A phrase that’s been saving my ass since 1998
Just the other day, while walking along the Rio Grande, I texted my friend Jeremy. Jeremy’s the guy who got me into birding, and we sometimes share fun sightings with each other:
Not the best picture yet, but the Rio Grande is crawling with sandhill cranes.
Just six minutes later he responded:
Sandhill Cranes right?
“What in the motherfucking hell?,” I immediately thought. “Did I not just say Sandhill Cranes? Why are you asking this question?” So I looked at my message and I realized I hadn’t capitalized Sandhill Cranes, and I was like, in my head, “Jesus K. Christ, is he really calling me on not capitalizing the bird name? Am I being corrected, for fuck’s sake?” This was making me cranky, and I’m thinking up snarky replies and getting myself all primed to fight, when suddenly I recalled the phrase that saved my marriage. 25 years ago.
You see, back in the late 1990s, I had this little problem. I call it “assholism.” You won’t find it in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) but I named it that because whenever I showed symptoms, Sara said, “You know, you can be a real asshole.” She was saying it a lot back in those days. Enough so that one day, shortly after one of my episodes, she said to me, “You know Tom, it’s about time you decide which you want more: to be an asshole or to stay married to me. Because you can’t do both.”
I can still see that moment clear as day, standing in the kitchen of the house we were renting in Snohomish, the house we wanted to buy, despite the floors smelling of cat piss, but couldn’t because our landlord had such an inflated sense of its worth. And I knew right then and there that she was dead serious and that it was high time I got a handle on my little problem.
I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about my symptoms, and not just because my kids or my mom might read this and not because I don’t want to embarrass myself, but mostly because they’re just tedious and dumb. (Okay, maybe I don’t want to embarrass myself.)
But I’ll give you just this little glimpse into my affliction: I thought I was right about everything—EVERY goddamned thing—and I needed the people around me to know it. Thus I never hesitated to let Sara know when something she did wasn’t up to snuff (my snuff; I was making the rules). “You parked too close to the fence,” I might say. Or “You stacked the plates wrong again.” And to make it worse, if she disagreed or countered me, I’d insist I was right and bear down on the issue. Everything was a competition, and I needed to win. Crap like that. Constantly. And insufficiently leavened with real loving appreciation and kindness. That was my disorder. I am not proud of it.
Luckily, I knew that I wanted to stay married to Sara way more than I wanted to be an asshole, so I started to see a counselor named Chuck DeVore in Mukilteo, Washington. I saw him for several months, usually once a week. He’d say smart-ass counselor things like, “Do you think you’re in competition with your wife?,” “Tom, do you really think you’re right all the time,” or “Do you think it’s possible you can learn from others?” Honestly, it’s hard for me to remember a lot of the details of our time together. All I know was that when I was done, I had made real progress in curbing my affliction and that I now had a magic saying that I could use whenever I was about to do something assholistic. All I had to do was to say “I’m confused,” either to myself (most often) or to the person I was about to be an asshole to, and it was like waving a magic wand to defuse the situation.
Let me tell you how this magic phrase works. In the past, when I found myself aggravated or irritated with someone, for example if I thought they parked poorly or used a word incorrectly or (god forbid) criticized me for not capitalizing a bird name, that would push my red button and I’d, you know, be an asshole. But thanks to Chuck, I had gained the ability to see my competitive, controlling tendencies coming on and I’d short-circuit it by saying to myself, “I’m confused … does it matter how Sara parked? Does it matter that they used the wrong word? Do you even know if Jeremy had a problem with your capitalization?” What I’d do is I’d just identify whether the issue in question mattered enough to be an asshole about. And I’ll tell you, 99% of the time, it didn’t.
The great thing about this phrase is that it works equally well when used with others. If you think, for example, that somebody is being an asshole to you, as I wondered about Jeremy, you can say to them “I’m confused” and since this is not confrontational or angry, it’s very easy for them to explain themselves. It eliminates competition and encourages mutual understanding. I used this version of the magic phrase all the time in the workplace, and I counseled others to use it as well, as a means of sorting out work-related conflicts. I can’t remember a single time when deploying the phrase “I’m confused”—instead of things like “Why are you such an idiot?” or “Who the hell do you think you are?”—did not work out better for all concerned.
Here’s how it worked with Jeremy. Instead of assuming bad intent on his part and writing back angrily, “Why the hell are you correcting me?” I wrote:
Isn’t that what I said? I’m confused
To his great credit, Jeremy replied:
My bad, all I saw was “not the best picture y”
And he included a screenshot of our exchange so I could see what he meant. Due to a technical glitch, he didn’t see me write “sandhill cranes,” all he saw was a very distant picture of birds and he threw out a guess! It made perfect sense.
I quickly shared with Jeremy a screenshot of my end of the conversation, and commented:
That is so weird that Apple and Android just can’t communicate better.
It wasn’t the first time that our working off different operating systems had messed with our communication. Jeremy replied:
Indeed! Who knows.
And there it was: deploying “I’m confused” had saved me from being a jerk and revealed a simple miscommunication. This wasn’t a competition; it was a friendly conversation. I laughed and wrote:
At first, I thought are you really fucking correcting my capitalization? 😀
Jeremy and I get each other, at least partly. He soon replied:
Ha! Even for pedants like us that would be too much.
You gotta love Jeremy.
And you gotta love the phrase “I’m confused.” I sure do. After all, it’s been saving me from assholism since 1998.
Do you have a phrase or a bit of self-talk that saves you from your demons, maybe keeps you from your own little affliction? I’d love to hear what it is and how it works.
And if you know someone who is suffering from assholism, by all means send them this story. Maybe it will help.
Here’s the full text exchange: