A College Student Wonders Why His Suite-Mate Is Such a Jerk

A student came into my office to talk about life with a particular suite-mate in his dorm, someone he was not getting along with at all.  His question:  what makes someone an a–hole?  I told him I’d need a few details, a few examples, of this person’s “a–hole” like behavior, and he offered this for starters:  “I have a friend, a young woman, who is very overweight, and anytime she comes around, he makes whale noises, refers to her as a whale, etc.”  I stopped him right there, and suggested that “a–hole” was far too gracious a description—there are a–holes (they grab your parking space when you’ve been patiently waiting with your blinker on, they act rude to servers at dining establishments, they gossip behind your back…) and then there are cruel and abusive individuals who have deep and profound emotional/psychological challenges. 

Dear A,

We can all be unkind at times—we get caught up in our own self, in our anger and pain, in our wants, and go blind for a moment re: the person in front of us.  But we catch our self, we are disappointed in our self, we experience regret, and hopefully we apologize.

But when someone resorts to intentional cruelty as a matter of practice, it is always indicative of a self- loathing so profound it may not even be in the individual’s consciousness.  It suggest a person is repressing/rejecting a part of themselves they hate; they are fragmented internally, and the only way to cope with the psychological dance of rejecting a piece of one’s self is to project it onto another.

Cruel people are always consumed by shame.  Their cruelty keeps others from getting close enough to see just how afraid and broken and worthless they really feel.

Which brings me to consider how we should deal with someone in our midst who is blatantly cruel, because I imagine that is the advice you are seeking.

If confronting this person is something you wish to do, then I’d like to invite you to consider the following:  Before we confront any person about a behavior we find intolerable, it is important to situate our self in the consciousness of compassion; that is, coming to understand that the person behaving so terribly is terribly broken in their own right.  By coming at someone from a space of compassion, we are genuine, and we are better able to reach the person.  Compassion is an energy that when present has all the potential in the universe to open the heart of another—it might not work, but without it, the chance that another will feel safe to pause and to look at themselves and face their demons is nearly zero.

From that space of compassion, and without audience, we need to tell the offender the harm s/he has caused.  For example, you could say, “You are repeatedly so unkind to my friend and it hurts her deeply,” and then you listen with a heart of compassion—be prepared for defensiveness, denial, even a personal attack on your character.  Continue the conversation as best you can, keeping your focus on the aim of the talk, which is to invite this person to stop his abusive behavior.  It would be wonderful if s/he genuinely experienced a change of heart, but you can only reach for that, not expect that.

And that’s it.

Then you decide if this person is someone that should be in your circle day after day.  Given he is your suite-mate, you may be stuck for a few more months.  But remember, you can have compassion at a distance, and in many situations, it’s the only self-respecting and reasonable position to take.  Compassion does not mean tolerating toxic behavior—and certainly compassion for yourself (and your friend) implies protecting yourself from damaging energy and behaviors of others.  In the end, your attempt to bring “love” into contact with his self-loathing may or may not work, but if something in your presence struck a chord, you may have planted the first seed of his awakening.

Your friend who has been treated in such a cruel manner obviously needs your care as well, but judging from the sort of person I know you to be, I know you already know that, and have given it tenfold.

Love, Liz


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