What to Do When You’re the Jerk

GoodTherapy | What to Do When You’re the JerkI’ve been a jerk many times in my life. But one time that stands out for me happened when I was 13. I had been invited to the bat mitzvah of a girl I barely knew. A bat mitzvah is a big event; at least 100 people were there. After singing “Happy Birthday,” some kid usually started chanting, “Skip around the room, skip around the room, we won’t shut up until you skip around the room.” Obviously, the intent was to make the birthday child … skip around the room.

On this occasion, I started the chant, but it fell flat on its face. Not a single person joined the chant with me.

It wasn’t until I was in college, recalling this embarrassing incident, that I finally realized my shameful behavior. The birthday girl, who appeared in class sporadically, sometimes showed up on crutches and sometimes arrived in a wheelchair. I had completely forgotten about her disability because she had put them aside for her bat mitzvah. Ignorantly, obliviously, I had thrown her illness in everyone’s face. What a horrible child!

It’s easier to forgive a child’s behavior than an adult’s. It’s also easier to forgive unintentional cruelty than intentional harm. But regardless, I will always feel a little ashamed that I hurt that girl and her family that day.

Shame, that gut-wrenching, nauseating feeling, keeps people from acknowledging when they’ve been hurtful. So often, admitting that you’re guilty means being overcome with shame. We all want to be the good guy. It’s awful to discover that we’ve been the villain.

The other thing that stops people from admitting when they’ve been wrong is punishment. Often, the punishment is shame: “Shame on you!” If a person admits to a spouse that he or she has been overreactive or harsh toward the spouse, will the person be understood and forgiven or will he/she be punished and repeatedly shamed?

Being able to take responsibility for one’s bad behavior is in everyone’s best interest. Being condescending, being harshly critical, being explosive, being prejudiced—these behaviors and more may occur for all of us, but unacknowledged and unchecked, they can become a person’s identity, overshadowing higher qualities and damaging or destroying relationships.

What to do:

  • Focus on learning about yourself, not punishing yourself
  • Separate the behavior from your identity; you can overcome the behavior, and it doesn’t have to define who you are
  • Be honest with yourself
  • Breathe, calm yourself, and tolerate the unpleasant feelings
  • Take responsibility for your behavior
  • Apologize, if possible
  • Commit to being the person you want to be

What not to do:
Twelve-step groups, support groups, and psychotherapy can assist individuals in regaining clarity and self-compassion in order to end abusive behaviors, including the abusive behavior of self-loathing and self-abuse.

  • Lie to yourself
  • Blame the victim
  • Beat yourself up

These suggestions are sometimes easier said than done. It can take time, patience, and emotional support to work through these steps. A person may not get the understanding and forgiveness he or she desires. It’s important to do it anyway, regardless of the reaction. Just because someone becomes aware of his or her behavior doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. Hopefully, with repeated awareness and commitment, the person can learn to stop it faster.

In families that carry histories of substance abuse and/or physical abuse, the level of damage can be extreme, resulting in a greater need to justify, ignore, or suppress awareness of these behaviors. Twelve-step groups, support groups, and psychotherapy can assist individuals in regaining clarity and self-compassion in order to end abusive behaviors, including the abusive behavior of self-loathing and self-abuse.

No one is perfect. There is no shame in learning, growing, and striving to be your best self.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rena Pollak, LMFT, Relationships and Marriage Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • emmy

    August 31st, 2015 at 9:00 AM

    The sooner you are willing to own up to being the jerk, the sooner the transgression will be forgiven and forgotten

  • Marc

    August 31st, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    If you can step away from the moment and look at what would cause you to act this way, then man, you could learn so much about yourself by looking at the experience with clearer eyes.

  • marah

    August 31st, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    We all sort of have our jerky moments every now and then. And when you do you say you are sorry for acting that way and being snarky and you move on. If there are people who will not accept the apology, then to them I would just say that I am sorry they have never had a bad day and you will try to take a cue from them.

  • Im the jerk

    September 1st, 2015 at 5:23 PM

    not gonta lie, Im the jerk! Been that way my hole life and not changing it now.

  • Kenneth

    September 4th, 2015 at 5:47 PM

    I lost track of how many times I’ve been on honestly. Most of the time, i’ve said alot of things that I shouldn’t have because I was emotional and didn’t think. I think in alot of cases, people can’t control there emotions and never learn how to. Not saying people are jerks by character, but everything is learned and so it’s possible for it to be unlearned.

  • Celeste

    September 5th, 2015 at 11:43 AM

    I think that Im the jerk above said it best- I hardly see the person who is actually the jerk owning up to what they are doing. Usually they feel so strongly that the world revolves aorund them that they are unwilling to admit it when they are the ones who need to come clean. Let them be the jerk and just find some new friends.

  • Audrie

    September 6th, 2015 at 8:27 AM

    I really do not believe that someone who is acting this way is going to have a very easy time of seeing that. You may have to call them out on how they are behaving and then I guess you hope for the best. If this person is able to see what it is you are talking about then that can be a great step because you know that they are open to seeing this through your eyes and could possibly be open to making a change. But if they are unwilling to see that this is the way that they act, then it could possibly be time to let them go from your life..

  • Betty A

    December 1st, 2017 at 4:47 PM

    You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge, you need to take owership of your actions

  • Robert

    December 12th, 2023 at 6:44 PM

    Ironically it’s always jerks that point out my behavior when I’m being a jerk. But when they’re being a jerk never own to any of it gaslight, project, blame shift yada yada yada.

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