There are self-serving jerks out there, and then there are the rest of us, right? The jerks are the exceptions to the rule. For whatever reason, they feel ok to just go around thinking about nobody but themselves – but then, I am often asked, why does it sometimes seem like there are so many of these jerks?
After talking to some friends about how even compassionate, considerate people can be jerks sometimes, I realize that it’s not so simple. Nothing like this is as simple as it looks. The world is not divided between jerks and nice folks. In fact, I’d wager that, more often than not, it is actually somebody who is very well meaning and compassionate that comes off as a jerk, rather than somebody who just doesn’t have any sense of decency and compassion at all. The vast majority of the jerks you run into are really nice people. :-)
Here’s the thing: very few people want to be a jerk.
Everybody that thinks in terms of the “jerk versus nice person” dichotomy would always opt to be a nice person. Sure, there are those out there that have simply given up caring about this, and lost all sense of consideration – but even they are not trying to be jerks. They just are this way, without any great deep thoughts about it. And, like I said before, there are more people that do care about this that are jerks than there are that don’t.
The problem often starts when somebody who is afraid of being a jerk and trying desperately not to be a jerk does not get enough validation that they are not being a jerk! “Jerkishness” very often comes about when somebody is experiencing a set of negative feelings about themself. They look for outside validation that they are a good person in order to soothe these negative feelings, and when they don’t find it, they become more desperate, more negative, and thus devote less of their brain power to compassion. You cannot be very considerate of others if your brain is preoccupied with your own shortcomings.
If a person’s feelings of their own inadequacy is chronic, they can very easily slip into becoming a chronic jerk. The truth is, no matter how nice it is to hear somebody else sing your praises, there is no substitute for self-love. If you don’t feel good about yourself, it doesn’t matter how many other people compliment you – you will continue to believe bad things about yourself, and amplify all signs that you are bad and wrong, while minimizing any signs that you are a good and worthy person. Negativity breeds more negativity, and so on.
There is a serious lack of self-love and self-comfort out there. In an ideal world, learning to love yourself and be confident in yourself would be one of the most basic skills people learn, from the time they start school. If you don’t feel good about yourself, everything that you do, say, and feel is shit. What we often do learn as a substitute for actually feeling good about ourselves is how to make the rest of the world think that we feel good about ourselves - so much so that we actually confuse ourselves into thinking that we feel good about ourselves … when we really feel like shit on the inside.
This psychological trickery is more than just “everywhere” in daily life; it’s so automatic that it has lead to lying and dishonesty becoming commonplace. “How are you?” comes the question, and some variation of “I’m fine, and you?” is thrown out as a perfunctory response. The real answer, of course, is more along the lines of “I’m disappointed,” or “I’m hungry,” or “I’m enjoying what I’ve been doing lately,” or “I’m fed up.” But hey, why make it all about you? To just make yourself less crashing… it sounds like nothing, right? Why trouble someone with the reality of what you feel, especially if you’re not feeling so good? Just tell them “I’m good,” or “I’m fine” and move on.
Well you know what? Something like this, so little and inconsequential-looking, is where a lot of jerks get their start. Especially those jerks that aren’t really jerks. Because it’s not at all inconsequential, given that it happens all the time. It’s an example of societal groupthink that values convenience over truth and authenticity – and it’s harmful. When somebody truly wants to say “I feel like crap” in response to “how are you?” the person feeling like crap is often thought to be a jerk for throwing such heavy-handed feelings out there like that. Then, those around such a person often feel that, because of the lack of tact involved in the answer “I feel like crap” coupled with, perhaps, not knowing the person well and not knowing where to go next with the interaction, they are entitled to act less compassionately – and they thus become more like jerks.
This is a bit of a dramatization, I know. But think about this; dishonest, cloaked interactions like this are happening so universally often, in so many contexts – friends, business relationships, acquaintances, loved ones, customer service, public relations situations – that it can be very hard, if not impossible, to break through all the cobwebs and get to some authentic truth! Jerks become jerks either because they cease to pay attention (the stereotypical egocentric jerk) or because, in trying to care, they knock over too many pieces of social fine china, very often having no idea which way is up. It’s tough, isn’t it, not to get mad at the world and start trying to blast through when you can feel people bullshitting you. When the only truth that we can be open about is truth that feels pleasant to us, we are doing the same thing that the inconsiderate self-centered jerk is doing: shutting out the truths we don’t like as “less important” or “not contemplatable.” The self-centered jerk can still be cool when things fit into his/her world, right? But the minute things don’t fit right, s/he could care less. Well … many “nice folks” ain’t so different, in this regard. Be so nice that you are dishonest, and you will have stumbled backward over the line squarely into jerk-land.
With a very, very few exceptions, dishonesty is a jerky thing to engage in. By being dishonest, we are effectively [if unwittingly] sending a message to the other person: You are not trustworthy. “You can’t handle the truth,” as the line from A Few Good Men goes. This very likely is not your intention at all, but it does come across as demeaning and condescending to withhold truth from someone, doesn’t it? As if, somehow, they cannot be trusted with it? When was the last time you were happy that somebody lied to you? You may be able to think of an example or two in the past ten years, but it’s pretty safe to say that the great majority of the time, people would choose to be told the full truth, to be fully informed about something, rather than being lied to and thus kept in the dark.
Now… there are some moments when you don’t say everything. After all, you don’t want to tell a truth if it’s not going to be understood in the way you have told it. But there is a difference between this – telling selective parts of the truth one by one so that in the end the whole truth can be better understood more quickly – and substituting outright lies for a truth that you don’t want to tell. Truth is not always as easy and straightforward a thing as society would have you believe – for one thing, sometimes the truth about why something is the way it is can get very tough to keep up with, the deeper you dig. So it’s natural not to say everything all right away – to make the best judgment you can about what part of the whole truth is most important and easiest to understand.
But this process cannot take place if somebody is being lied to. Because once somebody’s “train” of thought has been routed onto a false “track,” each little lie that is told pushes it further and further down that false path, further from the juncture at which that first lie diverged from the truth – which means it will take a greater amount of time and effort in the future to reverse it all and get back to the truth. And the thing is, these little, small lies we tell about ourselves [to ourselves as well as to others] look pretty harmless, cause they’re so little. But over time, the consequences of these lies really add up, and push that train a long distance off course.
Sometimes people are jerks simply because they have been misled. There’s the person who truly thinks that the world wants them to force their will on others in certain situations – this is why most physical fights usually take place, in a sense. Sometimes, there’s a good reason for such a struggle – but the vast majority of the time it comes from people (mostly men, though there are some women with this issue too) who truly believe it’s the right thing to do. And what about members of groups, organizations, societies, etc., that do annoying and terrible things? Do not the members of these groups have “good intentions?” Yes they do. But that doesn’t stop them from coming across as jerks, now does it?
By now you are seeing that I am directly tying in “jerkishness” to the prevalence of lies and deception in our midst. And that’s why the jerks can seem so numerous sometimes: directly because of the immense lack of clarity about what is really true. If truth were an easy thing, it would be easier to all get on the same page. But it isn’t always easy, and the fact that we often use lies as a way of avoiding truth that we don’t want to hear about only exacerbates things. So the next time you have to deal with a jerk, maybe what you want to do is ask for a little clarification. Once pretenses and misconceptions are stripped away, you might actually find a nice person hiding underneath the jerk after all.