“Why are people such jerks?” seems to be a wistful thought we all have contemplated from time to time. I know I have! Yet we often let other people’s “jerkiness” impact us far more than it really should. Oftentimes when people come into counseling, a significant portion of a session can be dedicated to venting/processing experiences regarding the “jerk or jerkS” in a client’s life.
Definition of jerk
It runs the gamut on WHO a jerk IS–it can be someone’s coworker, a person in one’s extended social circle, a boss, a family member. Jerks can appear in any realm of our life.
Clients will oftentimes wrap up a story they share with me about someone’s jerkiness with a, “Do you BELIEVE this?” regarding a person’s behavior or something that the jerk in question had the audacity to say. ACTUALLY, I do believe it–I have heard enough to know none of us escape people who get under our skin or act inappropriately. It is a common experience brought into the counseling room.
However, many people can adapt a jerk’s role in their life to what works best for them as to lessen the impact this person can have on them. Obviously, this is harder to do if the person in question is your boss or your mother. Other people get stuck in the indignant stage where they try to CHANGE the other person or start getting stuck in why someone is treating them so poorly. Yet the more that people can recognize that the unhealthy behavior they experience from others is either unintentional or is more about said person rather than about them, the less they personalize the jerkiness of others and the less impact it has on them. A jerk’s way of being is usually about some flaw they have or distortion in their thinking. Unless you have done something significant, it is not about you.
I also think as you begin to recognize that other people’s bad behavior is about them, not you, you begin to depersonalize and detach from the rotten experience of dealing with a jerk (which we all inevitably will).
Jerks can be hard to understand. Who wants to conduct their life in such a negative manner? Especially since there is a lot of incentive for us to get along with others. For starters, humans are incredibly social beings who need positive, healthy relationships. In fact, there really would be no chance of society existing if people did not, by and large, cooperate with each other and get along.
Yet people often harm each other on purpose. As disgusting as that is.
Why is this? Why do people so often want to hurt and harm others? There are many reasons which I will go into below but for the most part, people are mean to others in order to feel better about themselves. A person who is a jerk gets to feel good at your expense.
SO, why are people such jerks?
I don’t believe most people are jerks. However, under the right circumstances, most people can act like a jerk.
Jerks are Noticeable
Often there appears to be so many jerks in the world around us, because the behavior of rude, obnoxious people tends to be more noticeable. One reason for this is probably the way our brains are wired—we are designed to pick up on possible threats to us and those we care about. We are wired this way for survival. Another reason these people are more noticeable is that their behavior is often particularly hurtful and offensive.
Being a Jerk is often REWARDED
Perhaps the reward can be tangible such as a ruthless attorney being rewarded by making more money and developing a thriving practice. However, it can also be rewarded with attention (albeit often negative attention) or escalation of conflict. It varies with each person what sort of reward is the end goal, although for the obnoxious behavior to continue there must be some sort of reward to the person exhibiting this behavior.
Why People Are Jerks
Intentional and Unintentional Reasons
1)Never socialized properly/lack of self-awareness. There are people who have poor social skills. They may not have been taught the proper social skills as children (ie MANNERS) or they may not have the experience with social interaction to have learned the skills. As a result, they may be awkward interacting with others. Some people may have little insight or awareness of how they and their behavior impact others. They might tend to be more concrete in their thought processes and don’t realize their behavior may be hurtful or rude. For example, a simple question such as “How old are you?” may not have much undercurrent of meaning but the person being asked such a question feels insulted.
2)Miscommunication. Communication is at the very least a two-way street. At any particular point, one person is conveying information and the other is receiving information. Problems can occur anywhere in the process. Ever hear the expression people hear what they want to hear? YUP. Miscommunication is when the individual conveying information makes errors in the process of communicating. Or selectively chooses what he or she takes in.
3)False Assumptions. When someone engages in assumption making, often referred to as “mind-reading” because they think they know what the other person is really thinking, they may sometimes react accordingly. For instance, the person who believes that the other person doesn’t like him/her may tend to interpret EVERYTHING the other person says as an insult. Reactions due to these assumptions may lead to more negative consequences such as the other person perceiving him or her as unfriendly jerk.
4)Self-protection. Meanness in the case of self-protection is due to a person’s inability to take responsibility for their problems and to do something about it. Healthier people among us try to recognize when they are mean, apologize and make amends, and try to make changes. Self-protection has many possible root causes to put on this defense. Low self-esteem being one. A person with low self-esteem may be hurting emotionally, and unfortunately, an effective way to feel better is to feel superior to someone else. So, there are a number of ways that this may occur—jealousy, passive aggressive escalation, projection, rationalization, the list goes on and on. People tend to be mean when their self-worth has been challenged and they are not feeling particularly good about themselves.
Sadly, insecurity drives much of the evil behavior in the world.
5)Controlling personality. Some people protect themselves by trying to control others. They are trying to create a comfortable world for themselves. In the process they may cause a great deal of discomfort for others and come across as a controlling jerk. People with controlling personalities can be trying to mitigate anxiety, struggle with a need to always be right, tend to be rigid in their thinking, and need validation of their negative world view. For some people who are miserable, validating or confirming their negative view of the world helps them to feel less miserable because they can feel good about their assessment: “See, people ARE only out for themselves.”
6)Reactive reasons. One of the most common reasons for meanness is due to emotional reactivity. In such situations the person may just be reacting without thinking through the impact of their reaction. Therefore, often their focus may not be for the purpose of hurting someone else although it can be. Also, the reaction can sometimes be quite severe and harmful. Therefore, it is included more towards the malicious end of the spectrum of why people are jerks.
6a)Frustration. When someone is frustrated with a situation, they may react in a manner to release tension. When this reaction is directed against someone else, it can be considered mean. For instance, a mother hits her shin against a piece of equipment in the garage and then yells at her son and blames him for stuffing the bin full of equipment.
6b)Denial. Another way of attempting to reduce stress is through denial. However, the process of denial can potentially be mean to someone else. You cannot accept the reality of who you are and how you act, and you slip into this defense mechanism.
7)Superiority. A person who struggles with feelings of superiority can lead to mean behavior that may not always be deliberate but can be very hurtful to others. Some people TRULY believe they are superior to others.
8)Mental illness. A person with a mental illness can be downright mean even if not intentionally doing so. For instance, a woman with obsessive-compulsive disorder who demands that her family engage in excessive cleaning of the house such as vacuuming IMMEDIATELY after they come into the house. If they don’t comply, she becomes very angry in her attempt to control them and lashes out screaming at her children and spouse.
9)Attempts to gain respect/attention. Some people confuse respect with fear. They believe that if they mistreat someone, they will gain respect. Other people are like the schoolyard bully–they never grow up and continue to hurt others in adulthood for the purpose of obtaining attention–even if it is negative.
10)Attempts to gain power. Power struggles exist all around us. We can see how making someone else hurt or react gives someone a sense of control over that person and allows them to feel more powerful. The attempt to gain power can be either direct and aggressive or it can be passive-aggressive. A real jerk way to behave!
To Sum Up
This was an overview of some of the many reasons a person acts like jerk. Unless you have done something tremendous, another people’s meanness is not about you. Mind you, people who are mean will often find some minor thing that you have done to justify their meanness and blame you.
The main purpose of this post is to assist people in recognizing that meanness is often rewarded when the attack is successful. But it needs YOUR participation to be successful. In other words, if you feel bad about yourself, the meanness has been successful.
My suggestion is DO not participate. Recognize that unless you have done something that clearly hurts someone else, you are not the cause of the meanness. Likely you will see this person act nasty to many people—you are just one of many. Pity or feel sad for jerks whose experience of the world is small, negative, and limited.
One definition of the word mean is “small.” Mean people live small, think small, and feel small—the smaller, the meaner. They are likely to experience the consequences of their meanness and won’t live very happy lives. Focus on living your life and don’t get involved in the pettiness of mean people.
If you opt to live your life consciously, you’ll find that a story acknowledging your hero’s strength to not be impacted by the meanness of someone else feels truer than one depicting you as a victim of someone else’s dysfunction. You’ll see that whatever your physical size, you really are a bigger person than any jerk out there.
If you find you are struggling with a jerk in YOUR LIFE and would like to schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):
Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC
Anew Counseling Services LLC
617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649