I think we can all agree that sometimes it feels like the world is absolutely chock-full of jerks – people who carelessly and selfishly make the world a shitty place to live.
Sometimes it’s through relatively small acts like littering, and other times it’s insidious behavior like nepotism and racism.
It feels like it’s all around us, all the time.
But has your nose become so sensitive to the stinky smell of rude, selfish, and exploitative behavior that it’s starting to take a toll on your well-being?
Then the question I have for you is this: If you’re so in tune with doing the right thing, why is it fair for you to feel like crap 90% of the time with anger and bitterness?
You don’t have to relax your standards or turn a blind eye to get some relief. There are other things you can do to keep your high moral standards yet stop hating people and feeling awful in the process.
It is possible to feel happier and more connected to beauty and goodness in the world as you continue to elevate your cherished values.
The Unexpected Consequence of Hating People (Even Jerks)
This post is the 3rd in a series about the top Connection Crushers – behaviors that keep us lonely and isolated from others.
So I’m sure you can anticipate that this post is going to try convince you to ease up on your righteous anger and stop hating people for your own benefit.
But we both know how resistant to that you are going to be.
Deep down, you feel like letting up on your hyper-sensitivity to bad behavior means allowing it, endorsing it – and I know the thought of doing that, even to feel better, is going to be out of the question for you.
Bitter anger may be bad for you, but if the alternative is letting bad people get away with being crappy and hurting others, then you consider it well worth it.
You simply can’t fathom a scenario where you are nice to jerks, even if it means being happier. F THAT.
And I get it, I do. But what if I told you that what you’re doing is not really trading your happiness for justice?
The picture is more complex, and here is what it looks like:
First, it starts out with feeling angry and bitter towards people who don’t meet your high standards for interpersonal conduct.
Then, that ossifies into a stance – a stance of moral hyper vigilance. And frankly, this stance is addictive and gets out of control quickly.
It’s analogous to any other kind of anxious hyper vigilance – such as obsessive worrying, phobias, and OCD.
Essentially, when it comes to anxious hyper vigilance, obsessing feels like control. And since outrageous things actually occur quite infrequently, we start believing – wrongly – that our obsessing is keeping bad things at bay.
We become convinced on a primal level that if we stop obsessing about and looking out for bad behavior, that we’ll stop being in control, and we’ll stop protecting ourselves.
This phenomenon is the thing underlying your moral hyper vigilance. And it feels good, too. It feels like you’re elevating your values and living by your principles. It’s understandable that you don’t want to give it up.
The problem is, the stance quickly becomes indiscriminate.
Not only does it end up directed at fairly harmless and innocent stinky behavior (like some jerk not looking behind them to see if they should hold a door open!), it ends up turning towards you, too.
Once the stance of hyper vigilance gets its grip on you, every tiny human mistake you make evokes extreme self-chastising way out of proportion to your misdeeds.
And you may think that’s a good thing, that you will hold a very high standard for your own behavior.
But what about when it means that you don’t give yourself a break to the point where your confidence sags?
What about when other people don’t want to be around you because you don’t even seem to like yourself (despite being a pretty damn good person)?
How is that fair? That someone with a very high standard and eye for pro-social behavior should feel self-tortured and marginalized?
And furthermore, how can a beaten down person achieve any meaningful change in the world?
So, if these bad outcomes all start with hating on jerks, does that mean in order to fix them you have to look the other way when people behave badly?
I hope it’s comfort to that no, it absolutely doesn’t.
The False Belief that is Undermining Everything You Value
Again, I promise, you don’t have to make a choice between relaxing your standards and feeling less bitter.
That’s because your hyper vigilance has convinced you of a lie, and that lie has made the world look worse to you than is accurate.
The bottom line is this: Only a fairly small percentage of people are really lousy people. Everyone else is just human. Imperfect, sure. But not worth the discomfort of your contempt. And perhaps worthy of your empathy.
How can we tell?
I’ve selected two simple methods to illustrate it. The first is based on the prevalence of people with personality disorders. The second is based on the general idea that human qualities and traits tend to be distributed along a normal probability distribution.
Less than 10% of People Have Personality Disorders
Personality disorders, in particular the Cluster B disorders of Narcissism, Borderline Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, and Anti-Social Personality Disorder, have become very popular as ways to conceptualize evil, destructiveness, and selfishness.
And this makes sense because Cluster B personality disorders are essentially patterns of social conduct that alienate others through manipulation and selfishness.
The other kinds of personality disorders, and indeed the other disorders more generally catalogued in the DSM V, tend to be more sympathetic.
Equating “crappy person” to someone with a Cluster B personality disorder is not perfectly accurate, but it’s a reasonable proxy that let’s us quantify the prevalence of people who demonstrate really shitty interpersonal behavior that is willfully chosen.
If you’re not familiar with these disorders, here is a breakdown of symptoms DIRECTLY FROM DSM V:
Antisocial Personality Disorder: A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
- Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
- Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
- Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
- Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
- Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
- Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
- Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
Borderline Personality Disorder: A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. (Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.)
- A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
- Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
- Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). (Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.)
- Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.
- Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
- Chronic feelings of emptiness.
- Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
- Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.
Histrionic Personality Disorder: A pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and attention seeking, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Is uncomfortable in situations in which he or she is not the center of attention.
- Interaction with others is often characterized by inappropriate sexually seductive or
- Displays rapidly shifting and shallow expression of emotions.
- Consistently uses physical appearance to draw attention to self.
- Has a style of speech that is excessively impressionistic and lacking in detail.
- Shows self-dramatization, theatricality, and exaggerated expression of emotion.
- Is suggestible (i.e., easily influenced by others or circumstances).
- Considers relationships to be more intimate than they actually are.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents,
expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or
should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable
treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
- Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
I’ve put up this detailed list of symptoms because of the misinformation rampant across the internet. I thought some readers might appreciate the diagnostic criteria directly from the DSM.
Now, I’m not suggesting that people with Cluster B personality disorders don’t deserve empathy. In fact, I think they do.
However, whether they deserve empathy or not, it makes sense to be wary of these people because of their unpredictability, selfishness, and destructiveness.
And “crappy person” moral vigilance makes perfect sense when it comes to people displaying enough of these behaviors to merit a diagnosis.
But the fact of the matter is that well under 10% of of people in the population have a Cluster B personality disorder at any given time, according to epidemiological data.
But what about people who are just below the threshold? Does it make sense to have contempt for them?
The next way of looking at bad behavior lends itself nicely to that question.
Less than 10% of People Demonstrate Any Given Extreme Trait Value
Most human traits are distributed across people according to a normal probability distribution. This just means that most people cluster around the average value, of say height, and few people are either extremely tall or extremely short.
This extends to personality traits, too.
Psychologists never seem to be in complete agreement, but one popular personality model (the HEXACO model) includes a dimension intended to capture, well, crappy behavior. It’s called the “Honesty-Humility” factor, and people who score low on this personality factor will be:
- and inclined to Feel Superior
The Honesty-Humility factor significantly overlaps with the Cluster B personality disorders.
And based on what we know about how traits distribute over people, while about 2-5% of people meet the criteria for a bonafide Cluster B personality disorder, the remaining people are not all just hovering right under the cut-off.
The vast majority of people are only insincere once in a while, fair a lot of the time, greedy occasionally but not as a dominating trait, and feel special but not in a “let them eat cake” kind of way.
People have been wondering about whether humans are fundamentally good or fundamentally bad throughout all of recorded history.
And fortunately, for the past 100 years or so we’ve been carefully recording human tendencies in large populations and can now answer that question with data.
***Drum Roll Please***
The answer is that most people are medium-crappy, with the potential to be both a bit jerky and pleasantly wonderful.
A few people are routinely awful, and a handful are consistently saints.
What that means for you is that you can safely encourage your hyper vigilance to relax. You really don’t have to be on the constant lookout for selfish, badly behaved jerks.
The Rule that Can Stop You From Going Overboard with Hate
So, if only 10% of people can be considered social hazards, mostly everyone else is going to hover in the flawed but decent zone.
Identifying a really crappy person is outside of the scope of this article, but if you’re going to try to keep your hyper vigilance in check, you may wish to check your hate list against this percentage.
In other words, if you feel contempt for more than 10% of the people you know, you’re going overboard, and you’re not doing yourself any favors.
If you’re hating on over 10% of people, you’re almost definitely in the habit of turning that contempt in on yourself, putting unnecessary negativity into the world, making it less likely that you’ll have rewarding relationships, and making yourself less effective than you could be in many arenas.
So look around your workplace, your school, and your extended family. If more than 1 in 10 people is seriously getting on your nerves, consider upping your empathy and understanding.
Which leads us to my final point.
Your Best Weapon Against Unsavory But Harmless People
Now I know, the thought of extending empathy towards someone who is doing something that you find despicable or even just annoying can be hard, at best.
Especially because I’m not talking about the passive-aggressive, “bless your heart” faux empathy. I’m talking about the real deal.
And since you have high moral standards, it means you also have a capacity for empathy:
You don’t like people who are selfish assholes because the idea of others getting mistreated by jerks makes your blood boil. It’s natural and effortless for you to imagine the negative consequences of selfish behavior.
So, your empathy is in good practice, and you surely don’t need tips on using it.
You just need the will to turn it towards people who are oblivious, caught on the hedonic treadmill, disorganized, anxiously self-focused, and just plain flawed.
And if you soften your position on run-of-the-mill human flaws, you also might notice that you’re quite a bit kinder to yourself in the process, too. And you’re a good person; you deserve that.