The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert I. Sutton

The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert I. Sutton

Author:Robert I. Sutton
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Develop sympathy for the devil. Even if a jerk doesn’t deserve to be excused or let off easy, this approach can help you feel less demeaned and de-energized. It helped me deal with a colleague who cares deeply about his students and who enables them to achieve wonderful things, but is otherwise unpleasant, temperamental, and selfish. He has hollered at, insulted, and threatened dozens of other professors and staff members (usually over trivial matters), resists sharing resources or ideas, demands more space and money than others with similar needs, and—unless he wants something from them—treats most people that he encounters every day as if they were invisible.

I don’t work with him directly. Yet, at one point, his antics were getting on my nerves. One year, he taught after me in the same classroom. While my class was in session, he often pressured me to dismiss it early so he could then set up for his class. He also hollered at several people I admire. I found myself spending several hours each week being pissed off at him, even though I couldn’t stop his antics (well, I tried and failed, perhaps I should have tried harder) and I had limited contact with him.

Then I began using a mind trick that eliminated nearly all my anger toward and rumination about this petulant professor. I thought of all the ways his life had been difficult and all the good that he has done. I said to myself things like “He is like a porcupine with a heart of gold” or, to steal a line from a Google engineer, “He is a guy with a bad user interface but a good operating system.” By developing sympathy for this devil, and allowing myself to forgive him, I’ve altered my perceptions so that he stopped driving me nuts.

This kind of reframing strategy is bolstered by theory and research on forgiveness. It shows that, even when a jerk doesn’t apologize, and you don’t express forgiveness to them, forgiving him or her in your heart can help you let go of the hurt—and you should do so without condoning, downplaying, or forgetting the offense. Research on bullying and “interpersonal transgressions” such as lies, insults, and broken promises shows that forgiveness helps victims to let go of their simmering resentment and thoughts of evening the score.

In an experiment by psychologist Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet and her colleagues, college students were asked to think of someone who mistreated, offended, or hurt them. As the experiment unfolded, students were prompted to alternate between unforgiving thoughts that involved staying angry and “harboring the grudge” versus forgiving thoughts that entailed “empathizing with the offender” and “granting forgiveness.” Forgiving thoughts reduced students’ feelings of anger and sadness, increased their sense of being in control, and also reduced physiological signs of distress, including elevated heart rate and blood pressure. Unforgiving thoughts had the opposite effects. This study dovetails with research on bullied schoolchildren that found victims who forgive cruel classmates are plagued by less social anxiety and fewer thoughts of revenge, and also report greater self-esteem.


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