Note: If you’ve seen this before, well, I decided to write this up again; I can’t remember if I posted it here earlier or not, or just posted it on my newsletter. Anyway, I added/changed a few points, based on observations. 

As I look back over the lessons I learned in the previous year, the main one that strikes me is establishing my asshole theory.

Here’s my theory:

About one in four people are assholes.

I got this from walking along a high-traffic, easy-to-access bike and foot trail in Colorado, a place where there are no bars on the cell phone and no one to help you but your fellow travelers. One particularly bad day, I started waving at people. At everyone.

About a quarter of those people who weren’t listening to music or talking to someone else didn’t acknowledge the greeting. They made eye contact. They just didn’t react, or reacted negatively, with contempt.

Colorado, I might note, is a friendly place, where greeting other people is the norm. And I wasn’t doing this in Denver, but in a remote location where it was in the best interests of people to wave: I might be the person who had to get help in case of an accident, after all.

I acknowledge that some people might have waved who were, at heart, assholes, and some people might not have waved who weren’t. But, after several times of doing this, I felt pretty secure in the general proportions. Men, women, people of my race, people not of my race, little kids, old people: it all seemed to run to about one in four people going, “Even though it’s in my best long-term interests to extend some kind of minor acknowledgment of other people’s existence, I won’t.”

(Men will tend not to smile if they were with female partners or if I was with a male partner; I stopped counting those responses. I also didn’t count it if a big group passed by, and only one person greeted me, in case the social dynamic was such that one person was the public “face” that day. Also, people with fishing rods are almost universally not assholes, which is pretty cool.)

What was so game-changing about this theory was that I only just really started to set, and maintain, boundaries this year. Which means that previously, no matter how much I complained or whined or dragged my feet about it, I would, given enough time and pressure, would do what other people wanted to do.

And it was wrecking my life.

The details are still too hot and painful to me to recount in much detail, but to sum up: a lot of people who were my family and friends took advantage of me in ways that made me miserable, broke, and lonely.

Me being able to say “This person is an asshole, that is, a person who thinks mainly or only in terms of selfish, short-term gains, or is controlled by an asshole and is therefore also not reliable” was a relief.

People wanted things. They lied about what they wanted and why they wanted it. They guilt-tripped me, gaslit me, emotionally and verbally abused me, and blame-shifted it all on me.

I was able to go, “It was never about me. This person is an asshole.”

It was a relief.

Side note: I’ve been reading books about sociopathy and narcissism, and it seems pretty standard for the authors to say things like, “about one in twenty people are sociopaths” or “about one in twenty people are narcissists.”  If they’re not exaggerating, that means about one in ten people is a diagnosable narcissist or sociopath. But it’s hard to tell; sociopaths and narcissists tend not to believe that the problem lies with them, and even when they do, admitting a diagnosis like that can get you fired or ostracized.

Time passed and I blocked a lot of people on Facebook. I started to ask myself how I could learn to live with assholes. How to cope. Obviously, with such a big percentage of the population being assholes (at least, by my perceptions), some sort of strategy is necessary: you can’t live your life without having contact with at least some assholes.

I didn’t have a clue what to do at first, but I did start noticing some patterns:

First, the person would go completely overboard building up a bank account of goodwill. Normal people tend to try to do nice things for other people when it doesn’t interfere with their lives. Assholes try to smother you with how impressive the amount of benefits you will receive if you’re their side.

Second, the person would try to manipulate me. Because I didn’t have good boundaries, this would generally work, even though I would pretend to independence—while chewing my fingers until they bled.

Third, the person would become upset because they didn’t feel as rewarded by whatever they got out of me as I felt from what I got out of them—but it didn’t take much to make me feel rewarded, where they had a much higher bar to feeling rewarded, and it didn’t last very long.

Fourth, the person would try punishing me, since establishing that bank account hadn’t worked.

Fifth (usually after several cycles of varying tactics), the person would lash out at me to make me leave without having to actually tell me to leave.

The “story” would then shift so that I had been gaslighting, abusing, and manipulating the asshole all along.  Poor thing!

When I started reading books about narcissism, what I was seeing became not a surprising discovery but old hat, with corresponding terms like “love bombing” and “discard phase.”

In a way, it was reassuring to find out that I wasn’t discovering anything new. But it did make me wonder: why?

It’s not like assholes do a bunch of research before they start acting the way they do. What is it that makes assholes, who, at heart, are really only united by not waving back at strangers on a public trail, behave so similarly, both in the short term and over time?

My theory was incomplete…

I’ll write more of this later, but the article was getting long. If you liked this, try signing up for my newsletter, here. If you’re a writer, please check out my ongoing craft posts here, on Patreon.