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Diagnosis: Asshole
Psychiatrists and psychologists, in my opinion, are far too prissy in telling people what's wrong with them. Of course, there are a good many who have very little wisdom, and few or lax standards for how can they really guide their patients in any substantive way?

The problem is, most people aren't that equipped to judge the quality of their therapy. I think the parchment on the wall is a security blanket for many patients, allowing them to take it on faith that the doc they're seeing knows what he or she is doing.

I'm suddenly reminded of the New York City shrink who, in the early 90s, after talking to me for all of 35 minutes, wanted to put me on...what else? Lithium! Hello? I was a little down at the time -- because I wasn't making enough money and I was having a hard time finding a boyfriend. Struggling and a little lonely does not a manic-depressive make!

I LOVED this essay by Dr. Richard A. Friedman in The New York Times which hits on an underdiagnosed (or completely undiagnosed) problem -- the patient is an asshole. A nasty, mean-spirited asshole. Not necessarily because he has an attachment disorder or is depressed or manic-depressive, but maybe because he's just a born jerk. Here's an excerpt:

...If some people turn out happy and good despite a lifetime of withering hardships, why can’t some people be mean or bad for no discernible reason?

There can be a relationship between nastiness and mental illness, and many therapists assume that when patients are mentally ill and mean, the illness is probably the cause of the ill temper.

But human meanness is far more common than all the mental illness in the population combined, so the contribution of mental illness to this essential human trait must be very small indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty of undesirable human behavior that falls well within the rightful domain of psychiatry to understand and treat. But must we turn everything we don’t like about our fellow humans into a form of psychopathology?

Think about it. About your own family. Is there, maybe, a mean gene? At the very least, are there two kids who are very much alike in temperment and view of the world, and one who's very unlike the others? It's like that in my family. And that's played out in Nancy Segal's studies of (monozygotic) identical twins:

While studying identical twins that were separated at birth, Segal was impressed by their similarities, despite their different home environments. Many of the separated twins held similar jobs, had similar mannerisms, liked the same kinds of food and entertainment, and frequently felt an immediate bond upon first meeting.

...The personalities of identical twins also are of interest to Segal.

“Some of the commonalities are incredible,” she says. “For instance, we discovered a case where twins, taking a test in the same class, made almost identical mistakes. In fact, in some instances, universities wanted to penalize identical twins because they’re convinced they’re cheating...only to discover that it simply wasn’t true.

“With identical twins, they seem to have similar processing skills.”

The question is, if somebody is a mean mofo, right from the genes (which, according to Matt Ridley, switch on and off in response to environmental forces [which can include social forces]), how much of the mean mofo thing can be controlled?

Posted by aalkon at February 25, 2007 11:13 AM


I can see why psychiatrists might be a little reluctant to pull the gloves off. "Well, you're just a mean-spirited, self-absorbed, hateful son of a bitch," and watch the patient take his business elsewhere.

It's interesting to hear about the possibility of a "mean gene," but if there is found to be any validity at all in it, I fear people like Crid will start using that as an excuse for obnoxious and rude behavior.

Your far less than equal rival, Dear Abby, once addressed a letter from a person who simply hated dinner parties intensely. People were writing in suggesting that he was bi-polar, depressed, etc., and that he should see a psychiatrist.

Idiots. There was nothing wrong with him! The ones who should be treated for mental illness are the ones who actually enjoy being dressed up, and sitting around a table for three and a half hours in maddeningly dull conversation. To me, that's insane. The only ones who could possibly enjoy something like this must be numbed (either psychically or medically) out of any passion whatsoever.

Posted by: Patrick at February 25, 2007 1:50 AM

My boyfriend isn't fond of social gatherings of a certain sort, so when I go to one of those gatherings, I try to leave him home. I go to a journalist dinner once a month. People sometimes ask me why I never bring him. "I like him to be happy," I tell them, "And he'll be much happier if I meet him at my place after dinner."

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 25, 2007 2:00 AM

> an excuse for obnoxious
> and rude behavior.

In recent years, I've found much evidence of Scotch-Irish heritage in the family of origin, though no mention of it was made in the house as we grew. We could tell we were white, but that's where it ended... There was no alcohol, funny accent, overseas family, or observance of holidays.

Patrick's an Irish name. Is it real? I too loathe showy dinners with purely gratuitous socializing. Maybe we have a background in common. And we should check in with this Gregg fellow... He's got the temperament, and he goes for redheads.

Friedman's closing in on the truth: Postwar America's fascination with psychology --whether by pharmacy or talking cures-- has given us a weak, childish model for dealing with each other.

Being an asshole isn't a "gene." People's interests collide. Imagining that people are 'just mean' collapses our insight of human nature to an infantilizing fantasy: That the world could be made right if policy & enforcement were in order; that if Daddy would make Ricky stop punching Debbie in the back seat during trips to Granny's, everyone could be happy.

Posted by: Crid at February 25, 2007 5:32 AM

Hmmmmm. Not sure I'd attribute that entirely to the genes. One can have a comfortable upbringing but still be shown through daily behavior of other family members that meanness is acceptable and normal. If you have parents who view nice people as stupid patsies, you probably will too. I know a few people who didn't want for anything growing up, but whose parents are horrific in ways that has permanently affected their behavior. The ones who get therapy manage to behave in ways exactly opposite those of their parents - the rest mimic it. Do I think genes play a role here? Sure. But I also think that having your material needs met while you're growing up is not necessarily a recipe for nice behavior - in fact, it can be quite the opposite.

As for expecting these people to control themselves...I expect everyone control their behavior to some degree, with the possible exception of very small children, those with inborn mental deficiencies, or those with severe head trauma that has caused mental deficiencies. Mean people don't fit any of those categories. I'm certainly not going to demand that anyone try to turn into a nice person on the inside, but I don't think what one feels on the inside necessarily should translate into what one does on the outside. Or, to be less long-winded, I can expect mean mofos to shut up a lot of the time if they don't want to lose their jobs/friends/spouses. If they don't want to, then they can accept the consequences like anyone else who mouths off.

I have, once in a blue moon, heard of/met people who were able to realize that their behavior was causing their problems, and who took steps to fix it. It can be done. (Side note: The NYT story reinforces my deep-held belief that anyone who described himself as a "nice guy" is not, in fact, a nice guy - at best he's passive-aggressive, at worst he's nasty. I know a lot of nice guys...but none of them would automatically describe themselves as being "nice.")

Posted by: marion at February 25, 2007 5:41 AM

Whoops, "Scots-Irish." Sorry, the sun's not up yet here.

Posted by: Crid at February 25, 2007 6:00 AM

Hmm. Does this suggest that there's a "redheaded bitch" gene, making you more belligerent than the genetically-dim blondes and "smart brunettes" around you? There has to be a reason somewhere, perhaps tucked back into that cave ancestor thing.

By the way, I'm aware that it's just a "marker". A redhead is just easier to remember, whatever she does...

Posted by: Radwaste at February 25, 2007 8:30 AM

"I hate people but I love gatherings."

Randall from Clerks.

Posted by: eric at February 25, 2007 8:43 AM

If you can afford a shrink, you're making enough money.

Posted by: Jim Treacher at February 25, 2007 8:44 AM

You never make enough money to live in New York City.

Per what marion said above:

I have, once in a blue moon, heard of/met people who were able to realize that their behavior was causing their problems, and who took steps to fix it. It can be done

There's the thinking, that if you have, for example, an "attachment disorder" -- ie, mommy's cold and unresponsive to your needs, which affects your later ability to have healthy relationships, you're pretty much fucked by it for life...but what you can do is make an effort to minimize it.

I believe you can, especially with Ellis' Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, change your behavior if you're a mean mofo, because it probably stems from irrational thinking (ie, the world "should" spread rose petals in my path, everything "should" be easy). I do think it's likely that the tendency to be a mean motherfucker is probably geneticaly passed down in some people.

And I definitely got the redheaded bitch gene. And, in addition, there's the interaction with the red hair and the environment: nasty little brats who pick on the person who's different. I think that made me both stronger and more compassionate. And, from my experience being forced to engage with nasty kids, less afraid than most people to engage now.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 25, 2007 9:02 AM

People who hate certain forms of socializing do not have mental problems... perhaps just an introverted personality. The Atlantic did a nice article on introverts and how to deal with them:

My last long-term girlfriend was convinced I had problems with depression because of my varying degree of behavior during certain gatherings. It just didn’t sink in that it’s the quality of the people and not the quantity.

Posted by: Joe at February 25, 2007 9:11 AM

Exactly. My boyfriend is great if you're very interesting and he can sit and talk to you one-on-one. If you want to gossip about journalism, he'd rather be home pulling out his toenails with a pliers.

Luckily for him, I'm perfectly happy to go to parties by myself (although he does sometimes come -- ideally, to the less lethal ones, from his point of view). A big problem is people who aren't comfortable alone, and feel compelled to drag a person who's miserable in social situations along with them.

I just hate that look on his face when he's at a party he doesn't want to be at. I'd give anything not to see that.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 25, 2007 9:17 AM

I have the red head gene too. But in Italian cultures, red heads are viewed as an omen or messengers. The bearer of bad or good news.

On the occasion of being set up with a date from my family. The time to meet the date's family. I would laugh when an older aunt or grandmother would do the sign of the cross when they would see me the first time.

Its just red heads will always stand out. Based on popular perceptions or cultural superstitions.

Posted by: Joe at February 25, 2007 9:45 AM

> ....being dressed up, and sitting around a table for three and a half hours in maddeningly dull conversation.

You've obviously been at the wrong DPs. At my house, you don't dress up, the food, wine and conversation are all guaranteed first class, and you'd better be alert because your opinions will be challenged.

Posted by: Stu "El Inglés" Harris at February 25, 2007 9:47 AM

Stu, nobody would doubt that, but there are some of us who just can't look forward to socializing no matter how good it's going to be. The Rauch article cheats two imporant qualities in olympic-caliber introversion: Shyness and misanthropy. These are not mutually exclusive! A single heart can hold both!

Posted by: Crid at February 25, 2007 10:00 AM

And don't leave me out! Even extroverts can hate people. I was filled with loathing for a number of people yesterday; most notably, the mother who let her child throw tantrums (plural!) in the cafe where I spend my Saturday. The rather young grandmother was there, too. Neither did much of anything to stop the tantrums, to stop the kid from standing on the chair, kneeling on the table, and throwing himself against the wall behind a huge statue. I saw the statue antics (the grandmother was standing in front of the huge statue watching him do it), and the kid was also knocking a chair over dangerously close to hot coffee somebody had left while getting the paper. I went over and held the statue so it wouldn't fall on the kid (you don't deserve to die or be maimed because you have a shitty mother) and pointed out the hot coffee. The grandmother said something like "his mother has to come get him." Yeah. Among other things.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 25, 2007 10:08 AM

Exactly, Crid.

I believe the article is geared towards people who are not familiar with introverts or had the bad experience in trying to change them. There are varying degrees of introverted behavior.

Posted by: Joe at February 25, 2007 10:18 AM

Yep, it was written for non-majors.

Sometimes it seems like this is an American presumption about the power of backslapping, and maybe we do have a bad case of it here in the States, but I think it's a fundamental human thing. People who enjoy being around other people can't believe that anyone wouldn't.

'Of COURSE you'll enjoy my dinner party... Everyone's smart and good looking! We're ALL just looking for someone to connect with... Right?'

Posted by: Crid at February 25, 2007 10:33 AM

Gregg's motto is one he got after hearing Vingh Rhames say it on the set of Out Of Sight, when he was told a bunch of people wanted to meet him:

"I don't want to talk to anyone I don't already know."

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 25, 2007 11:10 AM

My grandmother once said to me that "life's too short to spend time with people you don't really like." I've taken that to heart.

Does anyone besides me hate talking on the phone these days? I just cringe when the phone rings, and usually let the machine get it.

Posted by: deja pseu at February 25, 2007 11:21 AM

My personal favorite: "Can't please everyone. I won't either bother to try."

Those moments when strangers want to make small talk with me... I will start speaking in Italian or Russian to shut them up. Nothing like a little public embarrassment to cut the conversation to a minimum.

I'll keep my house phone's ringer off. Check cell phone for messages once every 2 or 3 hours. My office phone hardly rings, because my colleagues will email/IM me instead.

Originally, it would annoy my family, but they have grown accustomed to it over the years.

Posted by: Joe at February 25, 2007 12:26 PM

"I won't bother to try." I have to find my copy of Elements of Style.

Posted by: Joe at February 25, 2007 12:30 PM

This first: Joe, I loved the article. It described me perfectly. I did know someone once, who explained it that way. He's a personal trainer at the clinic where I work. He's dynamic, outgoing, and a really terrific person.

It's really rather odd, because when I first met him, he was somewhat rude to me. Then one day, he simply apologized for being rude (which I didn't really notice until he said it). And we had great conversations since then. It's as if he suddenly read that article, and thought about me, "He's not being standoffish. He's simply introverted."

As he said to me, "I recharge my batteries by interacting with other people. You recharge yours by being alone."


Regarding the dinner parties, it doesn't matter how you're dressed up, expecting me to exchange small talk for three hours is like expecting me to perform hari-kari.

Posted by: Patrick at February 25, 2007 1:48 PM

I still love the title of this blog entry. It's probably happened in every hospital on a Saturday night somewhere along the line.

Posted by: Crid at February 25, 2007 2:32 PM

And should probably happen a lot more.

And thank you!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 25, 2007 2:40 PM

I wasn't going to comment, but I can't help myself.

We all deal with assholes everyday. Hell, I'm sure sometimes WE are the assholes. After a long day, it doesn't take much for someone to slap the "asshole" title on the next person who slightly annoys them. Typical scenario: your boss yelled at you today, you have a deadline on Friday, you need to pick up food at the get there after an hour in traffic then someone takes THE spot you wanted. Your feeling of ownership may be fleeting - but during the 5 seconds b/w spotting the spot and having it "stolen" you develop a bond. And then the spot is gone, you have to keep looking and you're ticked.

These people are assholes and it makes us feel better to mumble this under our breath...but then...there are ASSHOLES.

I have a particular family member who, if your tone of voice isn't just bursting with enthusiasm and delight when he comes your way with his latest history book, will proceed to berate you. If you look at him the wrong way...if you miss a phone call from him...or sometimes there doesn't even need to be a catalyst - he just goes off. There is no reasoning - b/c that is being impertinent and disrespectful. And be prepared - any conceivable flaw that you may have will be thrown in your face. It is irrational and emotionally trying. And this is the sole motivator for all three of us kids to avoid our parents' house.

People like that might be "genetically predisposed" to being an asshole. Maybe this is similar to a predisposition to alcoholism. Just because my uncle was a life long alkie, doesn't make it ok for me to throw back 8 beers, get in my car and kill someone. "'s genetic! I can't help it!!" People still need to be held responsible for their own actions - esp. if those actions affect others in a negative way. Being an Asshole might, but they still need to know they suck.

The genetic-alcohol-abuse-excuse wouldn't fly - nor will anyone's excuse for asshole behavior that borders on fucking insane and emotionally abusive. Just like an alcoholic, asshole-oholics need to face their bullshit and deal with it. It doesn't take a genius to realize that people avoid you; that people turn a shade of purple in your presence (most likely b/c they're holding their breath waiting for you to go off).

I'll end with this: after a long day and having my spot stolen at the market, the last thing I need is to deal with an Asshole. And if I have the unfortunate fate of having an Asshole put before me, I cannot guarantee I can find the strength to tame my own inner-Asshole. After all, I AM my father's daughter so watchthefuckout.


Posted by: Gretchen at February 25, 2007 6:59 PM

I haven't had time to go through all the comments here, so someone might have already mentioned that the DSM uses the term "Narcissistic Personality Disorder" instead of "asshole." Personality disorders are almost impossible to treat, because they're so foundational to who someone is.

"if somebody is a mean mofo, right from the genes (which, according to Matt Ridley, switch on and off in response to environmental forces [which can include social forces]), how much of the mean mofo thing can be controlled?"

We're pretty much limited to damage control with personality disorders. There are plenty of books out there on how to deal with narcissistics. Here's the crib notes: STAY AWAY FROM THEM.

Posted by: Lena at February 26, 2007 6:17 AM

My grandma was just plain mean. When she was a kid, she had a sweet, loving mother who showed her affection, read stories to her, tucked her in at night, and made her feel loved.

But for some reason, Grandma just couldn't pass that kind of love on to her own two daughters - although she had an Almighty Boy Child who she doted on to the point of being cloying. When it came to her daughters, though, she was a downright mean bitch. Always putting them down, calling them ugly, telling them they were worthless, and often berating them in public for the crimes of having pimples or buck teeth. She didn't teach them anything about doing their hair, wearing deodorant, or shaving their legs. Those little tasks were left to the high school gym instructor.

She was physically abusive, too - she threw my aunt down on the floor one time, grabbed her by the hair, and kicked her repeatedly. She called my mom (who was ten years old at the time) a "whore" (my mom didn't even know what the word meant) for accidentally having the window shade up half an inch while changing clothes.

I have listened to so many stories from both my mom and her sister about the abuse they went through, and you know how most of the time the abuser suffered the same thing? Not true in this case. Grandma was never treated that way by her own parents, and she had a lot going on in her life to be happy about. They didn't have to worry about money, she played cello in the orchestra with her friends, and she had a job she loved at the local library.

But for some reason she was still a mean, cruel person who was determined to be unhappy and who didn't have it in herself to love little girls, even her own. Her way of "getting people to help her" clear the table after dinner was to gasp in an exasperated fashion, roll her eyes heavenward, and proclaim "I guess I'm just stuck doing all these dishes by myself!" Yeah, a real martyr complex, too. One time, when (not surprisingly) no help was forthcoming, she simply yanked out the tablecloth and sent an entire tableful of china and leftover food smashing into the wall.

How does someone with a normal upbringing become so batshit crazy?

Posted by: Pirate Jo at February 26, 2007 10:17 AM

"How does someone with a normal upbringing become so batshit crazy?"

Maybe shit happened that you don't know about.

Posted by: Lena at February 26, 2007 12:24 PM

In a lot of cases it isn't 50/50 between genetics and environemnt, but 55/45 in favor of genetics.

Like Lena said, something may have happened to your Grandmother. The hereditary factor can be an influence, but not the determining factor on who your Grandmother or any person will become in life.

In my family we had a really nice Grandmother and a really mean one. The 'A' Grandparents versus the 'B' Grandparents. The inside joke within my family was the 'B' Grandmother was too mean to die. Guess what? She lived to be 95.

Posted by: Joe at February 26, 2007 8:58 PM

Both of my grandmothers were mean to me, but I deserved it. I was a horrible cunt of a child.

Posted by: Lena at February 26, 2007 11:16 PM

Worse: So was I, but they were saints.

Posted by: Crid at February 27, 2007 1:30 PM

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