if i were you

originally published May 18, 2019

No matter what walk of life you come from, you’ve probably experienced someone who just seems to be an asshole. Moreover, they seem to want to be an asshole. If I ask you to think of someone whose company you cannot stand, you will have a vivid image of a face, or faces, flash into your mind immediately. For the longest time I believed that that best policy for understanding these people was, uh, to not understand them. I also believed, and still do, that we should generally distance ourselves from difficult people who only serve to drag us down. Why bother trying to engage with someone who won’t respond, or at least won’t respond in good faith? You can’t help those who won’t help themselves, etc.

This post is basically an extended argument for why “kill them with kindness” is not only a cute idea but the optimal attitude to approach life with. For some simply trying this attitude is proof enough, if you force yourself to be nice to everyone you’ll notice that your life is distinctly easier overall. Fake it ‘til you make it is fantastic advice in this regard. Unnecessary or exaggerated conflict is rarely a pleasant experience and is a drain on your valuable energy.

However, there’s more here than lowering the difficulty setting on life. For one, and this is a shocking point, other people like nice people. On some level we all want to be liked, not by everyone but certainly by someone. Societally it’s helpful for other people to like you, it means they’ll collaborate with you, do business with you and teach you things. It’s not hard to see how evolution has encouraged us to be nice to one another, collaboration is the primary reason human beings have continued to succeed, even if we’re not always great at it. Before we get carried way it should be obvious that outsourcing your validation to other people is taking this much too far. We shouldn’t change our beliefs or be dishonest with ourselves to please others but we must treat them with respect if we in turn want to be respected.

In fact, taking the higher road and graciously handling arguments makes you admirable. Often we are drawn to abnormally nice people and find them genuinely charismatic. Note: this is no guarantee, I have almost zero charisma but then again I’m also not nice 100% of the time. We’re talking about principles here.

A Deeper Reason

So, you might be thinking that my argument so far is shallow, unoriginal and a little cliche. And you’d be right! These are shallow reasons to take this course. What’s more, faking niceness for practical reasons is somewhat sociopathic if we don’t have something genuine backing up our desires. There are much more dramatic benefits to be had by genuinely wanting to be nice.

When I say that I “genuinely want to be nice” it is based on the simple idea that regardless of external behaviours, everyone is deserving of compassion and understanding. When examined closely people have vastly more in common than they have in contrast. We all experience the same emotional highs and lows and we all have somewhat similar dreams and aspirations. Almost all of us find deep pleasure in relationships, romantic or otherwise.

It’s not hard to get yourself to think this way. Think of someone you care about, someone close to you who you have very little resentment towards. If this person was suffering you would want their suffering to end. The reason you know you would want this is that you have suffered, you have probably suffered to a degree that you’ve never even shared with anyone. You know the pain of suffering, as we all do, and in turn you know that you would never wish that upon someone you care about.

When you step back and consider it though, does this only apply to those you love? I will grant that it is easier to summon this perspective when regarding loved ones but what about friends? Acquaintances? Is there an obvious cutoff point where we would happily wish for suffering to continue for someone? If you can think of someone who you actually want to suffer then I urge you to accept this simple fact:

If you had been born as that person, who has so obviously wronged you, and you lived through their life you would be exactly the same. You would repeat every mistake they’ve made, you would sabotage relationships and push people away. You would force the same wrongs upon someone else that were forced upon you. What’s more, you wouldn’t even realise you were doing it most of the time.

This is not an easy point to swallow. We like to think that we are better than those we dislike. We want to imagine that we could do better in their place. What’s more, this might sound like I’m saying their actions were justified or excusable. This is far from the case, especially for those of us who have been abused and traumatised. If someone has seriously hurt you through their actions then we should never treat those actions as societally acceptable.

As a brief aside, this type of thinking is inspired by and is very similar to Metta (or Loving-Kindness) meditation. Whether you meditate already or not, I would recommend trying it. Even just to experience how powerful and how rewarding it can be to “love your enemies”, if only for a second.

Separating Action from Actor

There’s a thought experiment that can help us out here. Imagine you are an asshole, and yes for some people this won’t take much imagination. It is actually a horrible thing to be an asshole. No matter what you do, you seem to piss people off. So many of your interactions seem to go poorly and you have trouble developing rich and stable relationships as a result. Think for a moment how tragic that is. We’ve all seen moments of self-sabotage in our lives. We’ve pushed the people that care about us away during our weakest moments.

Imagine what it’s like to be starved of connection to others and no matter how hard you try to reach out, you just keep offending people instead. To live without good relationships is to miss out on the most important aspect of life: love. Granted, some people do not seem to feel any remorse or sadness in their assholery but I argue this is a coping mechanism they’ve developed. Humans have an intense need for the world to make sense to them and unpleasant people tend to accomplish this by believing everyone else is unpleasant too.

We are all products of our environment and abuse begets abuse. Assholes often come from households full of assholes or perhaps they do not come from a household at all. Let’s call back to our exercise earlier and step back into an asshole’s shoes.

Perhaps you’ve never known kindness or connection in your life. That’s a difficult life, no matter how you slice it. You can’t even understand what other people seem to be doing differently that makes their lives so much easier. People don’t respect you, and for good reason, your actions are not deserving of respect. Even though all this difficulty is on some level self-inflicted, it’s still a difficult life.

The life of someone you hate may still be much easier than your own life. This is often the case with abuse, our abusers do not suffer to anywhere near the same extent we do. But it is not about the degree to which they suffer, it’s that they suffer at all that we must remember. It might be less painful than being you, but they would still feel pain and you of all people should know about pain.

A Personal Reason

So, even if you find my argument logical you may not be compelled by this perspective. Let me speak more directly.

We may never be at peace with the memory of our abusers and perhaps we should never excuse their actions but we can stop letting them have power over us. This cannot happen easily nor by accident, only with patience and determination. You have to make yourself take these steps and sometimes it takes years of thinking, therapy and shocking perspective but on the other side is happiness.

Hatred is infectious, it colours our perception of the world and brings out the worst in us. By hating a hateful person you are letting yourself become more like them. Do you really want to let someone else drag you down? There are parts of all of us that we hate, these are traces of the worst people we’ve ever met.

The secret here is that only by accepting the worst people and wanting the best for them can we in turn accept and want the best for ourselves.

It’s possible to simultaneously condemn someone’s actions but wish the best for them. We all love a good born-again story, difficult people deserve a chance at redemption. On a purely anecdotal level I have found that since I started thinking this way it has lead me to some serious benefits, including:

  • A stronger connection with those most important to me

By learning compassion for people you dislike you will find that summoning compassion for those you love becomes effortless.

  • Less stress and frustration when dealing with “difficult” people

By treating difficult people with compassion you remove the control they have over your emotions.

  • Seeing real change in those around you due to your actions and attitudes

  • Most importantly, accepting and being kind to myself

You can keep clinging to hate, I know how easy that is. You can spend your whole life reassuring yourself that some people deserve nothing but contempt. All I’m telling you is there is an easier way and if you give it a chance, I think you’ll like it.