• Kimberly

What if the other person is just a JERK?!

I get questions sometimes from people who have read my book. Most of the time, the questions are a variation on "Do I have to see him as a person if he's just a jerk?"

The issue seems to be this. A person (let's call her Mabel) is trying to change her heart and start seeing people as people. But someone in her life (let's call her Helga) is extraordinarily difficult. Helga is rude, Helga interrupts, Helga makes fun, Helga criticizes. Other people have noticed Mabel's efforts and changes, but Helga hasn't. Mabel is kind, Helga says "Well it's about time!". Mabel apologizes, Helga says "That's not good enough." Mabel explains she's read a book and is trying to see people as people, and Helga says, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!"

Helga is so annoying!

Well here's the thing. The solution to every problem is still seeing people as people, because frankly, until you see the other person as a true and real and living person, you will not know whether they're truly an incorrigible jerk or just reacting to your mistreatment of them.

Here's an example from the book. Arnie was a patient in a nursing home who did everything he could to cause trouble. He ran his wheelchair into walls repeatedly, on purpose, to punch holes in the drywall. He would launch himself out of his wheelchair and when a nurse came to help him, he'd kick her in the face. He was, by every possible definition, a jerk,

But when a new Director of Nursing came in, he didn't see Arnie as a jerk. He saw a troubled person, and wanted to help him. He started spending time with Arnie every day, listening to him and learning about his life. And one of the things he learned was that Arnie, who had been disabled in an accident and now spoke very slowly, felt frustrated that no one waited around long enough to let him finish his sentences. The nurses would jump in and finish his sentences for him because they didn't want to wait around. So on top of being disabled at a young age, and permanently ensconced in care designed for the elderly, he couldn't even finish a sentence.

The Director instructed all the nurses not to interrupt, but to let Arnie finish speaking. And between that, and feeling like he had a true friend, Arnie was transformed. He not only stopped damaging walls and kicking nurses, he became outgoing and friendly and began circling the nursing home in his wheelchair greeting everyone.

The point is, just because someone is acting like a jerk doesn't mean they can't do better. It just means they can't do better in the situation they're in right now. For most people, it is so frustrating to be seen like an object that they lash out with irritating or even dangerous behaviors. These same people will often change dramatically when they no longer feel isolated, unloved, attacked, and unsafe.

In a troubled relationship, the first approach is always to stop being a threat to the other.

Analyze your own behavior. Are you really safe to talk to? Do you look for opportunities to point out what the other person has done wrong, or to make a little "joke" about their failings? Are you always waiting for the right moment to explain what he/she has done wrong? Do you express your frustration with sighs and eye rolls? Do you complain about the person to others?

If you do, then you are not being a safe conversation partner. Your negative opinion is coming through loud and clear and the Jerk has to defend against it.

Look for the other person's struggles, miseries, and problems. Develop a sense of compassion for what she faces or has been through. Look through the pain in her eyes.

Ask yourself how you are being a problem, and stop it!

Look at the person again, with compassion and humility--not at how they've failed you, but at how they are trying to make their way in the world. You'll likely see one of three things:

1. You may see a noble, agonized soul merely acting out, as Arnie did, against overwhelming frustrations. This soul is caught, like a hooked fish, and trying to disentangle herself. In this case, compassion will guide you to gentleness and a desire to help him in his struggles.

This is what we find in the overwhelming majority of cases. Most jerks are just normal people flailing against a life that overwhelms them. Their meanness comes from fears, hurts, and misunderstandings. Seeing a person like that with compassion will mean both that you are less offended by their misbehavior, but also that they will become less and less likely to lash out--after all, you have just made their life a little bit safer.

2. You may see a complete narcissist, a person untroubled by the needs of others and completely uncaring how you see her. People like this can be very destructive, but that doesn't mean there's no scope for compassion.

What a sad thing that is, to be in the company of humans and unable to take any joy in it! A person like that is lost. They don't know they're lost, but they are. They're missing out on the marvelous human experience and they don't even know it. It's one of the most tragic things in the world, these people who are missing out on love and so spread misery among the innocent.

A person like that, your compassion can't help. Your support won't mean anything, your insight won't prompt change, your caring will neither be noticed or appreciated. Seeing this person as a person means recognizing, with sadness, that she is not a full participant in this human social fabric--you do not need to engage with her in a way that makes you vulnerable to abuse. You, too, are a person, and your happiness and safety are important too.

If you're a boss or leader, protect others from a person like that. Fire her, asap! If you're a family member, you do not need to get drawn in to her games. Get distance. People who can't love also don't get emotionally hurt in the same way others do, so it is okay to exclude her from social events. Protect other vulnerable people. But not in anger or frustration (those are signs you're seeing her as an object) but in wise, clear-minded compassion both for the narcissist and for those she may hurt.

3. Finally, you may see a person so wracked and tormented by misery and despair that they can no longer respond to loving behavior. In one story the Arbinger Institute tells, a woman was trapped in a violent and abusive marriage. Her husband David was alternately apologetic and demanding, creating a cycle of breaking up and getting back together that she felt powerless to change. But one day, she became aware of just how she was contributing to the dynamic; although she was obviously doing much better than he was, she was shocked to realize the violent and vicious thoughts she had been indulging. She put her arm around her abuser, in a moment of humility, and suddenly saw him in a new way.

She saw David as if he were a little child, trapped in a tiny cage. He had been abused when young and she suddenly realized he had never overcome its effects. He was mentally and emotionally stuck in his need for validation and control. But it wasn't like he was a fully-formed person making calculated decisions, or like a narcissist acting out of cold self-interest. He was deathly afraid, and beyond miserable, and lashing out in the only ways he knew how.

She was filled with compassion for this miserably troubled soul. And from that moment on, she was never pulled back into his games, and never got back together with him. She could see that giving in to his manipulations wasn't actually helping him. She wasn't being kind by getting back together, she was just keeping him in the cage. She got divorced, because a trapped child is not a safe or stable partner. But not because she was angry or hated him or was full of resentment--just because in seeing him as he truly was, she could also see through his lies for what they were.

A person like David isn't soulless, like the narcissist. But neither will they change (at least, not without more help than most of us can provide). For some people, life is just too frightening; they cannot bear to feel safe. That is so agonizingly tragic, it hurts to think about; it is such a waste of a tender human soul.

But again, seeing that person as a person means seeing when their patterns are not actually helping them to feel better.

Joining them in their blame, indulging them in their demands for reassurance, forgiving them when they're not meaningfully sorry--that is not kindness. True compassion and kindness would mean ensuring they can't continue to hurt people. Whether that's by firing them from a job, excluding them from social situations, removing family members from their home, issuing treatment ultimatums, whatever--the point is, true compassion does not mean giving them what they want. It means giving them what they need.

In the end, the truth is that nobody is "just a jerk". Everybody has reasons, everybody has a goal they're trying to accomplish with their behavior. But at the same time, once you see past the "jerk" to what's really going on inside, you may see a person whose desires should not be met, whose opinions are not reliable, or whose statements are not true.

Seeing people as people does not mean we have to trust them, believe them, or indulge them. It just means we don't lose sight of their sacred status as fellow beings. And if we must be in conflict with them, we do it with an attitude of regret, not of vengeance.

Most importantly, it means we yearn to put as much kindness into the world as they have put misery. And we hope and pray that someday, they can recover their humanity.

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