“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”  ~ William Gibson

When I saw this quote on a friend’s Facebook wall I laughed out loud with delight and recognition. It hit me on a subconscious level. Why did I like it so much? I couldn’t tell you. It even seemed wrong that I, a psychologist, would like the idea of blaming depression on others. And then there was the swearing bit.

But I did like it! A lot! Enough to share it on my FB wall. And others liked it! A lot! And I started asking myself, what is going on here?

People clearly related to this quote as I did. I started thinking of my own life experience. How many times did the behavior of others effect how I felt about myself? How many times did I have to leave relationships because of the damage they were doing to my self-esteem? How often do I counsel my clients to take a good hard look at how a friend, boss, spouse or lover, is treating them?

The different ways people can be assholes are infinite! Here three top qualities for asshole-ness that pop for me.

1. They can be stupid. And by stupid I don’t mean unintelligent. Not being smart all the time can’t be helped. No one can know everything about everything! I know nothing about fly-fishing except that it looks pretty when it’s done right. Would I assume to teach someone, anyone, about fly-fishing? No. That doesn’t stop the asshole. The asshole is deliberately, obtusely dumb and happy in their stupidity. Knowing nothing about fly-fishing does not stop them from lecturing you as if they were a prize-winning angler.

2. They can be loud. Can an asshole be quite and shy? Maybe, but not in my experience. Most a-holes are not interested in the give and take of conversation. They monologue, take over, shout, get into your personal space, and don’t even realize they are doing it. Or maybe they do it on purpose to intimidate. Either way, not nice.

3. They can be selfish bullies. Selfish is NOT the same a self-caring. The asshole is self-centered in a way that is exclusive. The feelings, thoughts, input or contribution of others is minimized, cast aside, even ridiculed, in order to pump up their own sense of self-worth. It’s sad really, if it didn’t come with the stupidity and the loudness (see above).

Why do assholes make us feel depressed? If we are exposed repeatedly to assholes they can wear on our self-esteem. Most of us are reared to be nice. Being nice means listening to others, sharing a conversation, pointing out the other person’s good qualities and reasonably expecting the other person to reciprocate. We respect others’ opinions even if they are not shared. We generally defer to authority. Nice people are slow to anger and tend to emphasize the positive (for everyone else, anyway).

Assholes somehow make us feel like dopes for being nice. At first we might get angry and if the asshole is someone we only see once in a while we can be angry and get over it quickly. But if they are someone we see everyday, at work or school, maintaining anger is very difficult and eventually our self-esteem begins to erode leading to feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, sadness, depression.

This is actually not a joke. Even though the quote makes light of it, chronic emotional abuse can indeed lead to diagnosable depression.

Ok, so where do we find assholes?

You can find them everywhere: at school, socially in your circle of friends, at church, at work and in the family…

What can we do about them?

1. Be honest with yourself. Give yourself permission to see the situation for what it is. Once you’ve identified that there is a person in your life who is harming you emotionally, you can begin the work of getting your self-esteem back.

2. Take action. Action in empowering. Taking action is what’s important, even if you can’t change the relationship because the asshole is your brother, you can still take action. Did I say ‘action’ enough?

3. The action you choose to take can be reducing your exposure to that person, requesting a transfer to another unit, office, state. Not calling your relative everyday but rather once a week. In extreme cases, you may decide you need to break up with them altogether.

4. Put into place healthy self-care strategies that will charge up your Asshole Protective Shield. That means keeping an eye on your sleep, eating and exercise habits. Spend time with people (and animals) you can count on that make you feel good about yourself.

5. Find a good therapist who can help guide you through your asshole recovery. If the damage done by asshole exposure is deep the journey to robust emotional health can be complicated. Be strong and get help!

Here are some related articles and books you might find useful:

Seven Rules for Surviving an Abusive Boss

Ten Survival Tips When Being With the Family is Like Walking Into a Minefield

Six Tips for Dealing with Bullies

What Makes a Family Functional vs Dysfunctional?

These books by Susan Forward: The Toxic Parents, The Toxic In-Laws, Emotional Blackmail and Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them