I have this theory about assholes; they’re people who have no interest in anyone other than themselves.
What I’m coming to realize is that they’re people who also have no interest in anyone other than themselves in the current moment.
As far as I can tell, assholes don’t have long-term plans, not even ones that will benefit their future selves. They have a series of short-term, selfish, often secretive policies that tend to accumulate power, money, influence, and control—and that, in retrospect, look like plans. But they really just live in the moment.
If I’m right, this might help explain why assholes so often self-destruct, often taking other organizations and relationships down with them.
Here’s the pattern:
Assholes infiltrate existing organizations and relationships, acquire influence and control the way a dragon acquires a treasure hoard, and then do something incredibly stupid that wrecks both their own situation and the original organization or relationship. And then they try to shift the blame onto someone else—even when a sincere apology would save their ass.
It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s that they don’t see past the moment.
They cannot actually believe that the bills—particularly those with emotional or social rather than legal or financial consequences—will come due.
Assholes are incredibly clever and talented about short-term accomplishments.
They are incredibly bad at anything long term.
Think about the biggest asshole that you personally know. Think about what marks them as an asshole. What might come to mind first is the way they treat other people. Even when they put on an appearance of charm, they’re rude, they’re belittling, they’re manipulative.
But what’s really telling is to see how an asshole treats themselves: short-term thrills and pleasures, long-term self-sabotage.
In life, it’s hard to know when you’re dealing with an asshole over the short term. Assholes are good at the short term, and they’re good at coming up with policies that conceal their true behavior and motivations. They say all the right things, because saying the right things provides a low-cost, short-term benefit.
They’re not so good at maintaining long-term behaviors, though.
Over time, an asshole will reveal themselves. The truth will come out.
But what should you do over the short term? Be suspicious of everyone? Trust everyone and let the consequences be damned? Trust people at first, then change your tune the second that the asshole turns on you personally?
I think those plans are flawed. Trusting people who are trustworthy is one of the biggest benefits a person can experience. Trusting people who are untrustworthy is one of the biggest tragedies—and ignoring red flags until someone hurts you personally is how assholes get surrounded by sycophants and shock troops. That’s how they protect themselves.
So what should you do?
I think I must have the word “victim” on my forehead, from how often I get stalked or “chosen” by some asshole. Slowly, over a great deal of time, suffering, and expense, I’ve learned a few painful lessons.
Step one of mitigating the effects of assholes on your life? Love yourself. Even if you don’t think you’re worthy of it. Don’t wait until you deserve it. People who hate themselves, or tolerate hate from other people, are easy to manipulate. Hate generally doesn’t show itself by screaming or frothing at the mouth. It shows itself by contempt. Do not cooperate with contempt. When someone is rude “but only joking,” that’s a red flag of contempt.
Step two is to care for yourself first. Ask yourself What do I need? and handle that first. What you want might be getting spoiled rotten. But what you need might be a glass of water and ten seconds to stop and think. When someone can’t let you have even that, your hackles should rise.
Step three is to recognize when people do, and do not, support you. It doesn’t have to be a lot of support. Support is when people are happy for your successes and sad for your setbacks. They don’t jump in with unasked-for advice. They don’t tell you what you should have done differently. They don’t guilt-trip you for not succeeding. When people smile if good things happen for you, that’s enough.
Step four is to draw boundaries. If it were possible to draw boundaries without being able to do the first three things on my list, I’d recommend you draw boundaries first. But it just doesn’t seem possible to say that’s your problem, not mine until you love and care for yourself and can tell the difference between charm and support.
Boundaries are the rules that define what’s your problem and what’s not. That’s all. They will not only protect you from assholes, but from the people who will do you harm even though they genuinely mean well. And, when you’re in the middle of a meltdown, maybe even from yourself.
Because inside every boundary you set is that’s my problem, not yours.
Step five is to commit, or re-commit, yourself not to self-defeat. Make someone else defeat you. Make someone else have to shut you up. Make someone else have to say out loud what they want. Make someone else have to work their damnedest to get you to cross a boundary, to break a personal rule.
Don’t do it for them. Don’t assume, don’t listen to subtext, don’t pre-fail.
And finally, when someone throws up red flags, disengage.
Do not re-engage because they did something nice for you or because they said please.
Ask yourself if the red flag has changed.
If it has not, do not negotiate about your engagement.
A normal person can be negotiated with. There can be some give and take. Things don’t always have to be spelled out. You can rely on a normal person to keep an eye on the long term, and to understand that your relationship, whether personal or professional, is more benficial than any short-term win.
An asshole will never understand that. The only long-term good you can do for an asshole is to stand your ground. Giving them what they want will, because of who they are, only benefit them in the short term. They do not have an eye on the relationship, long-term benefits, or the greater good.
They just don’t have it in them.
You cannot control the behavior of an asshole. Everyone has bad days now and then—but assholes have bad lives. You can pity what an asshole has done and is doing to themselves. You can encourage them to do better. You can even take small, safe actions that support them without pandering to their short-term demands.
But you can’t pretend they will change, or that they will, over the long term, do anything other than try to sabotage you for their own limited, short-sighted benefit.
Don’t give them the opportunity to do so.
You’ll both be better off for it.
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