157: You Might Be an Asshole

Sep 05, 2023

If you’re in the midst of an infidelity situation, there are plenty of opportunities for you to think of yourself as an asshole. You might be concerned about acting selfish, inconsiderate, unkind, unreasonable, or uncaring. You may be worried about someone you love thinking you’re an asshole or that you think of yourself in this way.

Humans tend to be terrified of the idea that other people won’t like them, but they’re particularly terrified that the people they love might think they’re a total asshole. However, have you ever stopped and considered the possibility that you might be an asshole?

Tune in this week to discover why you might be an asshole and why that might be okay. Dr. Marie Murphy is unpacking the idea that just because someone else thinks you’re an asshole, that doesn’t mean you are an asshole. She’s also discussing the problem of trying to actively avoid anyone taking issue with your behavior and how to start taking more responsibility by accepting that being an asshole at some point in your life is inevitable.  

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with Dr. Marie Murphy by clicking here!  

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why there are no objective criteria for what counts as being an asshole.

  • How to get clear on your thoughts about being an asshole.

  • The problem with always trying to actively avoid being considered an asshole.

  • Why it’s inevitable that you will be considered an asshole at some point in your life.

  • How accepting that you will be an asshole allows you to take responsibility for your behavior, and make you less of an asshole. 

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

You are listening to Your Secret Is Safe With Me, non-judgmental talk about infidelity with Dr. Marie Murphy. If you’re looking for new perspectives on complicated relationship issues, you’ve come to the right place. 

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy.  I’m a relationship coach, and I specialize in helping people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do.  No shame, no blame, no judgements.  If you are dealing with a complex infidelity situation and you would like my help sorting it out, let’s work together.  I can help you resolve your situation in a way that’s truly right for you – and when I say “resolve” your situation, I want you to know that that can mean many different things.  There are many different kinds of infidelity situations, and many ways of resolving them, and my agenda is to help you figure out what will count as a satisfying way to deal with your infidelity situation, so that you can enjoy your love life instead of worrying about your love life.  I want to help you relate to your infidelity situation in a way that you feel great about so that you don’t have to dedicate your precious time and energy to dealing with that piece of your life forever – so that you can get on with the business of living your whole life to the fullest.  When you’re ready to talk, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, and you can learn more about the coaching packages I offer new clients, along with my current pricing through my website, too.  Mariemurphyphd.com.

Okay.  Today we are going to consider the possibility that you might be an asshole.

So many of us are terrified of other people not liking us, or not liking our behavior, or thinking that we’re a jerk, or perhaps, of people we care about thinking that we’re a total fucking asshole.  With apologies to those of you who don’t like swearing, today is going to be one of those days where I say a few more of those kinds of words than usual.  So if that really bothers you, consider yourself forewarned.  I want those of you who have sensitive ears to know that I’m not going to swear excessively just because I can – that’s a habit I gave up years ago! - but I am going to say the word “asshole” about a million times today.  And that’s partially because it’s important to me to be faithful to the language that quite a few of my clients use when they tell me they’re afraid that people won’t like them, or certain things they have done or might do.  Clients don’t say, “Oh, I’m afraid my kids will think less of me if they find out I’m divorcing their other parent because I’ve been seeing someone else.”  Well, sometimes people do say that.  AND, sometimes people say, “I’m terrified that if my kids find out I’ve been cheating, they will think I’m a real fucking piece of shit and they won’t want anything to do with me.  Ever again.”  And I think it’s fair and appropriate to capture those sentiments in the language in which they are sometimes expressed.

Anyway, the point is that a lot of us are terrified of being assholes!  And if you’re in the midst of any kind of an infidelity situation, there may be plenty of opportunities for you to think that you are or might be an asshole.

What exactly do we mean when we’re terrified of being an asshole?  Often, what my clients mean when they tell me they’re worried about being an asshole is that they’re worried about behaving in ways that could be considered selfish, or inconsiderate, or unkind, or uncaring – or, sometimes more simply, they’re worried about behaving in ways that other people won’t like.

In addition to being terrified that other people will think we’re assholes, we’re terrified that WE will think we’re assholes.  And we’re terrified that if someone else thinks we’re an asshole, or we think we’re an asshole, this might mean that not only were we an asshole in particular ways, or in particular situations, but that we are FUNDAMENTALLY an asshole.  And if it turns out that we really are fundamentally an asshole, we’re sure that will be really, really bad.

Now, this is probably a good moment for me to mention that on the one hand, there’s really no such thing as being an asshole.  And what I mean by that is, there are no objective criteria for what counts as being an asshole and what doesn’t.  There is no fixed definition of assholery.  Whether or not someone is an asshole is a matter of our thinking.  One person could think that someone is a total asshole, and another person could think that same person is a perfectly lovely human being.  Or one person could say that a certain behavior counts as asshole behavior, and another person could find that same behavior totally unproblematic – or, maybe mildly jerky, but not THAT bad.

So in a sense, there’s no such thing as being an asshole in any sort of fundamental, non-negotiable way.  It can never be a fact that you are an asshole – or that anyone else is.  But on the other hand, many of us are quite sure that some people are definitely assholes, and some behavior definitely counts as asshole behavior.  We might recognize in theory that there’s no such thing as being an asshole in any absolute sense, but we also might believe that in practice, being an asshole is actually a Thing.  And not a good thing.  We may think that it’s not good if other people are assholes, or engage in what we consider to be asshole behavior, and we may not want to be assholes ourselves.  By our own estimation, or by anyone else’s.

Here's why that’s a problem.  There ARE probably going to be times when you do things that other people don’t like.  There are probably going to be times when other people think you’re selfish, or uncaring, or inconsiderate.  And there may be times when you yourself think that what you’re doing is, or could reasonably be considered selfish or uncaring or inconsiderate.

In other words, there may be times when other people think you are an asshole, and you think so too.  And that might seem like a pretty bad problem, because we may not want to be an asshole, by anyone’s estimation.

And what do we do with this problem?  Well, sometimes we try to people-please our way out of ever being considered an asshole.  And this might work for a while, at least insofar as we may be able to skate through life without anyone ever taking issue with our behavior.  Some people manage to go decades this way.  But number one, that may not work forever, and number two, when we organize our lives around not being considered an asshole by other people, we may end up being assholes to ourselves.  If we’re really dedicated to people-pleasing, there’s a good chance we’re going to end up compromising some things that are REALLY important to us along the way.

Another way we COULD deal with the problem of potentially being considered an asshole by ourselves or others is to shift our thinking.  We could say, well, there’s really no such thing as being an asshole.  There are no objective criteria for what it means to be an asshole, so I’m just going to operate outside of that construct.  Similarly, sometimes we might shift our thinking about what it means to be selfish or not selfish, or considerate or inconsiderate, so that we no longer think of ourselves as assholes.  We might not do away with the construct entirely, but we might change its definition, or its inclusion criteria.  And this can be a really useful thing to do, at least to an extent.  I think it’s really important for us to interrogate our notions of what it means to be selfish, and what it means to be considerate, and what it means to be kind or caring towards others.  I think it can be really useful to interrogate our notions of what it means to be an asshole.  Because we have some pretty funny ideas about this stuff, collectively, and those ideas are worth examining.

But here’s the thing.  Sometimes we can’t get out of believing that we’re an asshole, or at least, that we are being an asshole, or engaging in asshole-y behaviors.  Sometimes we truly believe that we’re being selfish or inconsiderate or unkind, and we think that constitutes being an asshole, and we don’t really WANT to change our thinking about that.  And that’s okay.  You are allowed to keep those ways of thinking if you want to, and you can keep your thinking about what it means to be an asshole without dooming yourself to compromising what’s most important to you.

And here’s how you can do that.  You can decide to take it as a given that if there is such a thing as being an asshole, you are pretty much bound to be an asshole in some ways, and at some points in your life.  You could take it as a given that in some points in your life, you ARE going to be inconsiderate, or selfish, or unkind, or uncaring – by your own estimation, or by someone else’s.  And you can decide that that’s okay.  

And deciding that it’s okay if you’re an asshole in some ways, or at some times doesn’t mean you abdicate all responsibility for your behavior.  It just means that you recognize that even when you take responsibility for your behavior, that doesn’t mean you ever have a shot at being perfect.  Because there’s no such thing.  Even when we do our very best to take responsibility for our actions, and behave in ways that we feel good about, and do our best to treat others well, by our own estimation, there are going to be times when other people don’t like what we do, and don’t like us for doing those things.  And that might sound like a big, bad problem, but I’m not sure that it is.  One of the great things about humans is that we’re all capable of thinking very differently, even in relation to the same shared circumstances.  And our capacity to think differently produces a lot of great stuff – even if it also leads to differences of opinion and disagreements.  

There’s a big difference between doing your best to treat people as well as you can, and attempting to get through life without ever having had anyone be upset with you.  And here’s the super important number one point I want you to consider today: recognizing that you not only have the capacity to be an asshole, but that it’s inevitable that you’ll be an asshole some way, somehow, sometimes, actually enables you to take MORE responsibility for your own behavior.

When we’re afraid of being an asshole, we may do more of the things that make us an asshole, so to speak.  When we’re afraid of being imperfect, when we’re afraid of hurting other people and having to bear the discomfort we think we’ll feel when they’re upset with us, we may end up doing a lot of things that don’t do other people a lot of good.  And that’s in addition to whatever we may be doing to ourselves that isn’t all that great.

So for example, when we’re afraid of leaving our spouse because we don’t want to be the asshole who left their family, we may continue to be an asshole by cheating on our spouse, and by not being honest with our spouse about how we feel about them, and not telling them what we want in regards to our relationship.  Now, it’s possible that our spouse might never know about this.  If you never leave your family, and your spouse never finds out about you cheating, it's possible that what they don’t know won’t hurt them.  That is certainly one possibility.  But another possibility is that they would really prefer for you to leave them if you are unenthused about being married to them, and have found happiness with someone else.  And if they find out about what you’ve been up to, they may be very displeased with you for continuing to cheat and continuing to stay married because you were afraid they would think you were an asshole if you left them.  Right?  And furthermore, if you stay in that kind of a situation, you may be being a total jerk to yourself.  You may not be pursuing your own happiness in ways that you could, you may not be being faithful to your deepest desires and highest priorities, and you may be treating other people in ways that you don’t feel all that great about.  And even if they don’t know that, that might still matter to you.

Ironically, being willing to be an asshole, or being willing to think of ourselves as an asshole or deal with other people thinking of us as an asshole, may enable us to do less harm.  Or be less of an asshole.  There may be times when we only have the choice between being a jerk in one way, or being a jerk in another way.  Or being an asshole for a little while, or being an asshole for longer than a little while.

Here's an example.  Sometimes two people will be involved in a relationship, and one of those people is married to someone else, but the other person isn’t.  So one person is cheating on their spouse, and the other person is involved with someone who is cheating on their spouse.  And the person who isn’t married will lobby the person who is married to get divorced.  They’ll enthusiastically suggest that their person leave their spouse, or maybe even beg them to get divorced.  And then the person who is married will do just that.  They’ll get a divorce, and they’ll make themselves fully available to their former affair partner who is now just their partner, and that person will come to the conclusion that they don’t really want to be with them anymore.  For whatever reasons, they’ll decide, wow, I don’t want this relationship to continue.

And that person – the one who convinced their affair partner to get divorced – may feel terrible about this.  They may have sincerely wanted their person to get divorced so they could have them all to themselves – and now that they don’t want that anymore, they feel terrible for not only being party to their decision to get divorced, but for being, in their own estimation, a driving force behind the divorce.

And so this person feels really bad.  On one hand, they’re as sure as they can be that they really don’t want to be with their partner anymore.  They know that they are not interested in continuing the relationship.  But they feel terrible about ending a relationship with someone they just convinced to get divorced.  They think it would be pretty shitty for them to do that.

And so they DON’T end the relationship.  Instead, they keep pretending that everything’s fine – or trying to, anyway.  They’re terrified of being an asshole for breaking up with their person, so they don’t even contemplate how they might execute a breakup in the most considerate, compassionate way possible – but at the same time, they aren’t all that excited to be in the relationship, so they’re kind of cold to their partner.

Or, put a little differently, because they’re so afraid of being an asshole by breaking up with their partner, they’re an asshole by NOT breaking up with their partner.  

And then when they do actually break up with their partner, they are so consumed with their own fear of being an asshole that they execute the breakup in a manner that is really unpleasant for their partner and for them.  And their partner ends up thinking that they’re an asshole for three reasons, or at least three reasons.  One, for pressuring them to get divorced only to break up with them shortly after they do so.  Two, for breaking up with them in a callous or cold manner.  And three, for not breaking up with them sooner, and being an asshole while they were holding off on breaking up with them.  Right?

Now, if you’re the asshole in this situation, if you’re the person breaking up with someone you’ve pressured to get divorced, there may not be any way to avoid being seen as an asshole for doing that part.  If you convince someone to leave their committed relationship, and then you leave them shortly after they do that, they may think you’re a real turkey – at least in the short term.  In the long term, they may see things differently and end up thinking that everything worked out for the best.  But in the short term, they may think you’re a total asshole, and there may not be any getting around that.

And that’s the key point here.  If we’re living a life that includes interesting and meaningful connections with other humans, there are probably going to be times when those connections don’t work out in the way both parties might like.  Quite simply, it’s impossible to want the same thing as what someone else wants all the time, forever and ever.  But instead of embracing that as a normal part of life, we tend to think that’s a problem.  And so we shy away from telling people that we don’t want the same thing as them anymore, and then we end up doing things that add insult to injury, or even more of an asshole than we need to be.

And that’s kind of a bummer for everyone.  For the most part, WE don’t like treating other people in ways we don’t feel great about.  There are exceptions to this, of course, but a lot of folks, a lot of the time, really don’t feel good about treating others in ways they don’t feel good about treating them.  And of course, it usually doesn’t feel great to discover that someone we care about has been relating to us in a way that we don’t like – such as, for instance, not breaking up with us because they’re scared of being considered an asshole for doing so.  That kind of situation usually isn’t a lot of fun for anybody.

So what’s the solution here?

If you want to be less of an asshole, be willing to be an asshole.  Or put differently, if you want to be a “better person,” whatever that may mean to you, be willing to be imperfect.  If you want to be able to live fully into your human qualities that you think are great, be willing to allow your human qualities that you think are less than great to exist within you.  If you want to do right by other people, whatever that may mean to you, you have to be willing to embrace the fact that you may not always do right by other people.  And instead of seeing that as a problem, you can accept it as a feature of the human experience that we can work with instead of resisting.  

When we’re willing to embrace the full range of our humanity, including our so-called asshole behaviors, we’re in a better position to take responsibility for our behavior because we aren’t so terrified of being imperfect, or pissing people off, or being an asshole.  When we know we’re fundamentally okay, even if we aren’t perfect, it’s easier to step up and take responsibility for stuff we’ve done that other people don’t like, and that we might not like either.  When we believe that our worth is contingent upon never doing anything “wrong,” so to speak, or never being an asshole, we put ourselves in the impossible bind of attempting to be perfect, or at least, unassailable.  And we can never be perfect.  Or unassailable.  But in the service of trying, we may do some pretty weird shit.  Or put differently, we may do even more things that we don’t feel great about, and that other people don’t like very much.

It might sound strange, but when we’re more tolerant of our own humanity, including our capacity to behave in ways that we might not like and that other people might not like, we’re more able to be more of the person we want to be.  When we don’t get stuck in doom loops of shame and blame, we have a lot more energy available to be and continue becoming a version of ourselves that we feel good about.

Also, when we’re more tolerant of our own humanity, we can be more tolerant of others’ humanity, too.  And this can be such a tremendous relief.  When we understand, on a deep level, that we’re all doing the best we can and that there’s no way for any of us to be perfect, we can enjoy our relationships with other people in a whole different way.  We can take the whole spectrum of human experiences without getting too fixated on what’s good and what’s bad – either in ourselves, or in others.

Now, my usual caveat applies here, as it always does.  Being tolerant of other people’s humanity does not mean we don’t get to have really clear boundaries.  Appreciating that humans are by definition imperfect doesn’t mean we have to put up with anything and everything from other people.  No way.  And there’s a lot more I could say about that, but that’s kind of another topic, so I’ll just leave that there.

Instead, what I want you to do is consider this.  What if there are times when you are going to be an asshole, so to speak, and that’s just an inevitable part of being human?  What if there were no way to avoid being an asshole for the entirety of your life?  What if that was just part of the deal you made when you chose this human existence?  I encourage you to roll those questions around in your head and see what happens.  You might break your brain, temporarily, but you might also come up with some really interesting answers to those questions.

I want you to consider that even if being an asshole, at times, is an inevitable feature of our humanity, that doesn’t have to mean that it’s a DEFINING feature of our humanity in general, or yours in particular.  We all are capable of so many different kinds of behaviors, or ways of showing up in the world, and what I want to suggest is that even if you are a total and complete jerk at some points in your life – IF that were even a thing that could be objectively established, which it really isn’t – you would probably also be a lot of other things, as well.  You would probably be and be doing a lot of things that you consider great, not just things you consider not-so-great.  If you’re going to judge parts of yourself negatively, at least keep them in perspective.  You may be an asshole, at times, but you aren’t ONLY an asshole, even in those times.

Again, the reason why it’s so important to consider thinking this way is to allow ourselves to become more of the human we want to be.  And to relate to others in more of the ways we want to.  

By being willing to be imperfect, we allow ourselves to do better.  By being willing to do things that others find hurtful or otherwise objectionable, we’re able to minimize the hurt we occasion through our behavior.  By being willing to be an asshole at all, we’re able to be less of an asshole.

Remember, I’m using all of this language lightly.  As I said earlier, from a certain standpoint, there’s no such thing as being an asshole.  From a certain standpoint, we’re all just humans doing human things.  But to the extent that we’re probably going to think that sometimes people, including ourselves, are assholes, it’s incredibly important to get our thinking about what it means to be an asshole in check so that we don’t end up being more of an asshole than we need to be.

All right.  That’s what I’m going to leave you with today.  If you want my help figuring out how you can make peace with being an asshole, or minimizing the extent to which you are an asshole in regards to your infidelity situation, let’s work together.  You can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.  I can’t wait to meet you.

Thank you all so much for listening!  Have a great week.  Bye for now.


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