“Me, a total jerk? Impossible! I hate total jerks so how could I ever become one?”
Easy. People rarely set out to become total jerks. They fall into it gradually through excessive reliance on the natural, universal habits of self-defense, the various ways we all stay positive about ourselves by going negative against things and people that threaten or challenge our self-esteem.
Everyone tries to stay positive about themselves. Everyone, therefore, goes negative against challenges and threats. How far we go negative determines whether we’re ordinary, everyday occasional jerks or total, absolute, free-range jerks, swatting down every obstacle in our way.
Want to remain just an occasional jerk? Curb these defensive habits that make people fall into total jerkdom:
- Cut out the self-reported virtue: Enjoy the therapeutic benefits of self-affirmation but keep the pep talks to yourself. Don’t go around declaring that you’re honest, kind, nice, respectful and generous, that you have integrity, that you’re not into game-playing or hypocrisy. When you find yourself slipping into such self-flattery imagine an old, homely, horny guy hitting on a young beauty by insisting that he’s young and sexy. They see you. People know you by your actions, not your flattering self-reporting. You don’t get to override their interpretations with yours. Best to wince a little when you say things like “trust me,” or even “no really!” both of which translates as “If you don’t believe me, believe me, you should believe me.” If anything, your flattering self-reporting demonstrates that you don’t know what those positive qualities are other than good, much like the old, homely, horny guy apparently not knowing what young and sexy means, or indeed respectful.
- Stop pretending that other people owe you their trust: Earn people’s trust like everyone else. Respect other people’s powers of interpretation. Don’t pretend that you have the authority to override their interpretations just because you trust yourself. They may or may not interpret you fairly but, you don’t get the last word on what’s a fair interpretation. You get your interpretation. Don’t even say, “don’t tell me what I think or feel,” as though you always know yourself with absolute clarity. Yes, you’re the person most intimate with yourself, but that cuts both ways, making you better and worse at interpreting your own motives, since, like everyone, you’re biased toward self-affirmation. Obviously. You’ve witnessed angry people insist they’re not angry. Apparently, people don’t always know what they feel. And you’re people too, no exception.
- Awaken from your wokeness and smell the coffee: So you’ve discovered some powerful insight or teaching that really moved you. You’ve finally seen the light. Welcome to the club and no, it’s not just folks who’ve woken to your chosen insight or teaching. These days we’re up to our third eyeballs and all over the map with conflicting variations on wokeness. Woke is a hip new word for a tired and untrue old gateway drug to total jerkdom. Every religion, spirituality, ideology, and philosophy, the ones you like, hate, loathe and love, has its woke-sters claiming entitlement, indeed obligation to defend themselves to the point of total jerkdom. There is no woke; there’s just insights and guesses, many of them helpful, none of them the last word on anything. Your wokeness isn’t some magic protective cloak. To treat it as such is to nosedive into total jerkdom.
- Don’t be outraged by comparisons between you and total jerks: If someone says you’re acting like some notable total jerk, don’t play referee crying personal foul. Total jerks are human. You’re human. To pretend that there’s no possible comparison is evidence that you think you’re superhuman. Feel offended if you must, but swallow it so you can look at whether and where the shoe fits. A symptom of total jerkdom is the false assumption that you’re somehow exempt from being one.
- Stop instantly dismissing criticism: Ingest criticism even if it tastes bitter. Take it in. Trust your gut to sleep on it, digesting it, sorting out nutrients from waste. And remember, when you make other people wrong for criticizing you, they don’t stop criticizing you, they’ll just keep it from you, sharing it with others. Dismissing criticism because it’s bitter is, in effect, inviting others to keep you in the dark. You need the feedback even when it’s wrong. Does criticism make you a little anxious? Good. If you don’t want to be a total jerk you have to expect some anxiety.
- Stop assuming those who disagree with you misunderstand you: When people don’t buy what you’re saying, it doesn’t automatically mean that they don’t get it, don’t want it, are closed-minded, or are biased against you. Only total jerks think that to know their opinions is to love their opinions.
- Stop piling on moral principles as though the more you have, the more moral you are: Total jerks collect moral principles the way Imelda Marcos collected shoes as though the more they have, the higher their status. That’s not how morality works. Every moral rule you add compromises other moral rules. Always be positive? Always fight evil? There’s a tradeoff. See it? Always be tolerant? Always hold high standards? Again, a tradeoff. The people who collect moral principles like Imelda are not more moral but more hypocritical. They use their amassed moral principles as an arsenal to defend themselves against all threats and challenges. Do that and you’re well on your way to becoming a total jerk.
- Stop assuming that what you hate others doing to you, you couldn’t possibly do: You hate when people lie, play games, manipulate you, or are unfair to you? Join the club. Everyone hates that. And in that club, there are many who are much better at dishing it out than taking it in. Hating unfairness to ourselves does not make us fair-minded. Hating being lied to does not mean that we don’t lie. Only total jerks give themselves brownie points for caring about themselves as though it means they care.
- Cut out that “won’t back down” bravado: There’s nothing more virtuous than standing firm for what’s right, and nothing viler than standing firm for what’s wrong. Here’s the thing: None of us can tell whether we’re right or wrong. We can try to be right; we can guess whether we are, but we can’t tell. All pumped up on pride, we’re often the last to know how right we are. Total jerks don the armor of a saintly crusader and having put it on, assume that it proves they’re virtuous. The original crusaders were idiots who killed many Christians and Jews before getting to Jerusalem to fight the Muslims failing miserably. God on your side, because you’re playing dress-up in a saintly suit of armor? God is not impressed. It’s amazing how many total jerks cross-dress as brave saints as if might makes right, or theatrics makes virtue.
- Never rationalize total jerkdom by citing other people’s occasional jerkdom: “So what? they do it too,” That’s what total jerk say to justify their all-out jerkdom. It’s lame as a 24/7 drunk, saying, “So what? You had a glass of wine on Easter.” There’s a difference between occasional jerkdom and total jerkdom. Total jerks are unconstrained. That’s what’s meant by total. They’re absolute jerks, absolutely addicted to deflecting all challenges to their self-esteem. They don’t have to stay total jerks. They could change, but for now, they’re living the total jerkdom lifestyle, a non-stop commitment to self-defense at everyone else’s expense, self-defense often relies on false equivalents, as though since everyone has an ego, they’re entitled to be despotic egomaniacs.
Here’s a new 3-minute video that puts total jerks in perspective: