Got an A--hole in Your Life? Here’s Exactly How To Deal With Them, According to Mental Health Experts
Because don't we all know at least one?
If you can’t identify someone in your life as an a--hole, you aren’t really living, are you? They come in all shapes and sizes, gender and racial identities, and from every socioeconomic background. You can find them at the grocery store, driving in the lane next to you on the freeway, at your office and in your friend group. It’s also very likely you are related to one, or even worse, you could be married to one.
“A--holes suck the life force out of you, make you question your self-worth, and fill you with self-doubt,” family and addictions therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, author of Fragile Power, explains. “Simultaneously, they act superior to everyone who comes into their personal sphere and is hyper-critical of anyone and anything who doesn't recognize their perceived sense of superiority.”
How to 'Diagnose' Someone as an A--hole
While there is no diagnosable “a--hole” personality type in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), identifying someone in this way is the first step to learning how to deal with them. Michelle Felder, LCSW, MA, licensed clinical social worker, parenting therapist and founder of Parenting Pathfinders defines an a--hole as “someone that demonstrates a pattern of being inconsiderate of the feelings or needs of others, or who is intentionally contentious, irritating or unkind.”
“A noteworthy quality [...] is their disregard for the impact that their actions have as they move through the world, coupled with the sense that they're unfazed by anyone’s disapproval,” she explains.
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While all humans have the ability to act like a jerk—and even someone that is deeply empathetic may have a moment, day or period of time when they’re going through a rough patch or an emotionally taxing experience that’s impacting how they show up in the world—the ones who fit into this category are “people who demonstrate a lack of consideration for others across multiple (but not necessarily all) areas of their life, regardless of what they’re going through, the effect they have, or the context they’re in,” Felder says.
Are There Personality Types/Disorders Most Likely to Be A--holes?
Felder explains that someone who consistently acts like a jerk tends to have a deeply rooted sense of entitlement and privilege. “Although some people whose behavior meets the criteria for a diagnosis of certain personality disorders or who embody different personality types may be more likely to be called an a--hole, everyone is different,” she says.
Something to consider is that what might be motivating someone to act like this may go beyond their personality characteristics, and may also be influenced by factors outside of themselves, such as the various ways that treating people in a certain manner is rewarded within different societal contexts.
For example, sometimes a “get ahead at all costs” mentality or a “tell it like it is” approach can be seen as a valuable asset, “which can make someone stand out or even appear courageous; being unafraid to say or do whatever you want in order to get what you want can be misconstrued as a positive trait, which unfortunately, can result in people actually aspiring to act like an a--hole,” she says. “There are countless examples of people ascending in status as their consideration for certain groups of people descends; the interplay of societal values and people’s patterns of behavior is important to keep in mind.”
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According to Dr. Hokemeyer, calling someone this term can also be a “colloquial way of naming someone who manifests a narcissistic personality disorder,” he explains. Other clinical diagnoses they commonly suffer from are borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.
How Can You Deal With an A--hole?
Since there is no way to avoid them altogether, you need to learn how to deal with them. “It’s more helpful to think of how to remove ourselves and minimize our exposure to someone that's acting like an a--hole than to consider how to get rid of them,” says Felder. “We can only control ourselves and how we respond to the people around us.”
The best way to deal with jerks is to create boundaries in your life to keep them from infecting it with their toxicity, says Dr. Hokemeyer. “To do this, set up boundaries that are clear, consistent and enforceable,” he says. This is especially crucial when it comes to people you work with or are related to.
Dr. Hokemeyer also insists that engaging with jerks is a losing proposition. “You will never win in such engagements and while they might change, it's not your job or responsibility to change them,” he says.
Don’t be an a--hole yourself
When someone around you is acting like one, Felder stresses the importance of being intentional about not matching their energy. “Getting a rise out of others can be fueling to a person that’s behaving like an a--hole, and being met with a minimal reaction at the moment can be disarming,” she points out.
How we deal with someone who’s acting like this towards us or others really depends on the type of relationship that we have with them, notes Felder. For example, if a stranger is acting like a jerk, just walk away.
Stage an intervention
In case you aren’t the only one who is being impacted by the person in question, you may also stage a thoughtful intervention, says Felder. “I suggest bringing attention to their behavior with the support of people that you trust who is also being impacted, and in this conversation, focus on the deed, not the doer,” she suggests. “In other words, speak about their actions and highlight their impact, while avoiding judgments or sharing your opinion about their character.”
While she believes that everyone has the capacity to change, she says to be mindful of expectations when confronting someone who is consistently demonstrating such harmful behaviors and to remember that authentic change has to come from within.
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If all else fails, stay away from the person as best you can. “Establishing firm boundaries and minimizing contact are the most effective ways of preserving your own mental health and emotional well-being,” says Felder.
Wait, What If I'm the A--hole?
There's always a chance that you might be an a--hole and are projecting your a--holeness onto others, says Dr. Hokemeyer. “One of the best ways to figure this out is to take a look at the patterns in your life,” he explains. If you find through such an analysis that you are and have been constantly engaged with jerks, there's a good chance you might be manifesting the same qualities yourself.
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Michelle Felder, LCSW, MA, licensed clinical social worker, parenting therapist and founder of Parenting Pathfinders
Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, family and addictions therapist, author of Fragile Power