Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Asshole Effect

My most recent blog piece focused on the negativity people in my position attract. Call it the asshole effect. We’ve all had to deal with it. Knock on any door, these idiots are everywhere - people who hate Helen Keller, find fault in a sunset, and think cat food is fillet of cat, which they gleefully describe as tasting like chicken.

Their values are not our values. Hate thy neighbor, the Radioactive Plutonium Rule, It is better to receive than to give ... Whereas we struggle mightily trying to become better people, they cruise through life doing what comes naturally. Ironically - they are the miserable ones.

But it tends to be our friends and loved ones who hurt us most. From assholes, we know what to expect. From those close to us, the unexpected amounts to the unkindest cut of all.

Funny thing, a hundred individuals can heap praise on us - yet we vividly recall the one negative comment. Your dear friend throws himself in front of a car to save your life - you’re furious because three days ago he forgot your birthday.

What is it about us?

Today, by pure chance, I came across a blog piece on Psychology Today by self-described generalist, Jeremy Sherman PhD.

“We are all thin skinned,” he writes. “No one likes hearing anything that feels discouraging or critical. We don’t welcome news that feels like a setback, a loss of status, a loss of gained momentum. We find unpleasant anything that seems to say, ‘you missed a spot’ ..."

No surprise here. Here’s the eye-opener. Citing Jonah Lehrer, author of “How We Decide,” Dr Sherman documents how “loss aversion” contributes to irrational behavior: “Loss aversion explains why sustainable partnerships are ones in which positive encounters outweigh negative ones, five to one.”

Wait! Hold on! It takes FIVE positive encounters to offset ONE negative one? Apparently so. Not only that, any interaction only slightly ambiguous tends to get moved into the negative column. No wonder we’re so miserable.

I’m assuming Dr Sherman is talking about normal people. What about poor shmucks like us? We depressive types can’t seem to help it. We tend to give no weight to positive events and assign disproportionate value to the negative ones. Not only that, we tend to interpret neutral or only slightly encouraging events as negative.

So what does it take for us to balance the scales? A hundred positive events? No wonder we’re so miserable. Fortunately (I use the term loosely) I have bipolar. I have a tendency to over-react to good news. For instance, today I found out that a meteor did not fall on my head, and I’m ecstatic about that.

So what is going on here? Can we point to a system malfunction in the brain? Last month, at the Eighth International Conference on Bipolar Disorder in Pittsburgh, I came across a recent fMRI study that pinpointed a certain location in the brain that appears to be responsible for bipolars over-reacting to both reward and disappointment.

It’s as if we can’t turn our brains off.

The brain studies are coming in thick and fast. A lot of stuff is going on beneath the skull. Naturally, it’s easy - with our brains, especially - to interpret these findings as proof that we’re hard-wired for failure. Not necessarily. The brain is a work-in-progress and we can influence its development.

Granted, sometimes - often - it seems like we’re pushing a rock uphill. It helps if we have four muscular individuals in our scrum, shoulders to the boulder. But all it takes is one asshole, perched smugly above, with an extended pinky jabbing at our rock.

Screw you, asshole! This rock is running you over!


AliceT said...

John - I was laughing so loudly at some parts of this that my husband came in from the other room!!!!...right....the meteor didn't fall on your head and you're estatic....I really get it....and I really get the low end, which is my major end mostly. The brain....and that darned amygdala with crossfiling all over the place with everything with an emotional content....and pretty much everything in my experience with bipolar can have an emotional component. The great gift that bites you in the butt at the same time. Just love your writing and all you do for us. Hope you feel and store that.

Anonymous said...

This blog appeared quite auspisciously for me as a member of Next Step who has been summoned to
attend the retribution of the "Pointy Finger Posse" tomorrow. Evidently, some pork chops went AWOL from the freezer and threw the Administration into Crisis Mode....they had to close the Center today.
Rather than bathe myself in negative energy and recriminations tomorrow, I'll use my time with my Voc Counselor to pick up an application at the site of my last Nursing job some six years ago. It's kinda neat how the
the Universe can change your coiurse with a whisper.
I will still go to Next Step for the free laundry and toilet paper, Journaling on Saturday.

Anonymous said...

As you regularly report your mental condition-which I appreciate as part of your very personal reporting-I can't help but be confused. Recently you characterized yourself as having a low-grade depression problem. Now you say you're "ecstatic" that you weren't hit by a meteor today. Those two comments jsut don't mesh.

Are you OK? I worry that the term asshole keeps cropping up. Anger, lashing out, etc. is part of mental illness. Maybe you might want to step back and look at why you are getting so angry.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Anonymous #2. You failed to notice a major clinical condition of mine - humor. If I have my way, "Asshole" will be introduced into the DSM-V as a new diagnosis. And - hello? - my depressions don't last forever. Your assumptions that I have an anger problem are unfounded and unwarranted.

Anonymous said...

OK. This is anonymous #2 again. I didn't mean to say- and in fact did not say- you have an anger problem. But I did mean to say that for all of us
anger can become a serious issue, if only because we are very sensitive to the assholishness of the world, among our other thin-skinned (and often all-to-perceptive) reactions. And it's worth watching.

I was very struck by a comment by a lady responding to your "Comments You Don't Get to See." She said she just walks away from conflict because she fears her own monster will come out. That she avoids people because she can't deal with the conflicts that communication eventually invite.

So here's one of those situations. Right here. And I won't back down. I'm an absolute fan of yours, but you're prone to the same fallabilies as any of us. And I say, be careful of calling people assholes, because we all are assholes, at certain points. I don't exclude myself from the general asshole-fest. So now I'm not going to allow myself to use the word for six months, plus I have to double up on meditation.

Sigh. It's a bitch. Didn't mean to offend you.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous #2. I readily concede to "thin-skinnishness," which is why I quote Dr Sherman that we're all thin-skinned. (Thank God it's not just me.) Negative events have a far greater impact on us than positive ones - I didn't realize how much so till I read his piece today.

I'm hesitatant about separating individuals out into "assholes," as this kind of labeling is dehumanizing, but I do find it necessary. Once I know what I'm dealing with - as exhibited in the examples I gave in my previous blog post - then I have a much better handle on both the situation and my emotions.

Fortunately, my face-to-face exposure to assholes is limited. I don't know how individuals with abusive bosses or toxic co-workers or ones who have to deal daily with a damanding public do it. They can teach me a lot of lessons, and I encourage them to do so.

My attitude is far different when I incur the wrath of someone I respect or when I realize I've inflicted harm on an innocent person. Then I tend to be mortified. If someone is angry at me, I need to listen. This isn't always easy, as the natural reaction is to assume a defensive crouch or lash back.

But if I do that, I'm doomed to repeat the same anger-inducing behavior the rest of my life.

As you said, it's a bitch. But our dialogue here illustrates the value in listening to each other. Very very glad we cleared things up. Keep posting and keep educating me.

Anonymous said...

Dear John,

regarding your comment about cat food being made out of cats- ask Bullwinkle what's in his Fancy Feast. if it's not fish, the label says chicken .Only it's doggie. All cats know that!
(Just kidding readers, it's a cat joke).

Miss Monkeypants, who will never be an asshat. Have you ever noticed that kittehs and groggies have a built in BS detector?

Anonymous said...

Dear John,

I loved this post and these comments...what insight. I knew I was "overly sensitive", but always tried to hide it and act tough. It is now at age 45, after being diagnosed with bi-polar five years now that I am throwing up all this negativity through dreams and tears and such.

Knowledge, awareness, taking the time to manage our illness and just let life be as it is and appreciating the nice things helps.

Thanks for your insights and the knowlege you share!


John McManamy said...

Many thanks, Lori, and welcome to Knowledge is Necessity.

herb said...

Hi John,

I can only speak for me and quite frankly I appreciate your sense of humor. Personally, humor and the ability to also laugh at myself have been of great help to me through the years.

While your adding the eloquent diagnosis of "Asshole" to the DSM-V please consider also adding the diagnosis of “Self” as in the serious illness exhibiting symptoms of the inability to see beyond oneself so amply demonstrated by many of the zealots (aka Assholes) posting to these various message forums.

My father-in-law may he rest in peace worked for a major corporation and was always called upon to M.C. (master of ceremonies) many corporate functions. One of the pieces of advice he handed down to me was to always try to inject some humor. So keep up your superior efforts and sense of humor.

On the other hand when I read some of the postings from these zealots I can’t help but laughing to myself knowing these individuals are deadly serious while exhibiting the aforementioned two diagnoses. I guess it’s my wry and sometimes offbeat sense of humor that gets the best of me.

Be well.


John McManamy said...

Hey, Herb. Funny thing about the antipsychiatry contingent - they are entirely humorless. Dawdy has great writing skills, but it's all in the service of mean-spirited diatribes. Never once, do I recall, has he cracked a joke or executed a humorous turn of phrase.

What's weird about this is that writers are masters of wordplay and irony. This makes humor natural to a writer, even those who write on tragic topics. Granted, there are times when humor is in bad taste, but bad taste has never stopped Dawdy before. Three or four years of blogging without cracking a smile is a long time.

The other thing I detect is a total lack of empathy. If an individual is not a victim of bad psychiatry, Dawdy and company aren't interested. Family members of those with mental illness are totally vilified (unless they take an antipsychiatry stand).

I'll stop right there.

herb said...



That is very perceptive, interesting and points well stated.


Raghunandan S said...

Dear John,

Very nice post. This made me sit and read again and again. Also, it brings a smile on the reader's face. Thank you very much.


Raghunandan S