Auntie SparkNotes: I Want To Stop Being A Jerk
I never have been one to beat around the bush. I have a problem, and I don't know how to fix it: I am a b****.
I try to be nice to people, but I just can't. My sense of humor is sarcastic, dry, and oftentimes mean. I am more nice than I come off as, I do community service and take good care of my friends and stuff. But I have no self control when it comes to saying cruel things. It really sucks, and I end up pushing people away because of it. I wish I could be a nice friendly person, but I can't seem to figure out how.
I think that the reason I am like this is because of my mom. I love my mom, and she is a amazing person. But she is bipolar, and really insecure. She cuts other people down a lot, including me. She is way better about it now, but it is still hard to talk to her openly because of it. And I definitely have insecurity problems too -- I don't like myself that much, and sometimes I wonder if I am mildly bipolar like my mom. My worst fear is scaring everyone I care about out of my life. I am 16, and I don't think I am completely unattractive, but boys don't like me at all. People at my school think that I am a jerk.
I need to change, for myself and for the people that I love now and in the future. What can I do to be nicer to other people and myself?
Well, for starters, you can give yourself a big thumbs-up for having done part of my job for me! Because ordinarily, I’d have to answer your questions with more questions—since the only way to change your behavior is to first figure out how, where, and why you learned to approach life with your defenses ratcheted up to eleven. But instead, I can just skip to the part of your letter where you speculate that your household environment and latent insecurity might have something to do with it... and then I can point to that part while jumping around and yelling DING DING DING DING DING!
Because that, in a nutshell, is it: life with your mom has taught you to keep your vulnerabilities hidden, to keep your dukes up, and to strike at the world before it strikes you—or, in other words, to act like a jerk. And when it comes to un-learning a lifetime’s worth of instruction in Acting Like a Jerk, self-awareness is half the battle. So hey, you’re already at the midpoint on your journey to Acting Like A Decent Human Being!
The bad news is, the second half of this journey is the emotional equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. Backwards. In the nude.
Because as tough as it is to realize that you’re being a jerk, it’s a whole lot tougher to stop being one, especially when your jerk persona is built up around a vulnerable core. There’s nothing new about the strike-first approach to life—pushing people away before they can reject you— but it’s a seductive and near-impossible habit to break if you don’t first address the insecurity that feeds it.
So, start there: what is it that you don’t like about yourself? No, really, make a list. And then divide that list into two categories: the behaviors that you can change, and the basic nature that you can’t. The former, you're going to work on. But the latter, you'll have to accept—and if you don't, you’ll just end up way down at the other end of the self-loathing spectrum, where you’re tying yourself in knots to get people to like you for all the same reasons you used to push them away.
And I’m not gonna lie: turning your self-awareness into self-acceptance, and turning self-acceptance into self-confidence, won’t happen overnight. But without Step One: Stop Hating Yourself, you’ll never have the guts or incentive to move on to the much less-pleasant Step Two: Eating Crow.
Because from now on, you’re going to be doing a lot of apologizing—first to those close to you who’ve been repeat witnesses to your crappy behavior, and then to anyone you accidentally unleash your inner jerk upon while you work to rein her in. Which, make no mistake, is going to happen. Resisting the urge to zing people takes effort, and it may take awhile before you can do it consistently. And until then, you’re going to follow any and every accidental meanie slip-up by immediately saying your version of the following:
“I can’t believe I just said that. It was totally over the line, and I’m sorry.”
Modify as appropriate, repeat as necessary, and let one or two close friends know what you’re doing so that you have some support for your efforts (and someone to keep you accountable). Give yourself credit every time you resist the urge to hit someone's soft targets, and more credit each time you do it but apologize. And when you worry that you're not "a nice person," remember how to measure your success: not by the worst of your nature, but by the best of your actions. Because if you're kind in practice, then being nice by nature matters not at all.
Have you ever made an effort to be nicer to people? How’d it go? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.