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Stop Being Such a Jerk

A 10-point crash course.

We're all prone to jerkness, myself included. And when I say all I mean to include women as well as men, even though the term "jerk" brings to mind predominantly male images: Steve Martin's character in a terry-cloth robe; real-life celebrities Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, and Kanye West; your sedentary slug of a boss with salt-and-pepper hair growing out his ears; and perhaps even your own father, who could fell your hopes and dreams with an effortless slice of sarcasm.

But being a jerk is arguably worse than receiving someone else's jerkness. While it doesn't feel good to be on the receiving end of the comments, behavior, or reactions of a jerk, to actually be the jerk in question condemns you to live within immediate proximity of a jerk for the remainder of your life. Not only would you live your life as a jerk, you live with yourself as a jerk.

All of this to say that there is hope for both full-time and part-time jerks. Attention to the following ten points will get you moving in a healthier direction, from abject jerkdom towards relief and recovery.

1. Keep quiet for just a minute! If you don't say anything, no one will know what you're thinking. It's amazing what ugliness can emerge from a human mouth unburdened by the slightest cognitive effort. The rewards of battling your inner censor before spewing ill-conceived notions, rumors, and armchair epithets will prove immensely valuable in relationships with others.

2. When in doubt, focus on yourself. This may seem counterintuitive considering how closely related jerkness is to pathological narcissism. Yet when it comes to obsessional focus on others' flaws and imperfections, instead of looking outward like a certain fault-finding judge on American Idol, you might decide to hold up a mirror to yourself and mentally inventory where you miss the mark.

3. Let passive-aggressiveness gently waft out a bathroom window. Here jerkness is nearly silent-but-deadly with obnoxiously audible sighs accompanying a refusal to budge on any issue. As you sit on the sidelines in sadistic satisfaction of others' frustrations that take root from your pointed action (or inaction), you might ask yourself: "Why must I be such a dick?" And without hesitating, be sure to respond with this specific therapeutic retort: "Because I feel impotent." Recognition of this basic truth can become the first step in giving up infantile obstinacy and acting like a secure adult.

4. Grow a pair (of perspectives). In other words, take a telescopic view of your situation. When errant soccer balls fly through your yard, is the cost in blood pressure and heart attack risk really worth the righteous anger? They're kids for goodness sake! Maybe now might be high time to extract yourself from a default position as "selfish grump" and expand your view of the situation. Perhaps you might then recognize your good fortune that the nuisance next door represents developmentally appropriate play rather than blasts of gunfire from drive-by shootings. Kids need to play outside. They are the future. Let them be.

5. Be real. No one likes a faker. Especially a bad faker. If your jerkness far outweighs a natural inclination for acting sweetly, you won't fool anybody with that sham smile. Admit you're a jerk already and move on to point number six.

6. Ask for help. Yes, this point is pathetically clichéd, but that's what happens to useful concepts over time! While essential that the jerk in question come to greater levels of understanding of himself by himself, there's nothing like a few frank words from a trusted friend to pierce self-deception like a fork into the vinyl flesh of an inflatable doll. Ask your level-headed buddy how he or she would _________ [handle it, take care of it, respond to it, phrase it, ... ] and then try out the most realistic suggestions on for size.

7. Conjure your role models. By this I mean to summon the image, mentally, of those whose words or actions you may be unintentionally adopting as your own. Perhaps after a quick examination, you find you sound just like your "ditto head" cousin who parrots any hateful pabulum he hears on the radio. Like so-called "day residue" appearing in dreams, you may find that personal experiences-stretching from an unwashed childhood to yesterday's heinous staff meeting—leave behind lees as from a cup of loose tea. Today, instead of brewing bitterness, you might choose instead to pro-actively wash your kettle-in other words, center yourself, and refresh your mind with the possibility of a new day and a fresh, open attitude.

8. Figure out what makes you feel good. It doesn't take a Joseph Campbell, a clinical psychologist, or a screening of the film Shortbus to realize that you hold the key to your own bliss. Frustration, disappointment and dissatisfaction are but morsels of food specifically formulated to cultivate jerkness. Turn this on its head by paying closer attention to what ideas, activities, and successes—including minor ones—engender good feelings in yourself. When you walk around with a glow, the jerk inside will wither and die like a blood-starved vampire at midday.

9. Have a little humility. Even when you score in some way—at work, at school, at home, at the club—others will appreciate your enthusiasm more when it is paired with some measure of class. Even winners can be jerks and especially so when they use a particular success to blanket over other shortcomings. What you just accomplished may be great (e.g., winning a local spelling bee for adults) but begins to lose its charm over others when you sling what amounts to the hurtful letters of schadenfreude in all directions.

10. Share something! Finally, I would entreat you to give something to someone (something other than genital warts or a splitting headache). You can quickly reverse an acute bout of jerkdom by earnestly giving a treat, a thoughtful word, or a moment of your time to someone you know would be receptive to such a gift from you. Heartfelt action when practiced regularly has a way of crowding out opportunities for jerk behavior. And should the time come that a stray comment comes out of your mouth—something only a real jerk would utter—you may be more easily forgiven for a momentary lapse of good sense because of how anomalous such behavior has become.