionate and scary. It can be hard to learn to speak up for yourself while the issue is still small and fixable, but it’s the best way to avoid letting your rage build up until it explodes.
Captain Awkward 100% endorses this comment. This was a very hard thing to learn for me, and is what “use your words” is all about.
In my life, I’ve found that usually my meanness/ most faulty behavior is a defense mechanism around somewhere that I’m feeling insecure or frustrated. The solution to that is usually better boundaries and more explicit communication about what is bugging me, as well as remembering that the people I love are human and therefore fallible.
This is an incredibly astute comment! I’m meaner (well, maybe not meaner – trying harder to be funny and witty, which sometimes can cross the line into mean) to the people I feel uncertain or insecure around – I spent a weekend with a group of acquaintances a few weeks ago, and one of them is a borderline Mean Girl, and I just felt on edge the entire time, because I was policing what I was saying instead of relaxing and having fun. It wasn’t a bad weekend, per se, but I was exhausted at the end from having my guard up all the time. It’s helpful to examine why I’m feeling that way because it often leads to the realization that hey, I’m not my best person around this person and maybe I need to limit the amount of time I spend with them.
Ditto on the compassion, loving kindness and gratitude. Also mindfulness-based meditation as a way to quiet the busy overly critical mind and learn to note unpleasant thoughts and emotions but not get caught up in them (some writers/therapists call this the silent observer). Also learning to sit with unpleasant thoughts or feelings instead of trying to distract/block out/fix and know that they are transient and will pass by if you don’t feed them or latch onto them. Learning self-compassion instead of self-judgment helped me be more kind to others. Seeing the irritations and bumps and warts of other people and myself as a shared human experience.
I have had a lot of therapy, but did not find it especially helpful for my Mean Person Problem. (I think because I was so, so self-critical and just awful to myself in a self-aware way that there was never any time to get around to how I was also mean to other people.)
I think I am now a mostly-recovered Mean Person. What helped me most was – embarrassing – reading a gazillion new age books. Just, whatever, I’d take a look. A lot of it is kind of silly or not helpful, but some of it stuck, so now my worldview is like that sticker you see in coffee places sometimes, “Happiness is an inside job.” And over time I’ve realized that being judgmental is being judgmental, whether I’m being that way to someone else or to myself, it’s the exact same energy, it’s about being defensive and afraid and feeling unstable and like the world is going to come apart, and I have to have my claws out all the time.
So to stop being mean, I had to basically reframe my feelings about the world from “It’s dangerous and horrible out there, you gotta claw your way to the top of the social pyramid and be ready to rumble, and also you need to express your social domination via sneering at someone’s musical taste” to “The world is basically good and people are basically good and things are basically okay, and I am an okay person who is kind to others. It’s safe to let my guard down and smile at people in traffic.”
I guess I am basically saying that my quest to be less mean was part of my larger quest to be happier. Happy people are not all that snide, usually. You know?
(Also, letter-writer, I thought this was a really thoughtful letter and I feel like I know who you are, and as a similar type of person, I want to say – I think you can make this change. Good luck!)
A trick I learned is to sing your complaints. Not only is it kind of ridiculous and embarrassing or hilarious, singing actually does give most people a boost of the good brain juices if you do it long enough.
The channel it into something productive is also something I try: the policy that people who commute from the city to the suburbs on Metra don’t get a quiet car, while suburbs-to-city people do really bugged me the other day, so I framed my complaint on social media as “help me write a letter!” I got good tips on content and to whom to send the letter to.
Singing complaints is a great idea!
Awesome! I only watched the first two min. at work, and I will be coming back to this.
Another good example is the woman trying to sing her way out a parking ticket in the Buffy Musical episode.
I. Love. That. Song.
Eeeee, I love that episode! I tried to get a friend to watch Buffy with me once and he couldn’t stand the earlier episodes because of Xander, so we stopped, but I did make him watch the musical episode and he liked it, as I recall.
Trivia: The woman trying to sing her way out of the ticket was played by Marti Noxon, one of the show’s regular writers.
Best Buffy ever! (except maybe Hush…) I was just singing along with the soundtrack on my way home this evening because, you know, long week and lots of stress and what gets it out better than belting one out?
The ring tone bit made me snort with laughter.
THE BEST EXAMPLE.
There’s one in Chicago too!
I’ve done “sing your complaints” and “channel complaints into something productive” at the same time. Songwriting is fun.
Dance class really helped me as a recovering meanie. There’s no place for ironic detachment when you’re using all your energy in whole-hearted, expansive movement. Plus it’s fun 🙂 Most of the people in the room are really happy, and snark is completely unacceptable there because everyone was once a beginner and it’s so much more gratifying to build something up than to knock it down.
And for me it’s easier to forget about the jerkbrain while concentrating hard and working a sweat than while sitting in stillness.
I’ve done this with terrible songs on the radio. I got it from the scene at the end of the MST3K episode Soul Taker (“scene, scene scene; overlong scene, scene, scene”), so everything becomes stuff like, “I’m a misogynist and my girlfriend dumped me/some stuff about vampires/guitar solo/oh yeah!”
I’m a recovering Work Complainer and have been falling back into the habit a bit lately due to Stressful Times + Lots of Change in my job, so I really needed this today!
One of the things I found when I was in full-on Complaining mode was that it’s self-reinforcing and addictive. For example, my last job was working for a company that was very dysfunctional and there was lots of capital-D Drama all the time. It was all very political and I got sucked into it entirely, to the point where I spent more time thinking about the Drama than I did about the work, because it was so much more interesting than the boring day-to-day work we were doing.
It’s really interesting that you referenced women’s mags, Captain, as the Work Drama made me feel the same way that I did when I used to regularly read the ladymags – it feels big and important and it’s really involving and fascinating, but when you take a step back from it you realise it isn’t actually doing you any good. I eventually got a new job where the company was much more functional and everyone was positive and enthusiastic about things and it felt like I’d taken a breath of fresh air. As soon as I got out, I realised how toxic that environment had been for me, but I just couldn’t see it at the time because… well, fish have no words for water, right?
I think the Captain is absolutely right when she says that the negative self-talk and negative external talk are connected, and I think you need to work on the negative self-talk to help with this. I get why you say you are avoiding making friends with people with good boundaries in case they don’t like you, but I think that being around people who will challenge you when you’re negative would actually be very good in helping you to control the negativity.
I have tried the “shout a silent ‘NO!'” technique when I am falling into negative habits, which often works for me. The idea is to disrupt the negative thinking pattern, so when you feel that you’re heading off down a path of meanness, you silently shout “NO!” in your head. You could also tell your friends that you’re trying to be more positive in your thinking and ask them to pick you up on it when you say negative things – I’ve found that works for me quite often.
Good luck, LW – I hope you find some strategies that work for you, and from a selfish point of view I’m very glad you asked the question, as I’m sure there’ll be lots of helpful advice from the commentariat that I can also benefit from!
I didn’t want to make the answer even longer, but yes, complaining is addictive and also is useful as bonding with other people in dysfunctional situations, so it has a strange pull and a way of normalizing the dysfunction and making it part of everything. It is a very, very hard habit to break.
No kidding. My workplace is absolutely glued together by this sort of thing, to the point that it’s genuinely hard to function if you don’t join the kvetch sessions. My strategy has been to join in, but to try to chase all my complaints with a proposed solution – ‘the x procedure is the absolute worst, oh my god. Do you think if I did y it would help?’ ‘Joe Random cannot remember deadlines to save his soul, do you think we should make an office calendar?’ That sort of thing. I still worry I’m turning into an enormous whiner, but hey, I at least feel somewhat productive while not alienating Team Angry.
Ahhhh your third paragraph, in particular, resonated SO MUCH with me. The part about thinking everything is just so important!!!!!! was something it took me awhile to break myself of. Trying new things, completely different things from what I had generally done — taking up new hobbies (sewing, in my case, in particular), trying different kinds of books (non-fiction, where I’d mostly been reading genre fiction), going to new places with new people — they helped me a great deal, I think, in large part because they helped me with my feeling that I was Oscar the Grouch, nasty and mean and stuck in a tiny, tiny little garbage can forever. I’m not! I have legs! The world is so much bigger than the can! This is not my only furniture, this is just some garbage, and I am allowed to throw it away and not sit there in the garbage can with it. It was such a relief to be able to put down these things I was so angry and anxious (they were, for me, two sides of the same coin) about.
THIS is me right now. I’m usually über nice to people and have a reputation for being overtly mellow about stuff, but right now I feel just like this. The first anniversary of my Mom’s death is coming up, my MA thesis is a painful clusterfuck, and I can’t pay my GODAMN bills. I just feel like a huge ball of rage, and while I usually am good about considering other people’s feelings and know the people in my life are compassionate, all I think about is how they are going to judge me and tell me I’m the failure I think I am and therefore I must have a snappy comeback.
Whew. Right now BF and I are looking into making some fancy insurance ninja moves that will allow me to see his therapist and vomit all of these FEELINGS in a safe and productive way.
LW, even I, who is usually über nice, struggle with being mean. This problem is new to me, but what I’m doing is:
1.) Working on getting my ass in therapy.
2.) Understand that most of this anger is steming from my own Jerkbrain, and grief. Therefore:
2A.) People around me have nothing to do with why I feel angry, so it’s really not fair for me to take it out on them. [I liken this to not being mean to the Customer Service people when you have a legitimate complaint with a company/service. They usually are not the ones directly involved with the problem so taking it out on them won’t make it any better.]
3.) Do stuff. Nothing feeds my Jerkbrain more than sitting and STEWING. Sometimes it involves hanging out with good friends; however I know when I’m in that mood I’m not pleasant company, so I usually do stuff alone. Just as long as I’m focusing on doing that activity/getting out of the house/learning something new I shift focus away from the Jerkbrain and onto other things that make my life awesome.
I know some people have a hard time going out and doing stuff alone, but I HIGHLY reccomend it. Go see a movie by yourself, go to that awesome lecture about obscure topic you love at the library, go out to lunch alone and read a book, etc. Especially since you noted alot of this meaness comes out of feeling insecure around people, why not work on being secure with yourself? Take yourself out on a date! I do, and I must say, “Damn self, I make a great date!” I love love love it. Nothing resets my Jerkbrain (without involving people with my FEELINGS) faster.
Good luck! Yay for you! Many jedi hugs!
“I liken this to not being mean to the Customer Service people when you have a legitimate complaint with a company/service. They usually are not the ones directly involved with the problem so taking it out on them won’t make it any better.”
Who knew that this would be the metaphor that would make all of this click in my brain? Too much retail experience FTW.
YES on the learning new things. Since becoming an adult and getting out of my hometown — which, despite containing a lot of super awesome people I love with all my heart, was really not a good, healthy place for me to live for various reasons — I’ve discovered I’m the kind of person who likes to pick up wacky new hobbies, stick with ’em ’til I get bored, and then go try something new and awesome. Aside from boosting my self-esteem and giving me a TON of awesome things to talk about when people (especially family) ask me about my life (which by itself cuts down on complaining — why complain when you can explain binary?!*), it really helps put me in a new headspace if I have something new and fascinating to learn. From opera to belly dancing to kickboxing, I just love learning new things. They inspire and excite me and really make me feel like life is worth living just because there’s so much to learn about it!
*Not that anyone in my family needs me to explain binary to them, but I did get to explain/nerd out over it with a close friend, and it was one of my very favorite conversations in the history of ever. The history of belly dance is another favorite topic.
“As soon as I got out, I realised how toxic that environment had been for me, but I just couldn’t see it at the time because… well, fish have no words for water, right?”
Great analogy. When all you know is a toxic environment, especially a work environment (since everyone supposedly hates their jobs anyway, right?), you don’t realize the effect it has on you *and* that things don’t have to be so bad.
Story one: My best friend prefers that I do not take the name of God or Jesus in vain. I am not Christian, and “oh god” and “jeeeeeeez” speckles my speech. So it has been super hard to exterminate that behavior. While I was really struggling, I asked her to mark when I slipped, with a beep or a neutrally voiced comment.
I suggest seeking out those people with the strong boundaries who also seem kind. And then perhaps say “I have this problem. When I say something over the line, please say Slartibartfast (or some other ridiculous thing).” It is not actually their job to police you, but some people don’t mind doing it for someone they like who is actively trying to make a change.
Story two: My negative self-talk is all about how much I suck. Well, I am not allowed to say that I suck anymore. My therapist, my husband, my friends — all now challenge me until I rephrase it as something like “I screwed that up” or “that is hard for me” or “I feel bad about myself”.
Ultimately, though, usually it comes down to “I am afraid” or outright “my jerkbrain is kicking me”. The solution is almost always to rephrase, reframe. Your brain listens to the words you use, and when you say “damn, I suck”, it hears and believes. If you say, “I am utterly awesome at forgetting to do the dishes”, it hears “I am utterly awesome”!
It’s like doing a little redirection dance. La la la redirect redirect redirect and high kick and take a bow!
Story three: I get into phases where I HATE THE WORLD. I HATE EVERYONE. I sometimes say to people I love how I HATE EVERYONE and sometimes I forget to say “present company excepted”, because I really do feel like I HATE EVERYONE even though if you ask me I can remember that I do love my best friend, duh. I also HATE EVERYTHING. ESPECIALLY THAT THING.
So what I do, when I am like this, is I will start escalating until I reach peak ridiculosity. “I HATE THE COMPLETELY ADORABLE WHISKERS ON THAT KITTEN. THAT ONE. THE SLEEPING ONE, TWITCHING IN A DREAM. I HATE ITS KITTEN DREAMS.” Sometimes I will swing my arms around and yell that demons will eat my babies! Even though I have no babies! But as long as I am catastrophizing I might as well take it to its illogical and hilarious extreme.
Lately I have been angrily insisting to my husband how much I love him.
These are cognitive-behavioral therapy tricks for challenging negative thoughts. But the thing that really did it for me was mindfulness meditation. To do it right, you have to have compassion for yourself — and I didn’t. So it kind of broke me, and sometimes it still breaks me, to open myself to loving compassion. To give myself that loving compassion, like I am a valuable human being or something!
You are too. You deserve all the loving kindness ever, even if you have to kind of trick yourself into it for a while.
I so LOVE this post. My jerkbrain once actually got me to refer to a rainbow as a “fucking rainbow” and this is now shorthand with my daughter for a negative jerkbrain attack.
Oh my god, I AM utterly awesome at forgetting to do the dishes! I’m going to start thinking of it that way from now on.
And I second the mindfulness suggestion. It has helped me more than any other single strategy or trick to silence my jerkbrain.
Do you (or carbonatedwit) have any resources on mindfulness mediation for the jerkbrain-afflicted? It was really helping me until jerkbrain realized that “just sit with your thoughts and feelings” meant my cognitive therapy/reframing defenses were down, and mediation time became a constant stream of verbal abuse. I’d love to get the benefits of regular mediation back, but I just can’t handle the vitriol.
The meditation i learned was from a Kabat-Zinn class. A lot of places offer mindfulness-based stress reduction classes, which were developed in the medical department of the university of massachusetts-amherst. So if you are in MA, you can do it right there. Elsewhere, you can often find the classes at hospitals or meditation centers.
I have also worked with a local meditation center, in the Advaita tradition. That was coincidence, and I do not accept the metaphysical assertions of that or any other religious or spiritual tradition. But you could find the practice in just about any welcoming space that teaches meditation.
Kabat-Zinn has a bunch of books and books on tape you can work with as well. i found a class is really really important for me; i do not do well at keeping a practice alive on my own, and haven’t even read the books. But i know he developed the class I took, so I do not hesitate to recommend him. (I do know i don’t like his voice much, so his recordings do not work for me)
You can work with a therapist who does this stuff, or guided meditation or imagery.
Secretly, the trick that makes meditation go is the same no matter how you get into it, and it’s a skill you can learn — it is exactly the skill that would let you meditate instead of be attacked by your thoughts. But it’s hard to explain in a comment. It’s about being in the moment, letting your thoughts pass through you like clouds, knowing that you are you and not your thoughts or your emotions, learning to acknowledge that yep, you have that thought or that feel, but it’s not important right now and just let it go.
You learn to do it by doing it. *waves hands around flailingly*
I took a Kabat-Zinn class taught by Bob Stahl out here in California after going through the same kind of thing. (Mine was caused by a combination of job stress and undiagnosed/untreated social anxiety that resulted in me lashing out at people. I am now happily in therapy and on meds, and still find mindfulness helpful.) Bob has his own workbooks and audio CDs, and I think he has a more soothing voice than Jon Kabat-Zinn. This is the one we used:
More keywords are MBSR or Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction – that’s what the classes are called around here. Mine was eight weeks and had a ‘pay-what-you-can’ program – don’t be shy if you need it.
I had a hard time settling into mindfulness practice at first – my jerkbrain would beat me up whenever I wasn’t ’emptying my mind’, whatever that even meant. I found the guided meditations, such as body scan, much easier. The most helpful thing I heard was this: “As soon as you realize you’re not present, you are.” That helped me tell my jerkbrain to shut up when it told me I wasn’t “doing meditation right”.
Yes, yes I do. Some of these are Australian, but the only real difference is that we do our meditation upside down.
Psychologists who do CBT will also be able to help you.
You could try some loving-kindness meditations, which are specifically designed to do the opposite of what the jerkbrain usually does. My mindfulness class had us do five loving-kindness meditations: One for ourselves, one for someone we respect and look up to, one for someone we love, one for a neutral person (like the person who made your coffee at the coffee shop), and finally someone we are having problems with. It can be difficult at first, but it gets easier as you practice it.
My main strategy is to focus on bringing my thoughts back to my breath. Whenever I catch myself having a jerkbrain thought while meditating, I just refocus on the breath. If a thought is particularly tempting to follow, sometimes I think “I can think about this later–right now it’s time to focus on the breath.” Think of yourself as a small child or a puppy that has been distracted by something shiny. Don’t berate yourself for being distracted; it happens. Just take your own hand (or paw) and lead yourself gently back to the breath.
This has been the most effective strategy for me because if I have been meditating recently, it helps me see my thoughts from a distance when they come up during the day. I still have negative and jerkbrain thoughts, but I no longer see them as something I have to believe or follow or focus on. I’m able to see them as “just thoughts.” This is a hard feeling to describe if you’ve never experienced it, but it’s amazingly helpful once you have it.
The book “self compassion” by Kristin Neff is also a super helpful chink of light into self negativity.
Just wanted to chime in with another book recommendation for mindfulness meditation:
This one is by a Google employee who now runs meditation courses for them full time. He used to be a software engineer. I really like this book because the language is much more accessible to a left-brain dominant scientist type than a lot of other ones out there that were just too “touchy-feely” for me to really dig into (nothing wrong with “touchy-feely”, I just had trouble parsing the language, whereas this author already speaks mine). I highly recommend it for people who may have tried to get into meditation before and just struggled to grasp some of the concepts for whatever reason.
Seconding Kabat-Zinn… I occasionally find his voice annoying, but the meditations and methods are solid. Likewise, lots of therapy techniques/individual therapists incorporate mindfulness techniques these days, and if you’re struggling with mindfulness time quickly devolving into be-mean-to-yourself time, starting with a therapist may help.
But mostly, I wanted to note: Mindfulness meditation is SUPER AWESOME, but it also makes you kind of vulnerable in a weird way that can be super scary and even traumatizing if you are currently having a really rough time of things in your head, like if you’re in the middle of a severe episode of depression or something. It’s important to a) not start mindfulness training when you’re in crisis mode and b) take it slowly.
This is something I’ve been told repeatedly by therapists and something that Kabat-Zinn mentions in his book on mindfulness for depression (http://www.amazon.com/Mindful-Way-through-Depression-Unhappiness/dp/1593851286). I have been out of the habit of actual sitting meditation for awhile now, and just yesterday my therapist suggested I start back, but only 2-3 minutes at a time to start out. Sadly, I think lots of people try out this stuff without being in the right headspace for it/without having the guidance they need, and then get scared off from something that could have helped them.
If you start with a good, supportive group, it can be okay to start in a traumatic place. I mean, I did, and it was a breakthrough. Part of it is that I would not have actually done it, or let it work, if I had not been in a space where I was desperate for things to work.
But I was in a group where, when I started crying during meditation, it was okay. The whole class was about managing pain and stress with mindfulness and meditation, so a lot of people were suffering, mentally or physically. The instructor was gentle and led us gently, and taught us ways to go into our pain and then back away when it was too much.
Guidance and support are very important.
My teacher always used to say “mindfulness is not a fire extinguisher.”
Yes, I should have been more clear… starting while in crisis can be workable and even life-altering, but generally with proper support, not self-teaching from a book and/or the internet. I’ve done mindfulness as part of therapy while in a pretty bad place, but I had multiple trained therapists looking out for me.
Oh, the reminder that you can always start with just 2-3 minutes at a time is a great one. I did mindfulness meditation (…I should get back into the habit, really), and one of the things that can be discouraging is that when you start out, sitting for fifteen, twenty, or thirty minutes can be really, really hard. Which makes it easy to get discouraged early on.
But I did “only” five minutes of meditation (three times a day) for, literally, months when I started out (I was doing it on my own out of books), because that was how long I could maintain the right state of mind. Once I got a little better, I increased the time a little at a time, stopping whenever it started to get frustrating.
Keely — I’m not disagreeing with you; indeed, there is a note at the end of ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression’ saying that if, at the moment, your depression is very severe, this isn’t a good point to start and you should wait until things are a little calmer. So it’s true that in extreme crisis it isn’t the best approach. Still, I wouldn’t want anyone to come away from this thinking “Great, maybe mindfulness could’ve helped me if I’d learned to do it BEFORE, or if I had a good therapist to help, but now I actually need it, it’s too late” which is the sort of thing depression is really good at telling you anyway. Maybe teaching yourself mindfulness won’t help when things are at their absolute worst, but for some people it really can when things are still pretty damn bad, you know? Personally I’ve come to the conclusion I’d rather have a good book than a bad therapist, and as bad therapists are the only kind I’ve ever encountered, I am incredibly grateful for good books.
(I can’t recommend ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression’ highly enough, it’s the only thing I’ve encountered that made me feel a little better just through reading the prose, before I’d even started trying to put any of what it advised into practice. There’s something incredibly reassuring and soothing — and interesting! — in the way it’s written.)
This is awesome and perfectly timed for this lurker. My therapist just recommended mindfulness meditation last week, so I’ve been looking for resources. So just want to say thanks to everyone who’s responded here, because I appreciate the recommendations, too!
Thank you all so much. This thread makes me feel like I have a toehold on this again. Forward I go into the Mindfulness Forest, armed with carefully taken notes!
“I HATE THE COMPLETELY ADORABLE WHISKERS ON THAT KITTEN. THAT ONE. THE SLEEPING ONE, TWITCHING IN A DREAM. I HATE ITS KITTEN DREAMS.”
A+, would lol again.
Oddly enough, I’ve also gone on a And You know What, Fuck You Too, Rainbow rant.
It actually turned a really negative space into a more positive absurd thing for me, and all the giggling at myself (I was in the car) cut through my road rage like a happy little knife.
I fully recommend that if you must get shouty and angersome, definitely aim it at rainbows and unicorns and maybe even cotton candy.
Oh, I did (and do) the same thing you are doing in Story Two! It has been honestly life-changing. To just STOP SAYING “God, I’m such a spazz,” or “I’m sorry, I’m an idiot” fifteen times a day frees up an astounding amount of mental energy.
I replace it with being honest about screwing up — “Wow, that is my cell phone, thanks for noticing I left it there.” And I’m very specific: “yup, I sure did crack that raw egg right back into the egg carton!” (To give an example from this morning. Yup, I sure did that!)
Just changing that one habit then allowed in the possibility that I could change specific behaviors that were causing me trouble *without* having to simultaneously believe that I was an overall fuckup who would never get anything right. It’s a lot easier to manage change when you actually think you’re capable of making it happen.
Thanks for tackling this, I’m trying to balance the snark/sweetness in my life too.
Love your comment on things we like. I recently said that to my mom, who was acting all down on herself for liking 50 Shades of Grey, “well do you like it or do you think it’s good?”
I am a semi reformed mean person. I try very hard not to be mean, I am sure I sometimes fuck that up, and I worry about that a lot, which results in a lot of post social interaction anxiety. NOT RECOMMENDED.
This letter is so timely because I was just thinking earlier about how I could make some of my family members be less mean. And then I remembered, it’s way hard, and I can’t make anyone do anything.
There are a few things that have helped me to be less thoughtlessly cruel:
1. Recognizing my moods and when I do not have enough executive function left to avoid just saying whatever I think. Sometimes I am just too grumpy, or worn out to be nice. This week is particularly bad as I spent all of last week being nice to potential clients who were total strangers. I just do not care at all, and if someone were to stand here and try to tell me how great Rent was, I’d probably be like FUCK RENT. (I actually have a very nuanced opinion about rent, but I am so grumpy I would just shit on it.) So this week I’ve been a listener, and a polite conversation maker at most.
This may be the most applicable to the LW. It is HARD to edit yourself all the time, so if you have to do it a lot at work, it may not be a thing you want to do also socially. The best thing to do is practice, practice not thinking mean things, so you don’t say them. The more you practice using your brain the better your brain will be at keeping you from saying mean things.
2. Recognizing that a joke has to actually be funny. I have issues with several people at the moment who seem to think they can say whatever they want that’s mean and shocking and expect you not to be upset because it was a joke. And maybe they really do mean it to be a joke, but shocking and cruel isn’t the same as funny. My partner is so good at teasing people and making them laugh, but that’s because he picks light topics to joke about, and he treats you like you’re all in on the joke. Conversely some people will say shit like “Way to not take the advice you asked for, that’s so typical of you” all deadpan and serious and then be all what, I was joking? Deadpan jokes about personality flaws don’t usually come across as funny, they come across as mean. In order to avoid this, (a problem I had in the past largely because this was how my family rolled, I just don’t make any jokes at the expense of another person besides myself.
3. Fully realizing that I have no control over the opinions or actions of people around me.
a.) Opinions. Telling someone that I hate Rent or that Libertarianism is Evil is not going to change their mind. And most people really hate to have their ideas challenged. So unless it is someone I know well and I know they will be receptive to a constructive discussion of the dangers of the popularity of Twilight, I try to leave it. I’m probably not going to change their minds, so all I would do is piss them off.
b.) Actions. “you should break up with him.” “You should move out.” It’s amazing my best friend since grade school still loves me because I’m pretty sure that was all I said to her for like… 8 years. When people aren’t doing the thing you think they should do, they probably have reasons. IT is possible those reasons are not very good, but it is also possible that they have very good reasons. It is actually highly probably that despite your “outsiders perspective” you actually don’t fully understand the situation and should just STFU.
# 3 is probably the hardest for me. If I could have any super power it would be the ability to open people’s eyes to the fact that they are making choices that have real negative consequences. (My super hero name, Epiphone.) It is hard to watch people you love do things you think are stupid. But on the flip side, you aren’t them, and you have to trust them to make the best decisions they can. Extra bonus reason to STFU: in most cases you aren’t the one who has to deal with the consequences, so butt out.
I am SO on-board with this comment, especially tip 1. I am a sharp-tongued person by nurture, but I can usually control it so that it comes across as funny and not hurtful, except when I am tired or legitimately angry about something. Those times, it is best for me to step away and go do something by myself.
One additional suggestion for the OP — stop avoiding the people you think will call you on your bullshit. I find that hanging out with people who have really good social skills and the ability to call me on my crap not only provides me with good models of how to behave, but decreases my tendency to fling crap, because I know there will be a consequence to it. You already know that there’s a risk to this — these people might not end up liking you — but when you need to level up, associating with people on a higher level, even if you just sit quietly, can be a real boost.
All of the advice offered here is fantastic, but if I had to pick one item on the list in particular, it would be #5, and my main piece of advice goes along with that one — try to figure out what circumstances or people trigger your meanness, in as much detail as possible. For all of the habits I have about myself that have made my life difficult and made me and my loved ones unhappy, a big part of growing through and, eventually, past them has been identifying what causes you to do these things, so that you can more effectively take care of yourself. LW, you mentioned that you seem, by your own observation, to be less mean when you’re around people you’re comfortable with, so you’re already on the way there! Have you found, as well, that maybe it’s worse when you’re tired, or when you’re with people at Starbucks vs. at work, or when you’re, I don’t know, wearing that one pair of shoes, or you had ketchup with your french fries when you ate dinner last night? (This is another way that journaling may help — in addition to a safe space to vent and be as negative as I need to be, it’s also given me a birds-eye view, and helped me to identify patterns that I might not have seen on the ground.)
As someone who’s had a lot of trouble with therapy as tool because even when I had insurance it was hard finding a therapist and a style I found helpful, I might also encourage you, while you’re in the process of getting back into therapy, to try a cognitive-behavioral workbook in the meantime. They’re especially useful for me as ways to, again, help myself identify my triggers. Definitely not arguing for them instead of therapy, I should clarify — you’ve said that you think you need to get back into it, which I strongly encourage. But until you can, or as a supplement to therapy, I recommend them highly.
For me, it’s been pretty helpful to recognize that what you and I do, the being mean to other people, can often be categorized as “negging,” an awful tactic that awful pickup artists use. I put down other people so they feel as bad as I do.
For example, I have a coworker who dresses so professionally AND fashionable and is so put together. Instead of saying, “Hey you look really great today” I say “Godddd why do you look so nice?? I hate you!” When really I’m saying “Ughhhh I feel fat and unloved and slumpy and you just look so awesome that I am vomiting up all my insecurity and making you feel as terrible as I do!”
I’m all about baby steps, and the first step is recognizing what you’re doing and why. LW, please feel proud of yourself for getting past that step, and the huge second step of asking for help! But obviously changing habits takes a lot of work. So after I say something incredibly rude like “Ughhhh you always make me look so bad compared to your ridiculously cute outfits,” I follow up either verbally or via email, after I’ve walked away, to say “Hey listen, I’m so sorry I was rude. You really look great today.” By acknowledging out loud to that person that yeah, I was rude, helps me from being rude again to them in the first place…it help creates accountability for me.
The thing I wouldn’t like, if somebody said “Godddd, you look so nice; I hate you” to me, would be the implicit pressure to cheer that person up. “No, you look great too!” But I wouldn’t interpret it as rude or mean. I’d take it as a compliment.
Unless there are nuances that have been lost in translation. 🙂
When I left my abusive family I took a part of their behaviour with me. You could say I was infected with mean-nes. If you look at social interaction like a computer game, it was one alternative that I knew would be succesful. Being scary and mean unfortunately works a lot. It can give you an edge with people who can’t stand up for themselves and sometimes it’s easier for us to have that edge to make yourselves feel better, even at the expense of other people. The more you do something, the easier it becomes use that as your ”go-to”. I’m really glad that you wrote in!
I second the therapy suggestion. When I knew better I acted better, and added more alternatives to my interactions with people. I think for you it would help to not say every mean thing that jumps into your head. Practice agreeing to disagree. Even though what you’d say might be true technically, it won’t help. If someone has spinach on their teeth, it’s helpful to say something about it. If you don’t like their sweater and they haven’t asked your opinion, shut up. If you’re asked, say something true but nice, like that you like one of the colours in this hypotethical hideousness to sweaters everywhere.
Kudos to you LW for figuring out you want to change on your own!
I’m eternally grateful to a boss who pulled me aside in my early 20s and told me flat out I was being negative all the time and that was a problem. “It’s getting to the point where no one wants to work with you.” This is something we all need to hear if we get in that spiral. She saved my job and ultimately helped me be a better person because I took it to heart, got a therapist, and turned my attitude around to be a much happier & compassionate person. I’m so glad she saw my potential and said something instead of just firing me!
I don’t know if you get this a lot, but good for you for taking that criticism and turning it into something positive. I think that’s a hard thing to do.
I am someone who used to say mean things a ton. Because I was raised in passive-aggressive land it was usually disguised. It wasn’t until I had people in my life who called me on the mean things I said a couple of times that I started holding my tongue. But, it wasn’t until one of my aunts pointed out that my regular correction of my Grandmother made her feel stupid did I see just how hurtful some of the things I said were mean.
Now, most of what I say has to pass two tests before I say it, (1) is what I’m about to say positive and/or constructive and (2) if someone said what I want to say about me would I find hit hurtful. For me, it means saying less, listening more and stop being so bloody picky about things that only matter to me.
I do those 2, also. And a third: Would I want this written down with my name attributed to the quote, so that everyone could know what I said?
Oooh, that’s a good one. Though, if I’m cranky enough that won’t even slow the train.
Hey, Jerk Who Is Trying! ‘Sup?
I used to be one of those people. Like, oh my god, I have no idea why anyone was ever friends with me, and why my husband did not drive me to the wilds of Alaska and leave me there to be rejected by wolves as unfit company.
Two things helped me.
First, and I don’t remember where I got it — I suspect it originated with either Ann Landers or Dear Abby but it’s everywhere now — I started asking myself “Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?” before saying things. It’s not that hard to fill the first one. Sometimes a huge part of being a dick is pointing out things that ARE true. But running stuff past the other two is where you strain out a lot of the ugly shit.
Second, and this is the one that saved me, I read The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. Suzette Haden Elgin is a fine lady and an expert in interpersonal communication who does *not* come from a gross “men talk this way, women talk that way” background. It also does not teach, like many communication books do, that the proper response to verbal conflict is to counterattack or dominate the other person conversationally. It does not teach escalation! It teaches de-escalation, and restoring healthy, honest, mutual communication. It is, indeed, a very gentle art that she teaches. I don’t, in fact, know if I ever met a gentler woman (we attended the same convention for years, and I’ve been on panels with her a couple times).
There are about a zillion books in the series, all the ones I’ve read have been good, but start with that one. It was written long ago, and the version I had had not been updated in many years (one example was a kid asking his dad to buy him a calculator for math class), but it was still fine, and I understand the later versions did get a bit of a facelift.
What it did was teach me to recognize verbal attack patterns and different kinds of negative/hurtful communication. Like, sometimes, someone says a thing, and we don’t know why it upset us? Well, this book helps with that.
I read it because my mother was a vicious sniper and spoiler of other people’s fun, and to my genuine shock, I realized that not only was I being subjected to those sorts of attacks every time I saw her, I was doing them to other people in little ways I had never really thought about. It was tremendously helpful in the context of my intimate relationships. It helped me eliminate the ugly communication patterns I had inherited from my mom, something nothing else until then had managed to do.
This may or may not work for you, but I thought I would put it out there as a novel, sort of sidewise approach to the situation, and something that’s just good to have read in general for what it teaches about human interaction.
Also, anyone who has to deal with difficult people, whether that’s distraught clients, angry co-workers, horrendously cruel relatives, friends who aren’t always friends, might look into it as well. I found them immensely readable, and the lady is brilliant.
Best of luck. It can be done, I promise you. I’ve done it. It just requires patience with yourself, honesty, and a lot of mindfulness. You have the hard part behind you, I think, in that you know you have a problem and want to make it stop, so the road may be bumpy but I have every confidence that it will be a downhill ride from here out, and things will turn out.
I’ll add to my own comment: those books also do a good job of presenting scripts, actual examples of better things to say. And in my experience, those are super-helpful tools to learn to make and use for yourself.
I walked into an empty classroom at college, I guess about eight years ago, and found “Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Kind?” written on a flipboard. It stopped me in my tracks and I took a photo of it and carried that with me on my cameraphone for YEARS. I’d love to know the original source. Words to live by, truly.
My mother used to say something similar, only hers went “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” At least two of those should be checked off – because sometimes it’s necessary and kind to say something that isn’t true, or necessary to say something true that isn’t kind, and so on.
I don’t know the source, but I’ve seen a longer version used in elementary school classrooms — something like this.
Another recommending The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin or any of her other books. So many great examples & scripts which is something I too find immensely helpful, especially when trying to get out of bad habits it is helpful to have some ready-made substitutes!
Seconding the Gentle Art of Self-Defense. As you say, a lot of it is about de-escalation, and in a way that was revelatory: it helps escape from a perception of interaction as a contest that someone “wins.” I think a lot of the time (not always, but a lot of the time), constant snark comes from a perception that we have to somehow win the conversation–and, on the flip side, that if we don’t, we’re ‘losing’ or, worse, ‘losers.’ And if you’re depressed and feel like a loser anyway, it’s doubly bad.
And sometimes even if you “win” a conversation like that, you still feel gross and terrible, because you either hurt someone you care about, or you were trapped in a nasty conversation for a long time. (I used to spend a lot of time having conversations that made me feel sick and horrible because I felt like I couldn’t let the other person “get away with” something. Whereas in fact I was just giving them what they wanted–a long, contentious conversation in which I was trapped and they could keep taking potshots at me–and not getting what I wanted, which was to be left alone. Simply by goading me into participating they were already “getting away with” it! Figuring out that I didn’t have to ‘win’ the conversation, that I could de-escalate and just get out, was hugely hugely helpful.)
(This doesn’t always apply to offensive meanness, like criticism or negging. Often complaint sessions are treated as a contest that is “won” by coming up with the most horrible story, the most negative thing, like, “You think that was bad? Wait till you hear THIS!” That’s also a competition, even though it’s not critical of your conversation partner.)
Anyway. Yes. Love the book. If you can get past the somewhat-dated examples, it has a huge ton of techniques that I find marvelously useful.
Oh, wow. *obligatory remark about “Did you know my mother?”*
Yeah, conversation for me as a kid was a verbal fencing match. There were winners and losers. We did not fight to resolve problems, we fought to wound. Problems never got resolved, losers lost all rights to complain about them without being berated. Not letting someone get away with something was, at times, an actual helpful survival tactic. Especially when you were trapped in conversations with them; you literally could not get away. Some people respond by going quiet and not speaking or reacting, some people respond by giving back what they get, and that’s what I did, and that’s where so much of my bad behavior came from. LOTS of awful conversational tactics are “helpful” short-term when dealing with awful people. Problem comes when you move away from those people and have only good people in your life, and suddenly . . . YOU are the problem person because you learned your communications skills from verbal assassins.
It’s very sad.
Fortunately, it is SO FIXABLE.
Good luck, LW, again. You’ll do fine. You have the person you want to be inside you already, obviously, since that’s who you are with clients. You can TOTALLY do this. *thumbs up*
Co-signing this recommendation sfm.
Super helpful if you’ve got nasty ingrained conversation habits, especially helpful when a lot of your social circle shares them.
Great post, great advice!
LW: If you feel triggered to talk negatively, out loud or to yourself, you could try to refocus – e.g. make a point of noting one thing you like about everybody you speak to at a party, EVEN if you don’t like them.
Bonus points if you turn it into a compliment or a question (like CA advised)!
Take away the brain cookie for meanness.
Even though you are trying to stop being mean, I wonder whether on some level you are still enjoying a wicked little “ooh, good one!” zing when you deliver an artful dig (even if you sincerely regret it later, because you don’t want to be a hurtful person). You know? Because on TV, especially, the hurtful dig is almost always shown as a powerful thing. Not a nice thing, maybe, but a strong thing, a pizzazzy thing. But that’s because TV is all about drama, so it needs lots and lot of conflict and pain. (Any good story needs some evil, or some crisis to overcome). But that’s not a healthy model for life. Life is actually GOOD, not boring, when all the characters are kind to one another and nothing really shitty happens!
What you need to remind yourself is that ANYONE can cause other people pain. ANYONE. If you’ve got a tongue, you can make someone else feel rotten. Yay! (Irony). There is nothing special about hurting people.
The real art is in making other people feel happier. It takes some skill to listen to people, understand the pain they already carry, figure out what they need to make that better, and help them achieve it. For example, if Jennifer had continued refining her art of the mean barb, instead of becoming Captain Awkward, would we all be so crazy about her? I don’t think so. No matter how good she was at it (and given her way with words, I bet she could seriously lacerate).
So when you go into social settings of the kind that tend to bring out your inner vicious streak, actively search for ways to be kind to someone, instead. Make yourself too busy working on your Kindness Project to have any attention/energy for crafting mean zingers.
Use your powers for good.
alphakitty, I’ve been sitting here trying to articulate a thought about how TV/movies make the hurtful zinger seem like such an applause-worthy trick. Thanks for saying it much better than I could!
LW, if you need a mantra, the one that works for me is “listen more than you talk.” If nothing else, it gives me less opportunities to make zingers.
Yes! Sheldon Cooper is a great character, but I’d never spend time with him should he be real.
I know a real Sheldon Cooper, and I have to carefully manage my time with him. This, despite being basically the only person on this earth he might ever consider in his general range of “smart;” I get it a thousand times less than everyone else and it still makes me want to rage out on him. That stuff is not funny, and I don’t even think it’s a mark of a smart person. Going through life gleefully shitting on people is an exercise in self-sabotage, and you don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to do it. It is just plain awful to deal with in real life, and it’s painful to see the brief moment of hurt or anger on someone’s face after that kind of person delivers a cruel one-liner (I’m all for teasing one’s friends sometimes, but there’s an element of mutual amusement and gentleness that’s essential to that). Really, truly, the stuff that we are taught to find admirable in media is completely horrible to be around in real life. If anyone is ever tempted to be that– and I get the temptation, we all have moments of insecurity– I really urge them to remember this and take a pass on it. The world will thank you.
This was what I was thinking. Also, I had a few formative combative relationships, where it was all about scoring points; if you’re losing the argument, pick on the other person’s use of language or something they said six months ago. It’s the way politicians behave all the time, and folk think they’re so clever, they put them in charge of things.
Personally, that stuff is somewhat against my nature (as a teenager, I rebelled against my Dad who is very smart but tends to use his smartness in this way, as opposed to, you know, listening to folk and reasoning with them), but as others have described, both environments and individuals can teach you how to do that stuff, how to think that way, even when you don’t want to.
The big tip with witty but mean remarks is to save them for later. If you just dreamed it up, and it’s as clever and funny as it seems at the time, you will be able to use it another time – or make folk laugh by telling the story with “And I very almost said…”
Because there is the possibility that it’s not all that clever and funny and you feel like a jerk the moment the words leave your mouth. And there’s also the possibility that you’ll develop the zinger and make it even better for its eventual use.
Otherwise, the advice given about questioning the importance of issues is very very sound. Plus, obviously, always try to do as you would be done by.
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.
Oh, LW, I so feel for you; I find myself cycling in and out of that exact Bad Place often.
This bit in particular stood out to me, because I also am in such a profession! (I’m a public librarian, in a small town, so there is some friend circle/client circle overlap. Not as much as you might think because many of my friends don’t live in town, which is a Feature, Not A Bug.) I wonder, do you feel a little like all of your daily allotment of happy, positive, upbeat self is just used up at work? I’ve found that to be the case since I moved from a back-office job to the reference desk – I love patrons! I really do! I enjoy helping people find things and solve problems! And then I go home and just gripe and piss and moan and snark (OH MY GOD THE SNARK) to my partner and friends. It makes me sad and I don’ t like myself very much.
If you recognize this as some of what’s going on, here are a few things that have helped reform me to the point where I’m not like that all the time, and can usually strongarm myself out of that headspace when I get into it.
1.) As the Captain says, self-care. Self-care! It’s so much easier to be nicer to other people when you’ve been nice to yourself recently, or are looking forward to something fun and special, and you know what? It also generates small-talk material. The answer to “How’s things?” changes from “Oh GOD I work all the time I haven’t done anything fun in weeks and hey, by the way, I haven’t seen YOU in weeks, what’s wrong with you?” to whatever craft project I’m working on, or what just bloomed in my garden, or where I’m going next weekend, or I’m just getting into that TV show on Netflix, have you seen it yet?
2.) Specifically, I watch my out-of-work stress levels. Work is what I do to have groceries, my hobbies and friends and garden are what I do for love. When those things (and, especially, when those people) start to feel like a chore, it’s time to put myself in time out. An evening on the couch with a glass of wine and a good book does wonders for my ability to interact like a civilized human.
3.) I am working, very hard, on de-internalizing the idea that Dramaz Is Interesting. When trying to make smalltalk, social anxiety and abuse history want to dig up the shiniest, awesomest, most entertaining tidbit of whatever’s going on in my life at that moment to offer to the person who’s paying me a scrap of attention! Those things are sometimes whatever’s stressing me out, sometimes some in-group bonding thing (fucking homophobes, can you believe News Article X?) and sometimes just mean (haha Stupid Patron Tricks!) I try to have good things to talk about (see #1) but sometimes, Aunt Maggie’s advice was best: if you can’t say anything nice, STFU. The act of forcing myself to STFU is perversely liberating. I don’t NEED to impress everybody with my wit and worldliness all the time! I can just smile, and say, “Oh, nothing particularly interesting in my world, tell me about yourself!” It’s HARD but SO SATISFYING and really has helped the anxiety ease over time.
Fellow Librarian here. Ditto, so hard. In public service you really do have to do a lot of suppressing of your authentic self to keep things running smoothly, and then when I get off work, the impulse to tell people what I really feel is SO high. Because all day I have to have a lot of sympathy and understanding and deal with criticism (my taxes pay your salary, so how dare you tell me that I do in fact have to pay this fine kind of stuff).
Usually what I do is give myself fifteen minutes after work to do a primal scream, “AUURGH peeeeooople!!” and then I have to drop it. All of it. If it’s getting to the point where I cannot reigning it in after fifteen minutes, then I know it’s time to take a morning off.
Also, I volunteer at an animal shelter because it makes me feel good and I can lovingly call the dogs dummies when they are acting up, whereas I have to be infinitely patient with patrons. It’s a huge relief to be unguarded sometimes. Animals man, they’re great.
Oof, yes. Even just working in retail — my daily ration of Cheerful is used up pretty quickly over the course of my shift, and I’ve learned that I really do need to, when I get home, take a few minutes to say “Here is a list of all the stupid and/or obnoxious work bullshit that happened today: [WORDVOMIT]”… and also that it’s equally important, after those few minutes, to STOP wordvomiting about it and say “But now that’s all done and I’m home!” and do something I enjoy.
I am a recovering Mean Person/Snarker/Complainer! Some things I’ve figured out as I try to take it easier on myself and everybody else:
1) You don’t have to like everybody and everybody doesn’t have to like you. It’s really weird, but I have figured out that a lot of my nastiness stemmed from a secret desire to be great friends with everybody I meet, even though that is impossible. I travel in some very Geek Social Fallacy-rich circles and also, on a totally individual level, had internalized every one of the GSFs in some really messed up ways. Sometimes someone would start showing up at social events and if I didn’t click with them very well, I was REALLY disproportionately annoyed whenever they were around, and yes, I would talk so much shit about certain acquaintances/friends-of-friends when I figured out other mutual friends were not that into them either. A couple of years ago I realized this bitchiness was partly because I felt pressured to become great friends with everyone my friends seemed to want to become great friends with, and when I decided that actually, no! I do not! have to be friends with everybody I meet or have some social connection to!, a huge weight was lifted. Now I think about certain people in my social life the same way I think about coworkers or professional contacts. Sure, I deal with this person pretty much only because I have to, but that doesn’t mean they are the biggest jerk ever just because we share few interests or don’t have great chemistry. In fact, I am now more excited to see the people in this category of friend when I do see them, because it turns out I like them much better than many people I have worked with!
2) Sometimes I do just have to vent. I also use journals a lot, but sometimes it is nice to have an audience to hear me out. When I do that, I set a sort of time limit or even tell the other person, “OK, I get to bitch about this awful thing that happened at work today for three minutes and then we will talk about something else.”
3) We do stuff, even stuff that’s not good for us or the people around us, because it fills some sort of function or need in our lives. Gossip isn’t specifically addressed here, but it was one of the biggest ways my negativity manifest itself. When I made myself cut way back on it for a while, I figured out two things. First, it was an emotional shortcut in relationships, an easy way to escalate friendships with people I had some shared social context with — you get this evil, delicious, you-and-me-against-the-world feeling that is sooooo delicious until suddenly everybody’s crying hot tears at home and avoiding each other at parties. The second thing was, I stumbled on a Lorrie Moore quote about how writing fiction and gossiping feed some of the same desires and flexes some of the same muscles, I went, whoa. I mean, one of my best gossip-buddies and I had a game where we would each silently think of one of our mutual friends, and then we would talk about what would happen if those two people dated (right down to what the parents would think and how they would decorate the wedding if they got married). Is it a little fucked up to talk about your own friends and the intimate aspects of their lives in this detached and snarky way, like they are your own giant Barbies or something? UM, TOTALLY. Did it also flex our storytelling muscles and come at least partly from a place of sincere curiosity about who people are, how they relate and how things turn out for them? Yes! But those conversations were what I was doing instead of writing, because they sapped all the energy I had for it. But figuring out that there were other ways to meet the needs gossiping filled for me made it so much easier to cut back.
I love the phrase “don’t yuck someone else’s yum.” I used to (key word: USED to) hang out with two girls who were constant arbiters of taste, offering unsolicited and passive-aggressive analyses of my clothing choices, or saying “ugh gross!” when I would say I liked some food they didn’t, etc. We would have fun times being catty together about, say, celebrity fashion choices, so it all felt like part of the camaraderie, until I recognized that the stuff they said about me, a real friend present in the room, actually hurt me and made me feel self-conscious and stupid and all that. I’m not saying we were doing [Unnamed Celebrity] any favors, but at least that person wasn’t actually in the room, presumably in a circle of trust.
A side effect of hanging out with these girls and my natural wit was that I was turning into a bit of a bitchy queen type, which might be superficially amusing, but definitely repellant to anyone with a soul. I only kept the (other, real) friends I did have because they could see through this catty veneer and knew my heart was in the right place, even if my mouth wasn’t. It didn’t help that I was a film critic for 14 years and people not only would solicit my opinion but give it credence.
Once I could ditch the bitch, I had some bad habits of my own to overcome. And I find myself invalidating someone’s tastes (and sorry, Captain, I still struggle with Stephanie Myers fans – but it’s only been two years since I cut ties with these women) now and again and generally I can catch it in the moment and be like, “Oh my god how rude of me! I’m sorry! Like what you like! I won’t take it away from you!” and it’s so much better than before.
A trick I learned in the early days to help me reframe my kneejerk negative responses was to think “how can I make this sound better than I mean it/somehow make them feel better about liking something I personally think is awful?” so I was like, letting myself think/say it, but I was forcing myself to reword it: “Ah I never got into [food item]myself, but I hear it’s super good for your cholesterol.”
And as all the recovery programs say, the first step is admitting you have a problem, so dear Trying LW, you’re gonna get there! : ) Good luck!
Hi, Captain. I wanted to touch on a point you made that isn’t the main topic of the post, but that I think is really valuable to think about: the problem of people not respecting other people’s tastes and preferences. I’m currently writing a manuscript on moral psychology and the moralization process – the process where we collectively start treating something as immoral or ethically problematic when we generally used to think it was okay or not think about it at all, like how we treat animals that are being raised to provide food for humans, or whether it’s even okay to eat animal foods. (There’s an inverse process, too, where things that used to widely be considered immoral, like homosexuality or having a baby without being married, start being treated as morally neutral or even just fine.)
The thing is, it’s very common that because people can get a sense of superiority out of having refined or sophisticated tastes in music, film, whatever, they sometimes treat people who have more common or corny or “weird” or “juvenile” tastes in very much the same way they would treat people who have committed genuine moral infractions, with shaming (“You like THAT??? You’ve got to be kidding!”), contempt, and even guilt when they privately indulge in some aesthetic indulgence that’s not up to their public standards. Kids do it: Too old for Elmo or Dora the Explorer? Most kids won’t say, “That doesn’t appeal to me any more,” but rather, some variant on, “That’s stupid.” Here’s Joel Stein in the New York Times telling us that adults shouldn’t read YA novels: “The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter.”
Now, if you ask, usually people will say that of course liking such-and-such isn’t actually immoral, of course people are entitled to their own preferences, there’s nothing really wrong with liking disco music or Justin Bieber or Farmville or chick flicks (unless they’re, say, the Taliban or otherwise think there’s genuinely offensive content in the artistic work in question). Yet it seems that we use the exact same judgmental mechanisms for inflicting our aesthetic snobbery on others that we use for real issues of morality, like reacting to hurtful behaviors, injustice, and unfairness.
I think my point is that it’s worthwhile to notice when this is happening. When it’s happening to us, we can refuse to internalize the messages or possibly even stand up for ourselves (not that we have to, but we can). And since we’re probably all capable of reacting to other people’s tastes like this – I simply can’t watch an Austin Powers movie, and some songs strike me as eye-rollingly insipid – your advice seems really spot on. We don’t have to like something ourselves to be able to connect positively with people who do, and if we show a (non-sarcastic) interest in finding out what they find appealing about it, maybe our own world will become a little bit richer…
You are speaking my language here and I really, really want to read that manuscript and help in any way I can. I think this is a toxic thing that we are doing to each other for fun.
For fun, or even just out of habit. Like, people around me hate on other people’s tastes, so I do it too, so then I get used to doing it, so then I kind of forget about other reactions I can have. It isn’t okay, regardless of the cause.
Yeah, for fun, or out of habit, or for a lot of people I think their tastes are so much a part of their identity that they get into a personal power thing over them. As if, “I’m better than you because I’ve been following these incredible bands since their earliest days and you haven’t even heard of them.” Or, “I only like the most obscure and artistic films…” as if life could somehow be better if one likes fewer things rather than more.
“as if life could somehow be better if one likes fewer things rather than more.”
Wow. I’d never thought of it in those terms, but that really shows just how ridiculous that attitude is.
Aw, you’ve made my day! Thank you so much for the encouragement! The paper I’m writing now is intended for a psych journal, and then once that’s out of the way I’m planning to resume work on a book about the practical ethics of relationships; the topic I wrote about above is in both of these projects. I’d love to share them with you when they’re ready for input.
Really looking forward to reading more about this. I’ve been such a jerk in my younger days and probably even now though I am very careful now to avoid disrespecting things other people like. I carry around major ugh-shame feelings when I think of how I acted to my poor younger sister when I was in my too-cool-for-anyone-else college phase and she was in her happy-go-lucky-boy-band-liking phase. It was a good lesson though and I try to be really careful now.
lakeline – I also cringe when I remember the feelings of superiority I had when my little sister, who is younger than me by 18 months, wanted to play Barbies with me and I refused because I was too grown-up for to play with dolls. Now we’re both grown women I wish I’d spent more time being a kid and playing with my sister, rather than being desperate to grow up so fast.
That is so interesting, LauraA – I hope you’ll share your article when it’s published!
The way we talk about food and weight these days is a good example of this: the moral way we talk about “being good” or “being bad” when it comes to what we’re eating; the way that “fat”, which is neutral descriptive word, has become a term used to shame people; the celebtrating of the Reformed Sinner who has lost X dress sizes; and we’re even starting to develop an iconography of weightloss with the “before and after” pictures and the picture of the now-thin person pulling out the waistband of their “before” clothes. It’s all incredibly pseudo-religious and morally charged for something that up until recently was morally neutral.
Yes. It is so, so weird to be a HAES-believing lax Catholic in the middle of mostly atheist dieters, listening to them talk about how they’ll NEVER understand religion and how can people DO that to themselves and aren’t they GLAD to be free of all that nonsense. If I didn’t mostly act on the desire to exit as though pursued by a bear, I think I’d lose it at them.
Thank you for the much-needed belly laugh! 🙂
Thank you! You make a good point — I think that weight management is one of the main areas where moralization has been studied, along with smoking. I like your image of the loose-waistband photo as iconography.
While you work on that, you might consider Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of Social Capital. It implies that taste marks a kind of power separate from the power you get from money or political power. Considered that way, it helps explain why we might shit all over someone else’s taste, because it protects the social capital we get from whatever “more sophisticated” taste we have.
I agree! Our library’s copy of “Distinction” is missing from the shelf; I’m going to have to get more assertive about finding another.
Thanks so much for the pop culture critiquing commentary, Captain. My family, particularly my dad, are awful about that. He takes it personally if I like something he didn’t like, or vice versa, and berates me endlessly about how I could have such bad taste. I remember a long lecture on how stupid I was for liking “The Love Boat”. I was 10.
And just a few years ago, when I dared say “Borat” was not my bag, I was piled on by the whole family.
I know that it makes me very guarded about discussing my tastes in anything, and in sharing anything I like, because I always worry that someone will tell me I am wrong or stupid for liking it. So I guard stuff I like as a secret, and don’t share it. And I try very hard not to talk smack on other people’s tastes (though I am ashamed of making fun of my husband’s musical taste one time when we dated — as Kellis Amberlee put it, it’s easy to be infected by other people’s meanness).
Seconded. We tend to joke around in my family over our tastes every now and then, but sometimes I worry if we’re crossing the line. An example is my dad calling almost EVERYTHING I watch “trashy,” and while I laugh it off most of the time, it does get irritating having to defend Elementary or Go On. My mom’s the only one who doesn’t joke, which makes HER criticisms even worse: “It’s time to grow up,” she told me, when she saw MLP: FiM on my YouTube.
Back when I was in college (or just out), I got dragged to see Serenity. I wasn’t a fan of Firefly to begin with, but I got whacked for cringing at the spoken Chinese anyway, even though I’ve grown up speaking Mandarin, and even though I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in this particular work. Sigh. It’s fine if they liked it, but please, allow me to not like it too!
Ahhh yes, being infantilized for liking something allegedly age-inappropriate. My mom would say “well, you have the child-sense still” because I enjoy re-reading my favorite childhood books or watch animated movies. But then, I also get chastised for watching darker stuff. During a “Criminal Minds” episode: “Why do you like such scary things?” Or “In Therapy”: “Wow, that guy (Gabriel Byrne) is really depressive!’
I don’t enjoy American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, etc. Yet I NEVER snarked at her for being engrossed in them.
I actually found a copy of a book I loved in fourth grade, almost twenty or so years later, and bought it right away, since it’s been out of print for years. Another book, The Perilous Gard, is for kids, but it’s been touted as one of the best retellings of Tam Lin (and I enjoy it much, much better than the Dean retelling, which is for adults.)
The show Go On? My mom was criticizing it for showing people in a support group as “weird” because now “everyone will think that people who go to support groups are weird.” That one actually hurt, since I actually identified with a lot of the characters and thought the show did a balance between comedy and showing people moving through loss.
I got bashed for not taking <iTwilight seriously.
Gaah. Just because I couldn’t get through the first book, even on boatloads of percocet (recovering from surgery) doesn’t mean I’m going to be a jerk to anyone in a “Team Edward” tee.
Yeah, when my FB page exploded with “Twilight is so exciting!” comments, I just kept quiet.
LW, I totally feel for you. 24/7 negative self-talk SUCKS; I know because I have it. And the shame/guilt spirals, holy crikey they suck. There are a lot of good suggestions in this thread already; here are some that are helping me:
1. I TOTALLY SECOND carbonatedwit about mindfulness and having compassion for yourself. It so does not come naturally for me.
2. Listening to Pema Chodron (specifically Unconditional Confidence, but I think all of her stuff is good) helped me a lot. She’s an American Buddhist nun, and she talks a lot about being kind to yourself. Her voice is great (calm but not soporific or treacly), which is why I say listening, but you can also read her books. Totally, totally helpful to me, but YMMV; if Buddhism turns you off you might want to give it a pass.
3. Thinking through the shame/guilt spiral. It goes like this: I say something mean. I think, “Oh shit, that was bad,” but it’s too late. I’ve already done it, and I can’t go back and fix it. I feel so awful and guilty because I can’t fix it. It’s like I think that if I feel guilty enough, it will compensate for this thing I did, but in reality the guilt just STOPS me from doing the main thing that can actually improve the situation: apologizing in a mature way. The guilt does the EXACT OPPOSITE of what it is trying to do. This helps me sometimes say, “Hey, guilt, I get where you’re coming from but you’re really not helping.” (Emphasis on sometimes.)
4. And that leads me to apologizing: trying to apologize in a way that doesn’t overly beat myself up OR make it about me has been super helpful. Saying, “I’m sorry, what I just did wasn’t acceptable” is not only respectful of the other person, it tells MY brain that I don’t think it was acceptable and I don’t want to act that way.
Best of luck, LW!
LW, I think I’ve got one more possibility that hasn’t been raised yet.
Maybe you aren’t nearly as mean as you think. You mentioned a constant stream of negative self-talk; that’s precisely the sort of thing that could inculcate a false or exaggerated sense of yourself as a mean person.
I like to make jokes, but I try to be careful not to hurt others with them—even when I’m engaging in friendly ribbing. I don’t always get it right, but I think I do a pretty solid job. However, when I’m in a depressive frame of mind, miserable about myself and hating everything, I get the distinct impression that I can’t form jokes, that the ones I do deploy are hateful, unfunny insults, and that I’m hurting everyone and earning all their contempt.
The funny thing is, this turns out not to be very true. When I get around to apologizing for what I think I said in those states, it’s usually the case that what I thought was a vicious comment was a half-completed, apologetic mumble.
The Captain answers letters as given; I think that’s the right strategy and I suspect that’s why this point didn’t come up sooner. But in this case, your letter reminds me enough of my own situation that I want to encourage you to check some of your perspectives and axioms. It sounds to me like your perception of yourself as mean is highly internally based, that is, it’s based on your own perception of how others perceive you rather than reports from them. While it’s laudable to do that sort of review, it can also wind up wildly inaccurate, especially in the presence of a jerkbrain. And it sounds to me a little bit like you’ve been deliberately avoiding the sort of people whom you expect to give you accurate information about the matter. So it’s entirely possible that some thoughtful conversations about how mean you are (or aren’t!) are in order.
Yes. This was my first thought, too, as I’ve had the same experience.
Oh wow…first, I have to say thank you for writing in. This is a good space to ask for help, and I am glad you are trying to change. I also feel a big kick in the pit of my stomach because 5 years ago I had a “friend” who said really negative things at/about me, and it made me feel awful. Here are the most important things I feel like I want to add or re-enforce:
1) The blog = good spot to ask this question. But don’t let yourself get wrapped up in self-pity. I haven’t had this problem with friends, but I have had it with my sister, and like captain awkward, it happened when my life was awful, and it just made me feel more awful. BUT- going “oh poor me, I’m so mean and I can’t help it” was not the way to fix it
2) Your friends who you put down= NOT the people to talk to about this. You can apologize, but they deserve a real apology and not a self-pity talk on how you are a terrible person, which will only lead to them feeling obliged to cheer-lead you. You aren’t a horrible person, but depending on your relationship, subtle digs and negative talk can
3) Therapy would be a really good idea. The friend who did this? Got diagnosed with bipolar and was suicidal the year she was really awful. The year I was awful to my sister? I was dealing with a serious illness and SERIOUSLY depressed but hadn’t yet got help.
As far as immediate things- it might be very hard to STOP from saying negative things, but it sounds like you know them as soon as you say them. So stop and apologize immediately. Not a long-winded apology, but just a “I’m sorry, that sounded really passive-aggressive and I didn’t mean it that way” or a “I’m sorry, that came out wrong” etc. There is a method of teaching yourself not to use “like” where as soon as you use it incorrectly you stop and say “kumquat” 5 times. You make yourself more conscious of saying it that way, so you can catch it before you say it. It should work the same way for this.
One thing I wanted to mention that was really helpful to me: as I understand it, the evidence is that the idea that you need to “let it out” when you feel terrible isn’t entirely true.
It’s certainly better to talk through problems than to grudge about them, and if you have a legitimate grievance with someone or something, you absolutely should work through that. This isn’t going to be a paen to sucking it up, don’t worry. 😉
But the emotion-vomit of a vent session (or of sniping at your friends) doesn’t actually purge the anger, it feeds it, because every time you repeat something (“This is terrible, that is unbearable, this person is evil, this job is so bad because…”) your brain believes it a little more. It feels like you’re letting go but instead what you’re doing is winding up.
I mention this because, for me, one of the most helpful things when trying to break the negativity cycle was removing that justification. If I have an issue, then of course I should deal with it and not sit on it and fume.. but I should deal with it calmly. Barfing up negativity (whether it’s at someone by being snarky and mean, or just in a big ol’ whine session) feels like it’s doing something, even if it’s just releasing that negativity… but it’s not releasing it. It’s building it.
If I do it (and I still do, because this is very much a Work In Progress), I forgive myself, but I don’t get to justify it. I don’t get to say, “Well, but I really needed to let it out,” because that’s not true.
Trying to purge negativity by venting is, IMHO, like trying to get the man-eating dragon out of your dungeon by feeding it sheep. The dragon is just getting bigger and fatter and happier, and meanwhile you’re going, “I keep bringing you sheep! Why won’t you leave?” It won’t leave because this is where it’s getting the sheep!
This really resonates, and I think it goes back to what people are saying about needing to vent after being smiley-happy-considerate most of the time (for work, with friends, etc.) It can just feel so Honest and Pure to go off about something, to throw oneself into a rant instead of second-guessing how one comes off. It feels liberating. And it’s easy (in my case) to confuse that emotional release for certainty that what I’m saying is True and Important–I feel so much more certain I’m right when I’m spewing negativity!
Yeah, exactly–and it’s so, so tempting because venting usually feels really good right in the moment. I mean, REALLY good! Justified! Enjoyable, even! And the other person was a jerk, or the day really was awful, so you have a good reason, right?
Which in turn makes it harder to see that in the long run, when it becomes a habit, the cumulative effect is often not so good.
(Which isn’t to say that I don’t still do it, sometimes….)
Not saying it’s the same thing, but this is why it’s so easy to correct our animals and much more difficult to use positive reinforcement. Corrections, like venting, feels good right then but might not be the best for the relationship.
Indeed. When I started helping a friend out with her horse, she had to remind me over and over again to not just tell the horse when he was doing something wrong, but to also make sure to praise him when he did something right – usually within seconds of him stopping whatever it was he wasn’t supposed to be doing. Now that’s second nature for me with horses, but I still have to really work on remembering it with humans.
So very true. I adopted a high-strung little dog a few years ago and she has taught me soooo much about being patient and empathic and using positive reinforcement. In some ways it’s easier with humans, though, because you can compliment someone after the fact and if it’s something thoughtful they’ll remember for a long, long time.
I’m working, so I apologize that I didn’t have the chance to read all of the comments (though I did read many of them). But one thing I haven’t seen really addressed from what I’ve seen is this: Do you think you might have compassion fatigue?
You mention that you’re “at your best” at your day job, and that you’re very caring there etc. I wonder if maybe you’re feeling maxed out or “spent” at that job and looking for an outlet? I know when I would work in insurance, I was absolutely awful to people outside of work. I had spent every drop of “being nice to people” energy on strangers who, frankly, often didn’t deserve it (like abusive callers, awful coworkers or bosses on power trips). Of course, I hated my job, and it sounds like you really love yours, but I do wonder if it’s not using up more of your be-nice energy than you realize.
Yes!I immediately thought of this when I read the letter: having to be NICE , NICE, NICE at work all the time for too long can trigger the negatives. It made me think of my own situation- being in teaching for over 15 years and with all the cut backs and the increase of workload- has left me often frustrated, stressed and tired of being super understanding and nice, while work conditions and managers are not superunderstanding and nice of me . Am considering a new sector and new job!
Oh I used to do this as well when I worked Customer Service. I was terrible. I’d yell at people at the subway if they bumped me or something and didn’t apologize. I cringe just thinking about it but it absolutely maxed out all my extroverting energy, my executive function and all the nice I had in me.
Sometimes I wonder if society seems so cold and callous because so many people have to work in jobs where we pay them to be nice. It’s no longer a virtue. It’s a commodity and a service we pay for and so we don’t consider it moral or virtuous to give it away for free.
I wouldn’t be surprised … particularly since being UltraNice and Customer-Servicable (which in Corporate America means “let people abuse you verbally whenever they want and grovel”) is not a skill that many many people have naturally or are taught. 😦
I like the “compassion fatigue” framework. I’d like to chime in with another book, called Trauma Stewardship (http://traumastewardship.com/the-book/inside-the-book/). This book helped me, when I was on my way out of a Helping-People job that didn’t give much back to me, find ways to let the work and the people in it (who I mostly felt were only able to take-take-take), feed me. Gratitude is a big part of what the book talks about, like other commenters have been saying. Another big part for me is understanding what I am bringing to the choices I make, whether that’s the job I’m working or the friends I spend time with or the hobbies I choose – are there questions from my past I’m still trying to figure out by the situations I put myself in? people I’m still trying to understand by getting into relationships with similar types? trauma I carry around that I’m trying to escape, or atone for, or rectify? If going to therapy isn’t your cup of tea right now, this book (along with probably some of the others mentioned in the comments) can help work you through some helpful questions and changes. Good luck, LW.
I wanna share something to the LW about how our brains work, to encourage her if it’s difficult to change.
So, concepts in our brain are connected by neural pathways. Every time we access these pathways, they become more distinct and deeply ingrained. For example, maybe the concept of “my face” is connected to “my eyes are pretty” and “my nose is too big”. The brain will always jump to the strongest connection. Because your negative self-talk is so strongly ingrained, when you see your face in the mirror, your thoughts immediately goes to “my nose is too big” and not “my eyes are pretty,” right?
The good news is, our brains are plastic. If you don’t use the “big nose” pathway, that connection will weaken. If you practice using the “pretty eyes” pathway, that connection will strengthen, and eventually the first thing you notice when you see your reflection is how beautiful your eyes are.
This applies to others, too. If your friend mentions how much they love Nickelback, your most established pathway might be “that band really sucks.” So you have to take a deep breath before you respond, and search for a positive or neutral connection. Maybe, “My other friend Chelsea saw them in concert last month.” Then you make a conscious effort to say that out loud, NOT the negative response. Eventually if someone mentions a shitty band, your automatic response will be a positive one instead of a negative one, because that’s what pathway will be strongest.
It requires monitoring your mouth at every minute of the day. It requires teaching yourself to pause before you respond to someone. It does take practice. Every time you think the negative thought, you HAVE to immediately consciously make an effort to think of a specific positive thought. Maybe even say it out loud. It is mentally tiring and makes you feel kind of silly. But it DOES WORK over time, and gets easier every day.
It really helped me to approach it as mentally exercising my brain, like you would exercise your biceps or your abs. More like a scientific process than a character defect I was correcting. Maybe it would work for you too!
One of the first steps can be to smile. Smiling affects one’s mood. I actually stopped being grumpy at a patronizing, officious, condescending, useless co-worker by making myself smile at her every time I saw her. And bonus, it seemed to annoy her. After that, I didn’t need to make myself smile, it just happened.
Hmmm. I guess my main question on this topic is how to handle the stream of negativity pouring out of one’s mouth when one is at the bottom of a depressive spell. The problem was never that I wasn’t AWARE that I was being negative, just that the whole concept of optimism and positive thinking seemed so fake and cruel as to set me off into hysterical misery. (Rather better now — drugs and therapy — but presumably it could be an issue again.)
I’m afraid what I have to say isn’t comforting: Being depressed is not an excuse to be mean to people, and if your friends get hurt/angry and your boss and coworkers start backing away from you, you are still responsible for that. So being able to listen to feedback you’re being given and act on it (call a therapist, go back to therapy methods and practices that work, check your meds) is important. I don’t have a magic way to prevent that from happening to you (or me). You gotta self-monitor and be aware of other people’s feelings even if you can’t manage your own.
I concur with CA. I had to break up with a friend once when I realized that for her, the depression she was experiencing made it both OK for her to be cruel and to not expect there to be consequences of cruelty. Figuring out that depression didn’t give her a free pass was painful.
IF I consider both alcoholism and depression diseases which reduce how much control the person has over their actions AND we still label some of the the alcoholic’s actions while drunk unacceptable THEN my friends harmful actions while depressed can be labeled unacceptable.
A friend of mine was going through a tough time and we (her two closest friends) were dragged into it and she treated us like absolute garbage, despite everything we had done for her (and the fact that my friend and I each had effed up lives aside from her drama). I tried to get her help and she spent some time in the mental hospital after her husband committed her. She didn’t change, so I ended up having to block her, the other friend stopped talking to her, her husband changed the locks to their house and wouldn’t let her alone with the children.
While this story as a whole is ridiculously extreme (particularly if you knew the details), actions have consequences. Going through a tough time is not an excuse to be cruel to people and no one is obligated to be in your life.
As someone who’s both depressive and a semi-recovered alcoholic (a picture of mental health am I), I think it’s important to distinguish between Pollyanna-ish optimism and basic human civility. I can’t pretend to be joyful and optimistic all the time, and for many of the same reasons you cite–it feels fake, it feels like I’m lying to my friends and to myself, and it’s frankly fucking exhausting. I can, however, usually refrain from being an asshole, which I think is the more important issue.
When you’re going through a tough time, you don’t, IMO, have an obligation to be shitting rainbows all over the place. You do have an obligation, if you want to have any friends left, not to be actively unpleasant to the people around you.
Fake and cruel to whom? I’m guessing it’s to you. Often when you’re super-depressed the positivity hurts you (like, asking people in depressive episodes to read trite “think positive!” slogans makes their moods even worse). It’s as if being depressed is at its root just this giant well of pain, and saying negative things helps you understand and control the pain, so at least it has a form and shape and words. So not saying negative things is scary and painful. For you. Because then you don’t know why you hurt so fucking much.
But another thing about depression is: it tends to make people very self-centred. All you care about is Not Being In So Much Fucking Pain. Because when you step outside yourself, saying optimistic things does not hurt other people nearly as much.
The actual fix–like the Captain said–is to find ways of dealing with the pain that actually help, instead of feed back into it the way negativity does.
I think I was responding more to the hypercritical/complaining/general negative outlook aspect of being depressed than the being mean aspect.* I find that when depressed I can manage middle-ground optimism or at least neutrality — i.e. I think that I am personally going to fail at everything ever and have already failed at everything ever, and I think the world is probably going to end in fire and misery, but I can converse about people’s weekend plans or the paper they are submitting for a conference next month or an upcoming exhibition. I dunno — so far my main coping mechanism has just been to punt, because, yeah, faking optimism about things I don’t feel any hope for is crushing, but I can talk about. . . something else. I dunno. Does, “I feel like crap; how goes your presentation for that grant application?” fulfill one’s social obligations?
*Though I ended a friendship last week after a brief (uncharacteristic, I think? I hope?) spate of meanness, because it suddenly clicked in my head how much I was not enjoying that particular link anymore. I don’t know if that’s something that happens to other people or not, where a sudden swing in your own behavior alerts you to the fact that something that you were able to tolerate is not working anymore. I fucked up my apology, but at least I have extricated myself from the situation, and it’s hard to behave badly toward someone you are not around and not communicating with.
Since no one else replied, I would like to: Yes, “I feel like crap; how goes your presentation for that grant application?” definitely fulfills your social obligation. (Really, anything that acknowledges the question of ‘How are you?’ without implying that the other person is responsible for your mood fulfills it. ‘Oh, eh. How are you?’ can be a good way to let well-meaning friends know that now would probably be a good time to be cautiously cheerful.)
I was always joking around and sarcastic about everything until one day a new friend asked me, “Don’t you ever stop?” That simple question stopped me in my tracks, and I had to seriously consider whether or not my efforts to be funny and hip were not in fact cutting me off at the knees socially. I still fall into the sarcastic bitch mode when confronted by people who oppose my beliefs (like my family), but at least now I’m aware of it and do try to refrain from opening my mouth and spewing forth invective.
I struggle with this issue. I have made a concerted effort to not say anything negative or to not criticize things, but it happens. It’s an ingrained habit that’s struggling to die. Some days I think, “Well, this is just how I am and I can’t change,” and other days I’m thinking, “I need to make a concerted effort to be more positive.” I realize that being negative turns people off and that’s not what I want to do. The tips you gave to the letter writer are a great help, and I’m going to work on using them myself.
Some thoughts that come from my intern at a Center for Independent Living days:
Odd as what I’m about to say may sound, it’s actually cut down on my overall “mean and snarky and sarcastic” talk, because it’s given me a single catchphrase that covers the whole mess, and the phrase is only used among my CIL friends and a few other people that I’ve told the backstory to.
It was the day after the worst day I’d had at the internship. The short version is that I had to deal with a “professional” in that person’s “professional capacity” who decided to trot out a bunch of victim-blaming directed at a person I was working with who had recently been sexually assaulted under circumstances very similar to something that had happened to me. I literally had no words at the time, and afterwards I went out to my car and cried and then called my spouse and screamed variations on “I HATE PEOPLE WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?” incoherently for several minutes. The very next day, there was a group supervision session consisting of me, the other intern, a newbie social worker who was learning how to do field supervision, and our actual field supervisor. Coincidentally, the newbie social worker came in talking about, “Does it make me a bad social worker if I just HATE people sometimes?” And our supervisor said that he was so glad to have that out there and have people willing to say that rather than just kicking it down and then unloading on the clients or hurting ourselves with it. And it was the best supervision session in the history of EVER, and I miss working there so much.
So after that, “I HATE PEOPLE!” became a simple shorthand for “I hate kyriarchial privileged garbage that causes hurt.” And it is something that can be said once or twice to Understanding People and moved on from rather than trying to come up with the perfect mean thing to say.
I’m a social work student who also has a job that is one piece of oversight of foster care and juvenile justice programs (and domestic violence shelters just got added to my plate, as well). I’m married to a grad student in criminal justice. We end up reading a lot of Very Unpleasant Things for professional reasons, and being able to point at something, shake our head, and say, “I hate people right now and I want love!” is…about the only way we can do what it is we do without just cracking like I started to do that day at my internship.
The other thing that happened as a result of that internship is that I gave up grammar snarking, which was my particular piece of over-the-top meanness. Working with one person who is legally blind and occasionally types the “wrong” word when two words sound the same, and a few people who have speech and mobility difficulties that mean that they type with great difficulty and it’s actually not easy to go back and fix a typo, really changed my outlook. I don’t read things to make fun of how they are written now, even though that used to be a favorite pastime of mine.
I gave up grammar snarking, which was my particular piece of over-the-top meanness.
Sing it! That’s one of mine, and I am still struggling with it. Can I ask: is it okay to laugh (not in front of the person if they’re likely to be hurt) if the grammar/spelling thing they did make a really entertaining image, something original and interesting? I feel like that should be okay, while still ditching the sort of prescriptivism where I’m acting like it causes me physical pain that someone doesn’t use the English language the same way I learned to by reading Strunk and White and Fowler for fun. Provided that I’m laughing at this neat thing they did, and not laughing at them for being stupid and ignorant and wrong?
I think with the caveat you indicated (not in front of the person if they’re likely to be hurt), you’re probably OK. 🙂
One thing that has helped me to stop language-snarking is realising that language is always evolving and there’s really no fixed and unmoving “right” use of words or grammar (even though I still shout “fewer!” at the TV/radio every time someone uses “less” with a quantity). For example, it’s amazing to think how many words Shakespeare just made up and how much poorer the language would be without them:
If enough people use words or grammar in a particular way, it becomes accepted usage and then makes it into the publication of record for the language. Even <a href="http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/02/odo-february-2013-update/"totes" and “appletini”.
Obvs that makes me moany and like I totes want to get blootered on appletinis, but whatevs. 🙂
Oops, banjaxed my HTML. That last para should read:
If enough people use words or grammar in a particular way, it becomes accepted usage and then makes it into the publication of record for the language. Even “totes” and “appletini”.
Obvs that makes me moany and like I totes want to get blootered on appletinis, but whatevs. 🙂
I think it’s okay to laugh privately at amusing images, including unintended ones. I think that applies whether the oddity comes from a grammar or spelling error (say, “a pear of shoes” and you’re visualizing someone with their feet stuck into a giant piece of fruit), a weirdly mixed metaphor, or the choice of a name that has odd echoes just for you (maybe someone named an action hero character the same thing as your pet kitten). Or overtones that you hope the namer didn’t think of: It’s pretty common for corporations that have their offices in new developments or suburbs to get that bit of road named, say, Stew Leonard Drive or XYZ Way rather than Peachtree Road. Microsoft’s world headquarters is at One Microsoft Way, which feels like part boast and part warning.
With One Microsoft Way, since it’s a big corporation and they may have done it on purpose, I feel fine pointing it out publicly.
Go ahead and laugh; sometimes things are funny.
When I was working as a proofreader, laughing at the more entertaining mistakes was a strong source of workday amusement in the proofreading department. And it certainly was less toxic than just complaining about how some of these people can’t write. (I try not to be an insufferable grammar snarker most of the time, but I will if (a) you are paying me for it and (b) I know for a fact that every single person whose crappy writing I am fixing has a Ph.D., even if they spelled it “PHD” or “P.H.D.” or whatever.)
Outside of getting paid for it I try to limit my grammar snarking to correcting people who are attempting to grammar snark others and are doing it wrong, but this doesn’t actually cut down on it as much as I hoped it would, since grammar snarking to prove one’s intelligence seems to be a much more common pastime than actually learning about grammar. (I blame Strunk & White, almost as much as I blame the elitist Latin fetishists mentioned downthread. “Elements of Style” has so many fake rules and blatant errors in it, and apparently *every* high school in the US uses it as their main grammar text.)
OH MY GOD I HATE STRUNK AND WHITE. Seriously, they are the reason I have so much trouble teaching the passive voice to my Latin students, among other grammatical things. I always start my passive voice classes dispelling all of the notions that people get from Strunk and White and other sources that the passive voice is inherently bad and ungrammatical, when really it is a perfectly grammatical, useful feature of language (last summer I realized, in the middle of class while I was giving my passive-voice rant, that my passive-voice rant and my abstinence only sex ed sucks rant are almost identical, just substitute things like “The passive is a perfectly natural and healthy part of language!” for things like “Sexuality is a perfectly natural and healthy part of life and relationships!”
And beyond schoolkids everywhere getting it hammered in their heads that the passive is ungrammatical, they also don’t actually know what the passive voice is– many of them come in thinking that anything containing a “to be” verb is automatically a passive. I absolutely blame Strunk and White (who also, btw, actually use the passive voice multiple times in their “passive is the worst” section).
They use passive multiple times in their “don’t use passive!” section EXCEPT in the “Here are examples of the passive voice” part, where only one of their four examples is actually in the passive.
In the spirit of this thread I’m trying to think of something nice to say about either Strunk or White now, and all I’ve got is that E.B. White’s total lack of understanding of grammar didn’t stop him from being a pretty good writer!
One nice thing about Strunk and White: “When in doubt, recast the sentence.” Don’t spend ages sweating over what the appropriate pronoun is, or whether a noun is plural or collective (with different verb forms wanted), rewrite to avoid the problem.
In a not at all joking way, I kind of reccomend tumblr. I was already on board, in theory, with descriptivist ideas about language growth and change, but etymology and word usage has been an obsessive passion of mine since I was a kid. We’re talking one of my original internet hang-outs was a board devoted to making fun of bad baby names (and do I ever feel shit about that now, because how fucking racist and classist were we?!) and the etymology of names. I was an unrepetant grammar snob. Tumblr fixed it.
I could go on at length about the way the post structure and tag structure encourage some unusual grammatical choices, and how those choices lead to a cultural shift in language use on the site, but suffice to say I breezily read through typos that used to make me wince without even noticing they happened (downside: no longer so good at self-editing).
Yup yup, my own mantra of helpless anger is, “WHY IS THE WORLD BROKEN.” I just need to express the pain I’m in.
I stopped complaining when I stopped being a cool, dark pessimist. I met the guy who wrote about Learned Optimism and it changed my life. Also, Constructive Living.
LW, your description of yourself sounds a lot like a good friend of mine. He is mostly a great human being, but he feels the need to try to improve people, and frequently he does this by criticising them for their faults.
We have a mutual friend, who we both adore, but who has a tendency to get very loud and very high-pitched when she’s emotional. She’s well aware she does it. But he is mean to her about it when she does. It can be hard not to, because the clever put-down (as several people have discussed above) is valued in our culture. But it has yet to make her any less loud or high-pitched.
He doesn’t do it as often to me, but he has done once or twice – for instance, in criticising me for being a bit of a hypochondriac. I know I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. His criticism does not help. It just makes me feel shitty about myself alongside being afraid I might have *insert ailment here.*
If your thought processes are similar – if I point out their faults in a bitchy voice, they’ll change and be less annoying! – maybe a useful script would be to ask yourself “what is the bit of meanness I’m planning to say intended to achieve?”
In my friend’s case, the answer is “make this person a better person” which aside from being a bit dodgy in its own right, is obviously not best achieved through meanness. Your reasons might not be the same, but maybe running them through that same bit of logic would help?
Nothing sets my teeth on edge more than being around people lecturing me about how to “improve myself”. I’m your friend, not your project.
I’ve noticed that a neutral tone of voice tends to help, if you just HAVE to criticize. I’m terrible with criticism within the family, just because it’s done so often and accompanied with awful implications. There was an old co-worker, though, who did it 1) sparingly, and 2) without any meanness or any ‘I’M JUST TRYING TO HELP, NOBODY ELSE WILL POINT IT OUT FOR YOU.” It was just very neutral and observational, and for some reason instead of getting my hackles up, it made me think, “…huh, I guess I should watch that. Thanks for letting me know.”
I still think that you really shouldn’t criticize friends or “improve” them unless the behavior’s really out of line, though.
Seconding the neutral voice! Sometimes, when I’m frustrated, instead of going “ARGH this is so frustrating!”, I go with “Well, this is frustrating”. It feels good, because I’m saying what I feel and what is true, but in a way that takes the wind out of my sails.
And it’s so much more effective in getting whatever annoying behavior to stop, since no hackles are raised. It’s much easier to accept and process, and therefore the chances of correction are higher.
I’m so sorry I can’t read through all these awesome responses, because bed-time, so apologies if I am repeating anything, but I wanted to chip in:
1. Are some of your negative talk habits (re: yourself or re:others) a *community* habit amongst some groups of folks you hang with? When I lived in South Korea, it was community habit for the foreign English teachers to go to bars and hang out and complain about Korea and about each other and about life in general, and it definitely crept into my head until, like Captain Awkward, I felt like 85% of my personality was based on complaining and hating stuff (although for me it was mostly complaining about the foreign English teachers and how much they complained). If you notice that you hang around people who are also constantly negative, taking a break from close ties with them might be tremendously helpful in reducing the overall amount of negativity in your life. When I complained about one of those English teachers to the wrong one of the other English teachers, she spread rumors about me and turned me into a social pariah, which turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me in terms of actually enjoying my time in Korea. YMMV.
2. Do you have any friends of whom you’d feel comfortable asking for support in not negative talking other people? “Hey, Loki, I’m trying to change a bad habit, would you mind letting me know when you notice I am talking negatively about XYZ using [nonaggressive cue phrase]? Thanks!”
and if yukking someone’s yum is something you struggle with:
3. Don’t yuk someone else’s yum! At least as far as food goes, I have a lot of success in avoiding the judgementy-type “YUCK I DON’T” by saying “Oh yay! [Food] is not my favorite, and now I know who to give it to if I get any!” The effect, as I have observed, seems to be a reinforcing of “hey, we all like different stuff and we should exchange it around so we can all have stuff we like! Yay sharing!” and also seems to cut out that “YOU ARE WEIRD FOR LIKING THIS,” because why would you give someone something you thought was intrinsically wrong?
On #3 (and I love “Don’t yuk someone else’s yum”), I’ve been helping relatives with their young children, and have been working on the “I hate…!” that pops out of their mouths (less frequently now!) by responding to it with “Good, more for me”. It really seems to stall them out for a moment.
Yes! I formulated this phrase after an epiphany, when a friend and I with reciprocal yum/yuks were eating a meal together, and just traded the things we didn’t like, and both of us kept going “THIS IS AWESOME WE SHOULD EAT THIS ALL THE TIME TOGETHER BECAUSE I GET TWICE AS MUCH OF THE STUFF I LIKE!”
Does anyone else have trouble figuring out how to draw the line between being kind or being a doormat, or between being assertive and being a jerk? Especially the latter, because sometimes when you stand up for yourself even in reasonable ways people treat you like you’re doing something wrong. It’s hard to work these things out when you can’t even get reliable feedback on the subject.
I was just going to mention this. Sometimes I feel like there is power in negativity, especially from a feminist point of view, since women are taught to be positive and accommodating and nice and helpful and SMILE!! all the time. After years of believing that any kind of rejection to any person was cruel and mean, it’s freeing to be able to say “nope, not interested” when I’m not interested, or to not have to smile when some random stranger calls me “sweetheart.” It’s still really hard for me to do those things in some situations! And it shouldn’t be! We should be able to say no and to reject things we don’t want and attention we don’t appreciate.
Of course this is different from insulting someone’s taste in music or whatever. I wish the original LW had been a bit more specific on what ze meant by “mean.”
And it can be difficult, after a lifetime of passivity, not to swing too far in the opposite direction. You’re still responsible for reining yourself in if you do, of course, but sometimes things get complicated and it can be hard to say whether you were within your rights to say or do what you did. Still, I get the sense this isn’t what LW was talking about. This might actually be kind of a derailment, in which case I apologize.
I used to teach fencing, and when I think of learning to be assertive, I think of a drill we always got beginner fencers to do. The swords we use are based on rapiers, so they’re heavier than foils but still flexible. To teach the newbies how to hit, we had them do lunges at a wall. You’ve hit hard enough when you can see the blade flex; but if you hit too hard, all the kinetic energy from the blow rattled back up the blade and hurts your hand. The standard drill was 50 lunges at the wall, until your hand just knows what a hard-enough hit feels like.
If you’re learning how to be assertive, it’s a given that sometimes you’re going to learn to hit too hard. The important thing is just to learn what the markers of “enough” and “too much” are, so that you can implicitly know what it feels like when you’ve achieved your goal, and when you’ve gone too far.
Standing up for yourself comes from a “If you’ll be cool, I will be cool” place. And if the other person crosses a line, you saying “Whoa, not cool.”
Being mean is the other person being cool, and you saying “REALLY, YOU LIKE _____? BUT X IS STUPID.”
You guys know that I will not argue for having to be accommodating and pleasant and cheerful. But I will argue for not dissing people’s tastes, mocking them, cutting them off, belittling them.
The wonderful Captain has made a number of comments here along the lines of “People are not (being in relationships/enjoying life/eating things) AT you” and I have started asking myself “Is this person doing this thing AT me?” when trying to figure out whether or not to be pissed off. Random men on the sidewalk making comments about my ass? Yes, the comments are usually quite definitely being shouted AT me. Neighbors still have their Christmas decorations up even though it’s March? No, the neighbors are not having a stupid-looking house AT me.
Not all things I might potentially be annoyed by are quite as clear-cut as those examples but I still find it a helpful question to ask.
Honestly, some people view any assertiveness as being a jerk. Too many people are accustomed to getting their way, or are not used to others standing up for themselves.
Admittedly enough, sometimes I have to be particularly harsh because I’m fighting off extreme hostility, although I’d argue that I’m not being a jerk so much as not being a doormat. It is a delicate balance to determine for oneself.
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.”
Oh God, yes. The nastiest I ever was was when I was extremely depressed, and the things I said to people weren’t even half as bad as the things the little self-hating voice in my head was saying 24/7. It was only when I got out of the really toxic environment I was in, and found myself in a place where a) other people were nice and b) being nasty was NOT OKAY that I started to work my way out of it.
Also, because of the environment I had been in, I was hyper-defensive for a long time and I saw any kind of teasing as an attack, and it took me a while to learn to recognise the difference between friendly teasing and people being mean – especially since I still, at that point, had the constant self-hating voice with its unending criticism.
And LW, excuse me for asking, but: I noticed that in your letter, you said that you ‘work in a Profession where Being Kind and Supportive is a huge part of my job’ and you don’t have any trouble there… maybe I’m completely off-base, but if you have to be Kind and Supportive at work and can’t show any negativity, is it possible that you’re bottling up any negativity you feel until you’re not at work, and that’s why it comes out all the time when you’re not at work?
I had a similar variety of LW’s problem (and still suffer from it to a smaller extent). Instead of being mean I would just way over-share. I’d either talk about sex, or beat them over the head with my nerdy superiority or become a hyperactive toddler. Usually all three.
I still sometimes have to try to avoid one-upping other people. I find that being female in nerdy circles really reinforces the need to prove my credentials, but I hate being a pedantic shit about the exact wording of the Monty Python quote. I also hate when dudes took my willingness to talk about sex as a sign that I was interested in sex with them (which as a somewhat-asexual I was NOT). And being alert, enthusiastic and gregarious is usually a great thing, but noooot always.
Much like LW has to find a balance between keeping boundaries and not complaining I have to find a way to balance being open with not over-sharing…
LW, I hear you. I’m still trying to figure my way out of an essentially negative worldview. One thing that has been helpful is that I started keeping a gratitude journal. I’ve done it two ways: at the beginning, I jotted down a list of everything I was currently feeling grateful for at least once a week – the lists mostly ended up looking like “chocolate, the internet, my family, my bed,” but after a while I did start to appreciate those little things more. Since the beginning of the year I’ve tried to be more intentional about it, to keep a daily journal in which I write down one thing from each day that is a positive thing (so, less a gratitude journal per se than a daily happiness journal, I guess). I miss days, but it’s really refreshing to be able to look back over all the good things that have happened in my life since the start of the year, and when I’m having extremely negative moments I can read back over those entries and they make me feel better.
I don’t know if something like that would be helpful for you, but it might be worth trying?
This idea is fabulous.
I need to try this. Itried a gratitude exercise months ago but made it too challenging, I lasted for 2 weeks (I made myself try to not mention accomplishments/talents/etc, positive things that were actually negative things, and my love of food/drink). Nothing wrong with keeping it simple…if the best thing that happened to me that day was a piece of chocolate, so be it.
I’m a Work Complainer. I mean, it really is the most unsatisfying job I’ve worked in, but at the same time, heck, I get sick leave and annual, and even though they’ve messed with my schedule so I have to work more weekends than I’m supposed to, I have regular, not-insane hours.
But it is so. So. Easy to be a Work Complainer. Especially because most of the other folks at my job are as well. Sometimes I’ll tell one coworker about something that a client did today just because I know it’ll set him off. It’s like switching on an angry song I feel like listening to–I know all the words, I can sing along with certain bits, and it’s entertaining.
It’s also toxic as hell. In that place, since everyone complains about everything (except for one guy, and boy howdy does that make everyone else grit their teeth), it means you KNOW that when you’re not around, they’re complaining about you. And, well. Nothing changes. I mean, it’s a government job, and we’re at the bottom, so of course nothing changes.
And I know full well it’s toxic not just because of our bosses, but because of the mix of people. Any of us on our own would probably be fine. But something about us all together–we’ve gotten into a group habit, and that’s much worse to break, think largely because as far as improving our situation there, complaining is literally all we can do (it doesn’t fix anything, but we can’t fix anything anyway, so at least we feel better).
I remember, awhile back, I decided to make the effort to not complain for a week. It was a quiet week for me. And it didn’t last.
I know the solution. The solution is Get Out Of There. So that’s what I work on in my off time, but things being what they are, I can’t afford to leave yet. None of us can. So we complain more.
Yeah, that really is a crap way to be. Maybe that’s what I should’ve given up for Lent instead.
That’s a really good analogy! I read once that part of the reason why we like certain songs is because they set up and then meet our brains’ expectations for what will happen next, and that’s what the partner-kvetching does. You know what’s going to happen, and–hey presto! You get it. You’re right: it’s both really satisfying and really toxic.
Oh god, it’s like you read my mind. Thank you for this column. I too have the inner-constant-stream-of-negativity and it really bothers me and I am actively working on it in therapy, but it is a damn hard habit to break.
I’m also really glad that you included the bit about not yucking other people’s yum, because that happened to me a few days ago and it really bothered me. (Guy asked for a music recommendation. Gave him one. “You like THAT? Were you JOKING? This is AWFUL!” Cue shame spiral. Then cue realization that 1) he’s being a douche. 2) Rejecting something I like isn’t a rejection of me. 3) There’s a whole lotta male superiority rolled up in his reaction. Of course it was a female artist I recommended. 4) Spurred a conversation with him in which he repeatedly said that he’s sorry “I don’t like being wrong.” Taste isn’t wrong. It’s just taste. 5) Tl;dr, am not going to be having that or any conversation with him ever again and I’m pretty sure my life is going to be more pleasant.)
One of the things I wish for more than anything in this world was that I could be a reflexively nice person. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there but I’m trying damn hard.
It sounds like you may have met my ex-boyfriend. Not conversing with him ever again is probably the right way to go.
The other possibility is OH GOD THERE ARE MORE OF THEM
A high school boyfriend was a college radio station DJ and always seeking out new music and making me mixes. And then calling me a “poseur” when I liked a band that he’d introduced me to. It’s like, dude, you actively tried to make me like them! It’s actually your job to be the early adopter of music and make people like it. WTF?
I’ve been thinking about this post a lot since it went up. Captain Awkward has been great in many ways and one of the ways is that it helps me add to my list of Red Flags, and after thinking about my conversation with this guy, I’ve realized that a Red Flag for me are those people who do shit like grab your IPod and scroll through it so they can mock you for what’s on there. He visited my house once and before he came I frantically cleaned out my drawers and cleared my browser history because he’s the type of person who would go through your stuff and then mock you about what he found (but he’s just TEASING, god you’re so SENSITIVE.)
So, EPIPHANY TIME – don’t need that in my life. I don’t listen to the music I listen to because I think it’ll make me look cool to someone else; I listen to it because I get pleasure from it – ditto for what I read, eat, wear, and do.
Yep, those are red flags waved by a guy wearing a suit made out of red flags standing in front of the red flag store that is running a sale on red flags to celebrate Red Flag day.
I think once we ‘give of ourselves at work’ we sometimes need to rant or get upset or cranky once home. I am sure there are lots of magazine articles that say, “Don’t take it out on your loved ones.” But it is so hard to be nice all the time! Take care and smiles sent your way, others have great ideas!
For me, a lot of not yucking other peoples yum is giving up the concept of “guilty pleasures”. If I like a thing, I like it. If it makes me feel bad, I tend to move away from it -continuing to like a thing that causes me pain is not good for my brain. I remain steadfastly a fan of things under scrutiny from others because I will not be made to feel bad for my own taste.
I tend to not disregard the tastes of others, although I will sometimes tell them why one of their likes makes me feel bad.
LW, I do this too, especially the complaining. And I suspect the complaining helps keep me stuck instead of moving forward and doing things.
For me, a lot of this comes from a place of anxiety and self-doubt. I hate things in the world that remind me that I am vulnerable and powerless and no good and never will be good and (<– voice of the Horrible Void, installed by Horrible Parents). And so I snap at things.
Having just watched the Dog Whisperer for the first time, I think I will imagine this part of my brain as a small, cute rescue dog I now have to take care of properly. It snarls and barks and bites because it's scared. I will need to put it on a leash and shush it when it misbehaves, be a good alpha, and sometimes pin it down to the floor until it is "calm and submissive."
I want my brain to be a good dog, not a bad dog. I don't think people like me better when I bite them.
With “yucking someone else’s yum” one thing I did was really realize how much crappy kyriarchal shit was in my snobbery. I used to be a super grammar nerd, and mocked people for improper grammar. Then I took a class on the history of the English language and realized that the “rules” of the English language were created by the elite to belittle and exclude the larger mass of English speakers, because they were creating a rarified language you needed leisure and education to learn how to speak. So suddenly grammar policing wasn’t cute and clever, it was classist and racist. And I benefited a lot by giving up on grammar and just listening to what people had to say.
Same as with Twilight bashing–I’m not a Stephanie Meyer fan, but I bet you shes better than Clive Cussler, who is also a bestselling author of escapist fantasy. Her fans come in for vitriol WAY more than his do. And I’ll note that teenage girls and middle-aged women who dare to have sexual desire men don’t approve of are much easier targets than teenaged boys and middle-aged men who like guns and masculinity. So maybe it’s about taste, but it’s targeted very specifically in a way that means the real losers are girls and women.
Idk, I’ve read some of both (Meyer for the lulz, admittedly) and Cussler is a considerably better author. Mind, it’s horribly sexist/racist/ist-as-hell writing, problematic as all hell, and the plots are predictable – but the technique itself is less grating on the nerves.
I think the issue so many of us have with Meyer is the way it promotes a really abusive dynamic as romantic, and a heroine without any sort of agency as a role model, alongside how popular it is among an impressionable demographic. That was my issue, anyway (though like I said, those books are pretty hilarious).
I do agree that the viciousness leveled at SMeyer herself is usually of a really nasty, mosogynistic sort, though.
(The very first Grown-Up Book I ever read, when I ran out of Goosebumps one night, was one of my Dad’s Cussler novels, and they’re also one of the very few things that we’d bond over, so it’s possible I have a slight bit of nostalgia-fuzz going on here.)
Oh, god, epic co-sign on the reformed grammar snoot thing.
Thank you so much for the comment on grammar privilege: I looked it up and was first defensive, but as I read on, holy shit. That IS problematic. I’ve got something to look out for now–I was somewhat aware of it, since much of my family is ESL, but when I read about the other issues, my eyes were opened.
A good cure for grammar-fascism among us is to work as a tutor or editor for learning-disabled or EAL (English as an Addtional Language) students and colleagues. You begin to understand the colonialistic nature of the English language, which is a great perspective for geeky-type Westerners to gain. Many of us are such huge fans of English that we can’t bear to see it criticized or “polluted” – yet we’ve never asked ourselves why it should be the default language of science, academia, entertainment and education, or questioned our assumptions that everyone should learn English.
I second this. Also, when working with someone who speaks English as an Additional Language, it’s always good to pause and think: “How many languages am I fluent in? Oh, that’s right, one. This person is already running rings around me at making themselves understood.”
One hell of an eye-opener in high school was when my mom was teaching me how to write essays. She had me compare one that her co-worker had written with one she had written. Hers was better with clarity and expressing ideas, even if the English wasn’t perfect.
Anyway, if a language geek is so smart, all the brain power that goes into criticizing grammar can also go into, “How is this person accustomed to thinking? What non-English rules are they following? How can I adapt my language expression or reception to communicate more clearly with them?” I can roll my eyes at the idiosyncratic English the people who always get my order at the cafe wrong, or hey, I can learn how to phrase “no mayo, just ketchup” in a way they understand.
Hmm, I sure wish the natives would speak with me normally instead of “adapting”. Adapting is in a sense insulting and “your English is better then my X” tends to sound like some condescending shit. In this particular case no reaction IS the best reaction.
Honestly, since I do speak more than one language, I felt that made a difference in not only the EFL lessons I taught when I lived abroad, but my attitude towards “foreign” English in general. When I visited Cadiz to go to Carnaval, I went with a travel company geared towards foreigners/Eramus students. Some of the Americans would make fun of the slight mistakes our host made when speaking and I thought, “You know damn well his English is better than your Spanish.”
Yeah, it really does make a difference. I’ve noticed when my mom speaks English, she’s directly translating from Mandarin at times, whereas when I speak Mandarin, I might be directly translating from English.
Conversely, another reason why I’m not so fond of the relatives overseas is because they keep pointing out how my Mandarin still has a foreign accent or is still weird/imperfect. It really does make you feel stupid.
I’ve found that for me the best way to deal with being negative was not to address to negative habit (in the sense of I didn’t try to directly stop doing anything) but to build new positive habits.
With my friends I began making it a goal to say nice things in every conversation. That was not easy initially, because they thought I was making fun of them, because we all had established norms of not saying nice things, and teasing less nice things, but after a while they got used to it, and I found that I was naturally saying nice things instead of mean ones.
With myself (and this is harder, both emotionally and because it takes more resources) I tried to note things that were making me miserable and then do something to make someone other than me happy. For instance, the secretary at work drove me nuts, so I set a goal of having three positive interactions with her every day. Or I’d have a really awful day and I’d try to think of something I could do that would make people in my class have a good day (Food was always an easy answer to that, which is why I say it takes more resources). I found that by accepting that I couldn’t help myself and deciding to help other people I pretty much always ended up making my own situation better to.
I wish my mother wasn’t so averse to learning to internet.
This advice is amazing. Sincerely considering driving all the fuck off way over the the base just to print it out at the library to send it to her, it’s so damn relevant. ❤
I used to do this, and still fall into it occasionally tbh, and only ever sort of sorted myself through trial and error (and yes, the whole BUT THIS IS WHO I AM panic is the hardest part of that, omg). For me it turned out a truly MASSIVE component of this was a sort of everpresent mortification that lived alongside any affections I held: everyone probably secretly hates me so never tell them how much they mean to you because they will totally just use that to stab you in the back – having this actually happen once DID NOT help that hideous fear – and so friends? I'd get More negative and shitty when I started to get close to them. Snark and smartassery and tbh, just petty shitty meanness masquerading as "wit" (especially towards others – one of my hugest shames was the realization I used to be a total Mean Girl, despite hating the Mean Girls, and not being popular, so OF COURSE I couldn't be. I was such a bag of dicks, omg.) propping up a big brutal facade to mask crippling insecurity and a total lack of self-worth. Oh, and extreme self-deprecation being my go-to in any conversation with new people.
They can't suss out your vulnerabilities to kick you if you kick yourself first being the reasoning, I guess? Idek.
The only friends I really retain from that time are still in that loop, seemingly.
I found that forcing myself to actually *express* affection/care/concern… sincerity about positive things, basically, was a really huge help (and shockingly, people who love me like being lovebombed back, and no mockery is had! WHO KNEW?). I was good at the negative! So good! But for a very long time it felt dorky and stupid to be sincere in a good way with people, and that OOF, that was hard to break, especially because I have a deep cruel streak forged in the fires of an intensely fucked up childhood. Tbh, I still get embarrassed for actually *caring* about people sometimes, though it's a lot easier to master now once I do catch on.
There is one really big downside I've found to my actually being *kind* though, and that is that I've become so intensely conflict averse anymore that I sometimes have trouble standing up for myself, especially for important things, and then THAT turns into it's own inner-self-hate cycle because I feel like a shitty activist. Balancing between the two extremes has proven difficult for me.
Oh, sure, post while I’m rewriting you. That’s not awkward or anything.
Aw, it ate my response.
shortened, less heartfelt but probably more coherent vers:
I need to print this letter out and send it to my mom, tbh I think it would help her so much. I wish she wasn’t internet-averse because all of CA would just be so valuable for her, I reckon.
Anyway, onto the personal-experience-overshare stuff.
Confession: I used to be a total Mean Girl, despite that being “impossible” because no popularity. Just vicious, all the time, yay artifacts of a crappy childhood, prepping me for a lifetime of verbal brutality!
^This ugly realization only happened after the change, I should note.
I used cruelty as my no. 1 defense mechanism. Snark and smartassery to mask crippling self-hatred, because if I hated myself FIRST then they couldn’t win that imaginary race or something. Part of this self-loathing was the utter certainty that deep down, no one ever really liked me, and a deep sense of mortification at the prospect of sincerely expressing affection in any form. And if people expressed it in my direction, I got super uncomfortable (I always thought it was a trick, because once it HAD been a set up, and I still struggle with that feeling sometimes) and I expressed this discomfort in the most pointed, damaging way I could, because I was smart, shrewd, and very, very adept at divining a subjects fears and hurts, and I thought that made me likable and witty. Yeah, not so much.
For me one of the big breakthroughs was forcing myself to tell people I cared about, people I loved and adored and appreciated, that I actually *liked* them. As opposed to mean jokes about them (this culture and its mean = I CARE ish, I swear) and hurtful snarking, just love bombing and SHOCK! THEY ACTUALLY LIKED THAT. Not one of them used it to hurt me or set me up, there was never mocking for that sincerity. Over time, that feedback loop of love did us *all* a lot of good self-worth wise.
It also helped me to fill my friend sphere with people who were kind, and caring, and just… heaps of positivity, and who did not actively enjoy hurting people, did not find abject cruelty funny, which – as a reformed asshole with an stealth massive ego – meant I had really good reasons *not* to backslide into jackassery.
It’s most difficult when my old life pushes up against my new one (high school friends, and URGH FAMILY); people seem to really strongly want to push you back into the you they knew, and if you’re an approval junkie like I am, that can be a serious hazard.
Also, I sort’ve find it difficult to stand up for myself sometimes now, because I’ve become so conflict-averse, which makes me feel weak and like a crappy activist, and can spring its own sneaky hate spiral. It’s so important to spot that spiral before it worms too deep again.
…and this was supposed to be the shortened vers? Wtf.
I just cannot with brevity, it seems.
Recovering Snarky McSnarkpants here as well.
It is amazing and awesome to have a social group full of people who are positive and genuine instead of Snarkville. There’s so much less second-guessing what people really think, and so much more uplift.
The culture of constant cutdowns/criticism is a big part of what drove me out of the tech field a few years ago. (The misogyny didn’t help, either.)
I miss it – I moved a year or so ago and the social group I inherited out here is rather “we-snark-because-we-love” (nowhere near as bad as the tech folks were and there’s enough positive/caring as well to make it fairly clear that there is love, not just snark) – but I’m not sure how to rebuild that kind of “around here, we directly show we care” in my life again. So far, I’m just trying to model it myself … we’ll see how it works out.
A couple people have already mentioned asking friends and family to call you on your mean comments and I wanted to third, or fourth, whichever, that advice. My brother and I, I’ve noticed, tend to do the accidental mean comment thing a lot. It’s not because we want to be mean or are even feeling bad at the moment, it’s just that I don’t think we realize that people take our comments to heart. I have a lovely memory of hanging out with my brother and one of his friends. My brother said something negative about his friend and I know he wasn’t being serious but he wasn’t really joking either. But his friend turned to him and said, “Hey, remember how we talked about not saying mean things to people you love?” And my brother apologised and they continued hanging out with no problem!
The reason I think this is so helpful is I often have no idea that people are hurt by what I say because I simply don’t mean them to be hurt by it. Another example happened to me at work. One of my coworkers accidentally called me a strange variation on my name by accident. I have an unusual name so this happens a lot, but I’d never heard that version before. So I laughed and said, “That’s the stupidest way I’ve ever heard someone mess up my name!” I didn’t really think anything of it, I actually thought it was kind of funny, but luckily another coworker was like, jeez, that’s really harsh! And when I thought about it a second time, especially considering that the coworker who messed up my name is pretty sensitive, I realized that it hadn’t been a nice thing to say.
Anyway, this is just a long set of anecdotes to recommend the tactic of asking someone to mention your meanness to you. This helps you in situations where you don’t realize you’re being mean and just helps reinforce the habit of thinking before you speak. For me, at least, that’s where the problem lies. This fault also helps me to look like a huge ditz more often than I would wish. Just taking a moment to consider “does this need to be said? does this need to be said by me? does this need to be said by me, now?” (I got that from Craig Ferguson, but I’m not sure if he orginiated it or not) would solve so many problems. Sometimes we need a little help with that, and that’s ok!
These anecdotes are also good reminders that intent isn’t magic. It’s not ONLY up to family/friends to police you when you get out of line, and you get to be as mean as you want as long as they don’t say anything. Some of the self-awareness is your job.
I might be too late to the thread to get an answer, but, do you all look down on, not respect, not like, or consider yourselves superior, to the people you say mean things to? Or are these people you like, admire, respect and look up to? Also, do you consider how that person feels when you say or do mean things? Genuinely curious.
For me it seems to be people I really like and explode in frustration because I expect better from them. Thinking of specific cases:
1) Dearest Spouse, who is a genuinely wonderful human being I’ve been fortunate enough to live with for the past ten and a half years and take on the adventure that is parenting our two awesome kids. We’re probably about 93% perfectly matched. However, there are days that the other 7% BURNS, and sometimes we both get snippy and sarcastic with each other about it: I am the Arrogant Superficial Snob and he is the Irresponsible Immature Twit, at its worst. It happens. And I know it’s probably actually because we are usually so close a match that we expect even closer of a match, if that makes sense? And we get mad at each other because the few differences we have can be really jarring?
1a) Dearest Spouse is also cursed with a treatment-resistant jerkbrain. I try to make clear that I am attacking the jerkbrain (or to use our phrase for it, the “Depressed Logic”) and not him. Usually it works and we both kind of lampshade how utterly ridiculous the jerkbrain really is, which is something that he usually finds helpful for purposes of coping. Sometimes though, I get it wrong and mess up and the snark hits him instead of the jerkbrain, and that really sucks because I’m trying to do the thing that is usually helpful and argh.
2) My BFF is a 1%er these days because she landed an extremely lucrative job, met a very well-to-do gentleman there, and they got married. I…am not. My spouse has been the primary parent around slowly chipping away at school, and I have been chipping at a PhD even more slowly while also working a full or nearly-full time job. (Right now I work 4 8.5-hour days at my paid job, work two 8ish-hour days at my internship, and take one PhD class. Last year, I worked 3 10-hour days at my paid job, two 8-hour days at my internship, and took two Masters-level classes.) She tends to forget these differences between us and offer a lot of very higher-end First World Solutions to my lower-end First World Problems. And sometimes just saying, “I can’t afford that!” just isn’t enough and I get snarly, which I don’t like because BFF and all but it hurts.
3) My mom and I go through phases of this. My father is prone to really over-the-top explosions of verbal abuse that are usually followed by refusing to speak to people and/or wandering the house muttering about “stupid women” or something similarly offensive. We know we’ll never be able to get through to him, so it seems like we occasionally target each other instead, a lot. I’ve recognized this happening and gotten better at disengaging from it sooner, but there were times we did a lot of damage to each other that way, and it was definitely mutual combat.
2) Have you mentioned how you feel to your BFF? Honestly, this seems to be pretty common among very wealthy individuals (even if they haven’t always been wealthy), and since she’s your best friend she’s most likely not trying to make you feel this way.
I’ve mentioned it a few times. And on most topics she’s good on being aware of the difference between herself and Most People(tm), but not so good at being aware of the difference between herself and me.
My family had a situation where we realized that we needed to make alternate arrangements to our local public schools, and quickly. (tl;dr – FirstKid had been physically assaulted by a classmate, the school staff were NOT taking it seriously, and then the same kid physically assaulted two of FirstKid’s best friends. FirstKid is a lovely bright girl who normally loved school but she started clinging to the bed refusing to go in the mornings. There were other problems but seeing bruises on the neck of FirstKid’s friend from being choked was the LAST STRAW.) Our choice was a nearby Catholic school. We are not Catholic, though most of my extended family is and I was very loosely raised Catholic as a child. Spouse and I are also both bisexual and it’s pretty much a random quirk that we happened to have the body parts that let us get legally married when we did, so this made things harder.
BFF (and a lot of that circle of friends) wanted to know why not a secular private? (Because it would cost virtually all of my take-home pay to put them both in any local secular private school, as opposed to 20% for the school tuition of the school they’re in and another 15% for after-school care around Spouse’s classes, and having Spouse return to work might not help between medical issues he was having that might have left him unable to work for a few months last year if he’d been working, his student loans coming due, and the change in tax bracket. And by the time we knew we needed to do this, it was too late to even consider financial aid.) The reason BFF can still be BFF is she accepted this answer, even though I was not all sweetness and light in giving it because, hey, SOMEONE ASSAULTED MY KID and I was pretty much spitting nails. Some of our mutual friends did NOT accept our reasoning and pretty much stopped speaking to us over this, which sucks.
Weirdly, it used to be the people I liked most that I was sarcastic to. My upbringing led me to believe that was THE WAY to interact with your family. And since I liked them, mean things I said wouldn’t hurt them, and would show that I loved them in spite of their foibles and paid attention to them. And I couldn’t understand why their sarcasm in return DID hurt me. So I stopped. I just about sprained something, but I stopped. (‘Can’t take it, so can’t dish it out’ became ‘Don’t wanna take it, so don’t wanna dish it out’; I feel so much better about myself now.)
I notice that when I’m feeling really mean, it usually means I’m depleted. That goes double if I’m fine when I’m at work and then all mean and grouchy at home, with the person I love.
Extreme self-care to the rescue! For me, that means several days hiding upstairs with few to no demands on me from other people and lots of books or mindless television. Then I can recover my equilibrium.
Mind: BLOWN. Stumbled over to the blog from an xoJane article, and although I’ve been here before, this post was sitting right at the top like it was waiting for me. Holy lord. I knew that being mean was a problem for me (one which I recently mentioned to a close friend), but I legitimately have so much more to think about here. Free self-help for the win.
I’m feeling the point about the taste conversation. Part of social intelligence is turning a difference of opinion into an interesting discussion. The older men in my life seem to be particularly bad at this, i.e. my dad and father-in-law. “WHAT?! You like that show/movie/book? Bu it’s clearly awful and worthless and you’re wrong for liking that. Here are some much better things that I enjoy.” Whoa, I am so not telling you about anything I like ever again.
“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?”
So much the this^. I had a lot of friends in (where else) college who analyzed everything. And several of them were snark generators extraordinaire. But the nicest, happiest ones were the people who could get genuinely excited about things they liked. The more I’ve trended toward that model, the less unintentionally snarky I’ve become. Don’t get me wrong, I can still do a riff dripping with sarcasm on a number of different topics. But now it’s a conscious choice, something I do for the entertainment of others, not as a put down of them.
And I heartily second the apologizing. It frees you. I work in Early Childhood Ed and my mood can, unfortunately, be a major factor in the classroom, just like the kids’ moods. But I’m the grown-up, I have to show them how to own their mistakes and apologize. When I snap at one of them, I have to take a breath, apologize for my sharp voice, and explain the source of my frustration honestly. It generates trust and understanding in kids, and it does the same in adults.
It bears repeating that this is a powerful post. I’m especially impressed with the ability to stop complaining in a toxic environment. Families are an extreme sport sometimes, but I’m reaching the end of my skills with the issues in mine, like could not sleep out of frustration and anger. Things are falling through cracks with my disabled mother, and I’m getting the brunt of the blame despite the fact that I do far more caregiving than any of the other siblings. I think the theory is that I have capacity to give more, but I neither can nor want to. Being unfairly criticized doesn’t make me inclined to generosity, but there are also real limits. I’m not willing to sacrifice my right to take an evening as a grown up so that I can play caterer to Mom’s dinner party. She can order takeout, she can invite people over for a light snack, her guests can bring potluck, there are all kinds of ways for her to continue to have a social life. Among other things, they were pretty neglectful of my needs growing up – neglect is still a form of abuse. But getting angry is Not Helping, me or the situation. So, again, thanks for the post.
I loved this article. I often find myself spiralling down to (unknowingly) compete for the title “Queen of Negativity”. It is like one day I catch myself in conversation just being an ASSHOLE and wonder how I got there, then think about my last handful of conversations and realize I’ve been in that frame of mind for a while.
I have a word doc that I use as an on-going digital “3-pages-a-day” and I find that very helpful for illuminating which topics on my mind are key sources of negativity and which ones I seem to be infinitely trapped by in a loop of “think about problem x, don’t find a solution, become bitter about no solution, resolve to fix problem, think about problem x…”. It is really REALLY helpful.
Comments are closed.