It runs in the family. My granny was one of those old French women who could never give a compliment without modifying it with a matching put down. “She’s pretty, her, but look at that dress!” My mom was the same way. She’d drive down the road commenting on every fool that came across her path. An otherwise quiet, gentle soul, she never missed a chance to point out a shortcoming. Thankfully, that didn’t carry over to her kids, but any relative beyond her own siblings, or other passersby, was fair game.
So I came by it honestly, and I reveled in it. There’s nothing like the ability to look at others and see their faults to perk up the spirits of a kid with chronically low self-esteem. We won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that by the time I was a full-blown alcoholic, I was also skilled in letting you know that I knew — as Rush Limbaugh titled his book — “The Way Things Ought To Be.”
In all fairness to me, I was as hard on myself as I was on others. For many years (sixty or so) I never measured up to my own standards. An uncommonly handsome young man, I always thought I was skinny and gawky, with a big nose. It wasn’t until 15 years into recovery when I saw a yearbook photo of myself that I was able to get my head around the fact that I had been a good looking kid.
As a writer, for decades I stayed away from anything that wasn’t cut and dried. I wrote technical articles and manuals, and eventually edited the work of others, because I believed that — even though I had a passion for writing — I wasn’t good enough to do “that other stuff.” Those ideas and feelings carried over into the rest of my life in ways too many to count.
Yet I was always ready to point out where you were wrong, where he had screwed up, where she could have done better — anything that would let you know that I was on top of things, knew how it was, and that you’d better work hard if you wanted to measure up. I was the guy who damned you with faint praise; who, when offered by a wife a choice of a special meal, would say “Yeah, that would be OK,” instead of, “Oh, wow honey! What a great idea!” Who would tell a child, “Nice job on the picture, honey, but wouldn’t it have been better if you had….” (I still get tears in my eyes when I think of that stuff, and believe me I’ve made amends to both my daughters. But it didn’t fix all those years.)
And why did I do those things? Simply because my own opinion of myself was so low that I couldn’t let anyone else excel. Pointing out people’s so-called defects made me able to feel better about those I imagined were mine.
As a drunk, it got worse. I was a bombastic pain in the ass. I alienated people right and left. Simply didn’t know how to act — and didn’t care. I was the smart guy. I was the cop. I was the martial artist. I was the Mensa guy (another shot at proving I was as good or better than you). I was the one who knew The Way Things Ought To Be. I was the asshole.
Anyone relate? A lot of you should….
Years in recovery have helped. Meditation has helped. Therapy has helped. Living with a woman who tells me when I need to pay attention to my thinking has helped. But I still have the days, especially when I’m driving (of course, I used to be a driving instructor, chauffeur, blah, blah, blah…) when there are far greater numbers of jackasses out there with me than one would reasonably expect.
I’m not, by any means, the guy I’d like to be. But I’ll tell you this: every time I catch myself doing the judgment thing, it reminds me of how much worse it used to be, and that I can move onward, become more skillful, and that the program I’ve been trying to live by all these years really does work.
Sometimes I have to ask myself, “Just how big a jerk do you want to be today?” That, and the fact that I’ve come to realize that it makes me look really bad, keeps me trying.