Ask Polly: Why Are People Such Assholes?

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Biting the hand that feeds you is a legitimate lifestyle choice!”

Dear Polly,

My question is about anger. How much anger is too much? How do you know when you should forgive and let go?

I am quite an angry and defensive person, probably excessively so. I would like to be more open and less angry. However, I also feel like I am sometimes taken advantage of and that my boundaries are often encroached upon. I think this is because: a.) I am not good at being assertive; b.) I often hide my feelings until they have reached a boiling point; c.) it’s very easy to guilt me into doing things for you if you display or reference vulnerability; d.) people in the world act shitty at times, because lord knows what is actually going on with other people, but usually they are just trying to meet their needs the best way they know how. But sometimes that means that other people’s needs and feelings end up being collateral damage.

Also, I feel real comfortable around assholes, people with personality disorders, addicts and other self-absorbed types, because I am worried that at any given time, at least two of those appellations apply to me. And the silver lining of relationships with such people is that you never have to worry about being the bad friend. Whatever crap you pull will always pale in comparison to their well-variegated tapestry of Deep Interpersonal Sins.

So I set myself up, and I swan around in a Madonna-blue robe of martyrdom, until something so horrible happens that I lose my shit and do a little yelling. In the Northwest-ish liberal white person culture in which I’ve chosen to immerse myself, there is no offense so great as yelling; it utterly cancels out any offenses that provoked the yelling. You can lie and cheat and manipulate and steal from people all day long, as long as you don’t yell about it, because that’s “crazy.”

Needless to say, being called “crazy” for calling somebody else out on their crappy behavior makes me feel crazy. There’s usually a long period of brooding and obsessing that follows the incident, and it’s quite tedious, and it makes me feel very small. So, the next time somebody does something hurtful to me, my tendency is to overlook it, because I don’t want to be some crazy small angry person. And I overlook and overlook and overlook, until the situation is (at least to my eyes) quite out of hand, and then I blow my top again.

Obviously, this has led to a lot of broken and estranged relationships. I’m not worried about the romantic ones, really. (I’m okay with the long-term exes and the short-term ones that ticked me off — well, who really wants to go get chummy lattes with their dumb one-night-stands from Ages Past?) And, taken on a case by case basis, I like to believe it makes sense that I don’t want to hang out with the ex-friend who pressured me into doing too many drugs in college while she went after my boyfriend, or the one who got me to hire her and then used her personal knowledge of my weaknesses to manipulate me at work, or the guy who tried to aggressively fake-girlfriend me into being his New Mommy (I am not Duckie in Pretty in Pink, so I will not be bringing you 2 a.m. tacos when you’re wasted, unless I am getting laid super-good).

It seems logical to me, if not admirable, that I avoid chilling with my religious extended family, partially because we have so little in common and partially because they invite my (borderline personality disordered, addictive, PTSD-ridden) father to events I would otherwise attend. But he’s not someone I choose to have contact with, and the special non-holiday, Dad-less get-togethers we have arranged in the past are always so strained. At the last one, I found myself pinching my thighs under the tablecloth to get through it (which is very weird and compulsive, and I felt guilty about it, but that’s what happened).

Work also presents certain challenges, since — and I know this sounds novel — sometimes, people who work in offices can get pretty passive-aggressive. I think I am seen as rather an Angela figure. And we all hate Angela. But the thing is, Angela really is quite good at her job, and she just wants everybody else to be mindful of their own job performances! Half of me is like, “Let’s lie around sleepless at 1 a.m. obsessing about how nobody cares enough about the instruction manual revisions,” and the other half of me is like, “WTF are you doing, Carl Sagan says we are all composed of stardust, you could be snorting cocaine and painting murals naked in the desert, and instead you’re spending the twilight of your youth worried about manual revisions?”

I do not know which is my good side and which is my bad side, or if they are both good/evil, and that my task is to fuse these weirdnesses into a single weirdness that I will drive around, calling it my personality and using it to mow down challenges and spiritual quandaries with confidence and purpose. I do want to be a good person, and it seems to me that somebody who gets into as many conflicts as I do must have a problem, and needs to redefine their relationship with anger.

But maybe I’ve stopped getting along with so many old friends (and new friends who act like the old ones) because I got sober three years ago, and don’t really like being around addicts anymore. Maybe my family’s inability to honestly deal with multi-generational mental illness makes me really fucking tense, and that’s understandable. Maybe many workplaces are somewhat dysfunctional and mis-managed, and it’s natural for an introverted perfectionist to find that irksome (anecdotal evidence would seem to strongly suggest it).

There are many instances in which I forgave others that I look back on with regret. That instinct that told me to dump that friend, or that situation, was correct. But I let others in my environment (and myself) persuade me that the anger was irrational. Then again, I can also think of many times that I flew off the handle because I was caught in myopic, obsessive, perfectionistic thinking.

So, how do you know when anger is good (a spur to action, a healthy defense) or bad (a projection, a knee-jerk psycho reaction to ghosts)? How do you contain it appropriately? Am I perhaps intentionally engineering annoying life situations because I am afraid of not being a victim, of not being in the right, of having power and opportunities that I could potentially squander? Should I move to the desert?


An Angela at My Table

Dear AAMT,

Boy, do I feel you! It’s always the assholes who can’t handle any yelling, too. They push and push and then, when you finally call them out on their shit, they act like you’re the crazy one. Christ almighty. We should start some kind of angry lady duet. We could tour the country, yelling at people for their carelessness and assholery. Lots of people would show up to our shows, too, because people just love it when angry women yell at them!

Oh yeah, they hate that. Hmm.

Unless the angry women have guitars in their hands, right? I play guitar, and I bet you do, too. (Doesn’t every former addict in the Northwest play guitar?) I’m hearing lots of distortion, driving bass, for sure, and two pissed-off lady voices whose tone might best be described as Enraged Cry Face. (We’ll definitely need some pyrotechnics for the angry parts.) Let’s aim for a mix of Katell Keineg and Sleater-Kinney, back when they sang bitter songs about watching the last embers of a dying friendship fade to black.

I should probably admit, though, that ever since we started writing music together, I’ve found myself resenting you. I like things the way I like them, see? And whenever you try to “fix” my songs by making weird changes to them, and you say you’re doing it because you’re “a perfectionist,” I just have to chuckle under my breath because your fixes are actually just ways of screwing up my already-perfect music, and you don’t even realize it! It would be funny if it weren’t so fucking pathetic.

And also, has anyone ever told you how high-strung you are? You seriously need to chill, because just hearing you talk in the tour van or onstage makes me anxious sometimes because you’re so fucking uptight. No, I’m not the uptight one, you’re the uptight one! Are you even listening to what I’m saying? Relax?! Who are you telling to relax?! You’re the one who needs to relax! You always think everyone is out to get you, you’re like a big ugly fucking wound! NO, I AM NOT THE WOUND, YOU ARE THE WOUND!


That fight on the first season of “Girls” is really worth watching (if you missed it), because it’s basically a transcript of every ridiculous squabble that ever went down between two twentysomethings. Two people with very different values attack each other over those values, using their intimate knowledge of each other to inflict pain. SO SAD. (And so funny.)

So, look. You’ve brought up so many different issues — anger, yelling, having high expectations of other people, addiction, bad friends, workplace mediocrity, being called crazy — that I could write for days and not get through them all. This is going to be a long response no matter what I do — but what can I do? This is fertile fucking ground we’re treading on.

The bottom line is this: You have to stop yelling. Rest assured, I say this with a lot of affection, and with a deep understanding of the particular emotional quicksand you’re in. I learned the fine art of yelling from the very best in the field, and somewhere in my heart I still believe in yelling. Some people deserve to be yelled at, goddamn it! But even though I pretend to be an objective advocate of yelling, the truth is that I can’t tolerate being yelled at for even a second. It reminds me of being a powerless little kid with parents who fucking hate each other’s guts. This renders my pro-yelling position pretty much insupportable. So: I try very, very hard not to yell at anyone, ever — even a certain three-year-old who believes, deep down inside, that she is my disgruntled supervisor and I need to be upbraided when, say, her socks are “too scratchy.” (Although it’s true that sometimes I yell things like “STOP!” and “NO!” but we’d all be dead in this house if I didn’t.)

Part of growing up involves accepting the shit you can’t change — like scratchy socks, and difficult friendships, and half-assed coworkers — and surrendering to the world around you. That doesn’t mean losing your convictions. It means knowing that 1,000 angry outbursts and pissy emails don’t make the manuals more perfect or the friends more generous or the socks less scratchy. It means paying attention to what works for other people, and what doesn’t work.

To illustrate: Not only do I try hard not to yell, but I also try very hard not to use a Harsh Tone of Voice. Now this part is fucking bullshit if you ask me, but I’ve been told many, many times over the years that I “sound harsh,” either when I’m in a hurry, or I’m just answering the phone and I’m not sure who it is yet, or maybe I haven’t had any caffeine yet and I’m wondering where my keys are. I Sound Harsh. Everyone agrees! And even though I personally feel that it’s well within my fucking rights to sound as harsh as I fucking want (since I’m not yelling and throwing shit, which is how we do it in my family, for fuck’s sake!), even though I have a serious problem with how much sugarcoating and pussyfooting women have to do in this world not to be encountered as demonic whore assassins by a populace that cultivates Disney Princess visions of femininity, I still comply with this seemingly universal desire for me to Sound Less Harsh. Here’s why: My life is easier, I feel less shitty about myself, my friends are nicer to me, my kids look less jumpy, my mother is less critical, and my husband is more helpful. This Deluxe Showcase of Super-Special Bonuses is mine, just from Sounding Less Harsh. It’s not that hard, honestly. And you know what? I feel less harsh, too.

You also have a choice. You can yell all you want. But you’re going to be lonely, and people are going to treat you like shit. You leave the door wide open for bad behavior when your own actions are sloppy and abusive.

So make a commitment not to yell anymore. That means telling people, in a very kind tone of voice, when they do something that doesn’t work for you. Don’t wait until you’re pissed. Say something before you’re even annoyed, in fact. Something like: “I know you probably didn’t mean to do this, but it makes me feel bad when you x. It’s not a huge deal and I’m sure I’ve done the same kind of thing, I just wanted to mention it so it’s out in the open. I care a lot about our friendship, and you, and I don’t want this to come between us.” You CAN speak up about small things that matter to you, you just have to do it without being bitchy about it. And you have to be prepared to hear something about your own behavior. Listen to whatever is said, and try to address it constructively. The point is to fix things, not to be right or teach someone a lesson.

That said, it sounds like you drop everything and do too much for fucked-up people who don’t exactly return the favor. They call these friendships “the detritus of the past” for a reason. Good friends don’t expect way too much and take too much without giving anything in return. But come on, you know this already. I mean, do you really want a lot of bullshit and drama in your life? Ditch the friends who fuck with you repeatedly. Do some pruning and you’ll find that you’re a lot better to the remaining friends, because you won’t overgeneralize as much, and you’ll notice that some of your friends (although flawed) are actually pretty sane, and generous, and loyal to you (in spite of your flaws).

Once you’ve weeded out the Bad News Janes and Bad News Jacks, then you start fresh. You approach your friendships with a spirit of generosity. No more contempt. No more resentment over dumb things. If it helps, write down a character sketch of your remaining friends. If Sally’s description says “passive” and “soft-spoken” and “wants to make lots of money,” don’t resent Sally for being avoidant and shallow. Maybe she is avoidant and shallow, compared to you. But she’s not you, is she? Should she be more like you? Should everyone be more like you? Or should you learn to live in the real fucking world like the rest of us, instead of floating around in some fantasy world in your perfect head?

You must stop trying to teach people lessons — about themselves, about their sloppy work, about anything. You were not placed on earth to enlighten the masses. I know that sounds a little funny coming from me, the lady who won’t give up the Mr. Microphone for all the cured ham in Spain. But it took me a particularly long time to figure this one out (not surprisingly). When you’re a mature adult, you don’t yell at your friends and tell them what’s wrong with them. You don’t even characterize their behavior. You say something (gently) if they do something that affects you directly, and otherwise you shut the fuck up and accept the kaleidoscope of different perspectives and behaviors that exist in the world. You listen to your friends talk (often in circles), and you gently coax them in the right direction. That is all.

Not even when you’re dumping a friend or a lover do you teach that person a lesson. No. Only bad people do that, OK? You say, “I wish you the best,” and “We both made mistakes” and you leave it at that. When one of your crazy, messed-up ex-friends says, “What did I do?” you don’t hurt them. You tell them it was a two-way street. Because, guess what? It was. It was a jumbled mess of a relationship, between a perfectionist who gave too much and resented it and then yelled about it, and a self-involved mess who took too much and then felt sorry and wanted to fix it but couldn’t because he/she wasn’t grown up yet and didn’t know how.

Onward, to the workplace: All offices are firmly dedicated to mediocrity. If you try to stop it, you will be bombed to smithereens like so many rebel forces crouching in the dust on the outskirts of the Empire. And by that I mean: People will fucking hate you, and then you will be fired. No matter how good you are at your job, if you sound off constantly, you will be perceived as a problem. My personal solution? Never, ever make general statements or offer unsolicited input or write peevish emails unless you’re the big, big boss. (And then only occasionally.) Just do what you do and let everyone around you screw it up as much as they fucking want to. (This advice is for you, who are a confrontational perfectionist about manuals, not for that soft-spoken nuclear safetly expert over there.)

And while we’re on the subject: Manuals? Aren’t you underselling yourself a little, channeling all of this intelligence, passion and fury into… manuals? (I used to write manuals, so I fucking know. I rewrote my boss’s words, because they weren’t clear enough. I added cartoons to the goddamn manuals, because they were boring. I wrote songs about the manuals. You get the picture.) Maybe you’d be less angry if you had a more interesting job.

Also, are you a little high-strung? Do you experience anger as a heart-racing kind of thing? I want you to pay attention to how your body reacts to anger. All of this pinching-under-the-table stuff makes me think that you have a really dramatic reaction to stressful situations. Do your hands sweat like crazy? I’m not trying to make you feel bad, just the opposite: a heightened fight-or-flight response might just be built into your particular biology. Recognizing that can be a relief. Because the more you can tune in to how much of your trouble is caused by this panic-response you seem to have, the more you can learn to slow down and just deal with the panic first, then talk to people only after your heart rate goes down.

I don’t think you’re crazy, not at all. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need therapy. You have to start taking responsibility for how you move through the world, and how it affects other people. For years, I pictured myself as a harmless, goofy little squirrel, while other people saw a snarling Doberman Pinscher. I didn’t understand why people reacted to me, merely chirping and flicking my tail, as if I was growling and snapping at them. But once I could finally see the truth of how I came across, I felt much less crazy. Who knew?! I had to turn the dial down to “sweet little field mouse” just to hit “overanxious Jack Russell, possibly a biter” for the rest of the world.

So much of your anger comes from just that — the feeling that everyone thinks you’re fucking crazy. Whew! I remember that feeling. It’s really hard not to be confused and depressed when you feel that way. But your redemption will not come only from dismissing the bad eggs in your life. Your redemption relies, in large part, on your ability to admit that you’re not living right. There are a lot of things you can do — commit to not yelling, get rid of bad friendships, get a new job, go into therapy, learn to speak up before you’re pissed, pay attention to your heart rate — but most of all you have to open up and be vulnerable. Look, you take care of vulnerable people because you wish that someone would’ve taken care of you when you were vulnerable as a kid. You don’t believe that your wish will ever come true, so you’re snarly instead. You think vulnerability will make you unlovable, and weak.

Your generosity in those situations is actually a beautiful part of who you are. Don’t hate yourself for it. Get some boundaries, but don’t give up on that part of yourself. And don’t give up on that wish to be supported when you feel your weakest, either, because it’s not wrong to want that, and it really does change your life when you get it for the first time. But you have to open up and hear the very worst things that people have to say about you, without fear, so you understand how you are perceived. Really hearing what they’re saying shouldn’t feel like a giant threat. The only thing you’re being threatened with here is growth, and happiness. Do you want to feel alienated and lonely and shitty and misunderstood forever? It’s time to get over yourself, to admit defeat, to surrender, to try it a different way. Don’t be so afraid of listening. Listening to feedback and adjusting your behavior doesn’t mean that you’re crazy. It means that you’re not.


Previously: Ask Polly: I Can’t Resist Great Sex With My Crazy Ex!

Do you give too much, or take too much? Write to Polly and find out!

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by xlibber.