What is the name of this phenomenon?
March 17, 2013 12:25 PM   Subscribe

My mother is a very nice person who is selectively incredibly mean. Occasionally, she will say things that just boggle my mind. Other than these extremely narrow streaks of cruelty, she is an extremely moral, extremely kind person. What is the name for this quality?

Example: She would easily tell a close family member (who she loved) "you lost your job as karma for being a bad person," or "it is your fault for being sick, and I will not help you until you stop" and expect this NOT to be a mean thing to say. There is a strong refusal in her to sympathize with other people for others' hardships that she considers to directly affect her. However, she is also very nice, and very sweet to most people, including her family and me. She helps people professionally. In her personal life, she is continually helping neighbors, and volunteers to help people and listen to their problems.

There seems to be a cognitive component to this, that these non-judgmental qualities do not carry over to her personal relationships (although the kindness does). Luckily, she's generally a nice person, but prone to these extremely harsh judgements that tend to come out at times.

I don't understand exactly what this trait or quality or mentality is, though I'd like to put a name to it. This is not a quality I see very much in others and seems somewhat unique. For most truly unkind people, there is a quality of diffuse unkindness about them. I think it is rarer to meet a nice person who just has this tendency to these kinds of statements. Is there a name for this personality trait or disposition? (Just world fallacy? Extreme stubbornness?)
posted by kettleoffish to Human Relations (35 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Is it that she doesn't have a filter? Like, if she's not saying something mean right now it's because nothing mean occurred to her to say, not because she's holding it back or being polite.
posted by bleep at 12:30 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

maybe she's being honest?
posted by katypickle at 12:33 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I see this in close relatives sometimes... it's kind of that people feel they can be honest around family, but have to put up a social guise for the rest of society. So maybe letting her guard down?
posted by DoubleLune at 12:36 PM on March 17, 2013

Judgemental? In the sense that she determines by some set of preconceptions if someone is worthy or not of her kindness/compassion and then acts accordingly.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 12:36 PM on March 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Sounds like she's got a bad case of the just-world fallacy.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:38 PM on March 17, 2013 [39 favorites]

I would say that it sounds less like a "trait" in and of itself and more like just that we're all conglomerations of bits of philosophies and outlooks and opinions, and just like none of us is perfectly consistent in our politics, none of us is perfectly consistent in our personalities either. Some people who are otherwise perfectly nice really do believe that you can will yourself out of depression or that birth control makes girls slutty or a whole passel of other... "problematic" opinions. It doesn't mean they have a pathology, it just means that their conglomeration of philosophies etc. seems a little strange from the outside.

Alternatively, it may be that your mother is actually incredibly mean all the time inside, but that she acts like the extremely moral and kind person either because she wants people not to see who she really is or because she believes that she has to act nice or else she'll go to Hell (or suffer some other punishment), and she's been doing it for so long that she's gotten really good at keeping up that mask. But sometimes it slips.
(For the record, I doubt it's this one -- people who are deep-down-inside assholes usually let it peek out much more often or more predictably than you seem to indicate she does.)
posted by Etrigan at 12:38 PM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

posted by Sara C. at 12:40 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does she follow any sort of "philosophy" like The Secret/The Law of Attraction/Manifestation/"new age" concepts of "Karma"? I see those types of blunt judgement calls, particularly about things like health and such, from friends from back home who believe in those kinds of things. The whole "bad things happen to you because you're thinking negatively and drawing them toward you" b.s.
posted by primalux at 12:44 PM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

"you lost your job as karma for being a bad person,"

"it is your fault for being sick, and I will not help you until you stop"

It sounds like she has some wacky beliefs revolving around the concept that people are somehow responsible for their own misfortune, and she's also blind to the fact that expressing these beliefs often sounds cruel. If all her "mean" comments are of this type, I wouldn't call her "mean" in the sense that I personally normally understand that word. I'd say she is tone deaf and/or lacking in empathy, combined with being a devotee of The Secret, or a follower of some religion with this "your problems are your own fault" philosophy, or a "why don't they just get a job?"-type Republican, or something similar.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:45 PM on March 17, 2013 [11 favorites]

Lack of empathy.
posted by valeries at 12:46 PM on March 17, 2013 [13 favorites]

I'd call it selfrighteous, myself.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:53 PM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Sounds like she tends to "blame the victim." Lots of kind, moral people are so filled with the notion of personal responsibility that they take it too far and hold folks responsible for whatever ill luck befalls them.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:09 PM on March 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

She could believe in karma, or be one of those people who believes that not saying everything they think the second they think it is exactly the same as lying.
posted by jeather at 1:30 PM on March 17, 2013

It sounds like "selective othering" might cover it. People who "other" divide the world into those who are worthy of compassion and those who are not. Your mom seems to "other" people based on their situation rather than their group.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:30 PM on March 17, 2013 [8 favorites]

Ummm..... has she always been like this, or is it something relatively new? If it's how she always was, then 'judgemental', 'self-rightous', 'holier-than-thou' or just plain 'rude'. If this is a somewhat-recent development, please note that this kind of behavior is one of the symptoms of dementia, and perhaps she should get a full physical checkup.
posted by easily confused at 1:36 PM on March 17, 2013 [8 favorites]

I think it's fear. My dad was a firm believer that it was your fault if bad things happened to you. He spent a lot of time worrying about protecting himself and not being 'stupid.' Any time something bad happened to someone he knew, he would angrily begin to try and figure out what they did wrong - and he always made sure to make a point of telling them what he thought they did to bring their ill fortune.

I later realized that the guy was terrified all of the time. The tough guy posturing, the endless recounting of the 'fuck ups' other people made, the insistence that we 'not be stupid.' All of it stemmed from fear. I think your mom might have a healthy dose of that. She methodically tries to do the right thing so that nothing bad can happen to her, or if it does, she can convince herself that it's not her fault. I don't know what to do about that type of fear. It's an ingrained thing, and it seems to be unconscious. Maybe knowing where it comes from might make it sting a bit less.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:01 PM on March 17, 2013 [33 favorites]

I don't know if it helps but I know someone that is incredibly judgemental (has said similar things as your mother) but it relatively kind to others and volunteers as a way of "proving" to themself and others that they are superior to everyone else, especially those people that need help. The motivation you attribute to her (kindness) for her "helping" qualities may not be her true motivation. If she is an older woman she has been socialised to present a "nice" side and be the "angel in the house". Plenty of people in helping professions are incredibly judgemental, so that is not unusual.
posted by saucysault at 2:33 PM on March 17, 2013 [9 favorites]

Are we talking 'depressive realism' here, perhaps?
posted by 0bvious at 2:59 PM on March 17, 2013

"you lost your job as karma for being a bad person," or "it is your fault for being sick, and I will not help you until you stop"

I'm surprised people are giving answers like "honest" or "blunt" or "no filter." This kind of comment isn't just brutally honest. Brutally honest is telling someone they got fired for doing substandard work. Telling someone they got fired for being a "bad person" is something else. For one thing, it's delusional — you don't get fired for being a "bad person."

Blaming the victim?
posted by John Cohen at 3:01 PM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think her kindness comes from the same place that her cruelty does--she honestly believes that you get out of the world what you put into it. Therefore, she does all of the right/good things and apparently so far has not experienced anything she could not justify by her own choices.

When someone does have a spell of bad luck, however, she concludes that the reverse is true--they did something to deserve what happened to them.

I think your mother is terrified of being taken advantage of on some incredibly deep level, and has built as a defense mechanism this myth of being able to control everything as kind of a karmic insurance policy.
posted by elizeh at 3:19 PM on March 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

"There is a strong refusal in her to sympathize with other people for others' hardships that she considers to directly affect her." is the very antithesis of charity.
posted by epo at 3:21 PM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't have a name for this per se, but one thing I have observed is that people who are very nice, very sweet, and very kind pretty much all the time often build and carry these little pockets of anger and resentment inside themselves. I think sometimes they feel like they have to be this kind, sweet person 24/7, and never express anything that remotely resembles anger or resentment or any other negative human emotion. But eventually, because they are in fact human, this stuff comes spilling out - and because they've been keeping it down for who knows how long, it often comes out in these weird, bitter, startling little eruptions that no-one saw coming.

Basically, no-one is nice all the time, and in my experience people who appear that way (or try to) are often carrying more "stuff" around than we realise.

I don't think I'm articulating this very well but... yeah. Maybe some of this will seem familiar to you.
posted by Broseph at 3:31 PM on March 17, 2013 [12 favorites]

I have family members like this too. It's a willful blindness to the source of suffering and a kind of self-righteous holier-than-thou attitude. Also, in my family, a lot of narcissism. Not sure if your mom is like that, but you might want to look it up.

In my family, people are nice and empathetic to strangers to give the impression of being a good person, often without having the substance. Then, when the situation involves people they know well, they blame them so that the problems are not their fault, also to give the impression of being a good person. Thus, the same motivation gives an opposite external result from one perspective, but the result for the doer is the same: doing what gives the impression of looking like a good person, either by doing "good works" or by blaming the victim of misfortune.
posted by 3491again at 3:32 PM on March 17, 2013

It sounds like she is a normal human being, imperfect at times, like most everyone else.
posted by myselfasme at 3:32 PM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think a lot of the commentators thus far are not actually reading the whole question. What puzzles the asker is the inconsistency in the mother's actions (thus: "In her personal life, she is continually helping neighbors, and volunteers to help people and listen to their problems."). So all the answers along the lines of "honest," "blunt," "lack of empathy" and so forth really don't apply. The mother is generally sweet, empathetic, kindly and willing to help others with their problems. So the problem is why there is this narrow range of problems in response to which she is so cold and unsympathetic.
posted by yoink at 3:32 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Controlling, maybe. And self-centered. She helps people and volunteers when she wants to. If people close to her have some misfortune beyond her/their control and look to her for empathy, she says no. Because hey, they turned to her and asked for something when she didn't expect it, how else can she control the situation other than to withhold empathy here? It's different for those who aren't close because they wouldn't expect it from her, so she can decide. And if someone is sick? She'll decide on her terms when she'll help out, if at all. Saying that incredibly mean comment about the job loss - I agree that it is, it's the kind of thing you can't take back - seems like a way for her to really put herself in the center of it. It doesn't seem like a conscious behavior, but it's interesting to think about, I have a relative who does this and though I know she is fearful and controlling, I've never been able to comprehend why she can't restrain herself from saying such hateful things out loud.
posted by citron at 4:25 PM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

She seems to be externalizing the bad judgments - as if she's quoting from a religious or philosophical moralistic text. It's not SHE who holds these beliefs -- it's just how the WORLD is ("and you better get used to it now"., etc.). She sees these statements as "objective" and that she is merely the mouthpiece for what everyone should realize.

But when she's being nice, that comes out of her, of her "subjectivity." It's personal.

So in this way she "splits" her experience and her dealings with the world --- and gets to have her judgmental cake and eat it too!
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:45 PM on March 17, 2013

This may be my personal experience showing, but that all reads Borderline personality to me. The wholely black and white outlook (if a bad thing has happened it's because you're a bad person), and being extra super nice to - essentially - strangers? Yeah, those can be pretty classic. Especially because I feel like if this were the normal variation that's just human you wouldn't have been so troubled by it that you felt like you needed to bring it to AskMe. But this could just be the one jarring thing that throws you off about an otherwise completely wonderful and genuine person.
posted by stoneweaver at 6:29 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

My guess is that your mom has a touch of what I call 'underdog preference'. These types of people are extraordinarily nice to others who they see as 'lower' or 'less' than themselves. This is not necessarily as mean or judgmental as it sounds - usually it means that they seek to help or improve people they think need it, such as people who are poor or sick. The problem starts when the underdog climbs up to a position of equality - then he/she becomes a threat and people like your mother will find a way to take them back down a few pegs. Often to then help them again!

It's an insidious and vicious cycle and can be very strange to watch. It is also common for children of parents who are like this to be on the receiving end of the 'dressing down', if you've ever experienced it and were wondering about it.
posted by widdershins at 8:23 PM on March 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

How old is she? Could it be a sign of pre-dementia? Or has she always done this?
posted by Dansaman at 8:49 PM on March 17, 2013

There have been some very interesting responses to this question, but I agree most closely with The Light Fantastic. I have seen the same behaviour from someone I was close to by marriage, and for me the telling component of your question (if I interpreted it correctly) is the way your Mother deals with the bad fortune of others that she feels will also impact on her. This sounds like resentment driven by fear or anxiety.
posted by planetthoughtful at 9:06 PM on March 17, 2013

I think that your mother doesn't deserve this harshness. She clearly believes in karma, which is not something I believe in, but is not a thing that is totally crazy to believe in - lots of people believe in it.

It might also just be that she has higher standards, and thus judges people by her own standards. People often do this - and if, as you say, she's really kind and good in most interactions, many people maybe cant' measure up.
posted by corb at 4:52 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

She would easily tell a close family member (who she loved) "you lost your job as karma for being a bad person," or "it is your fault for being sick, and I will not help you until you stop" and expect this NOT to be a mean thing to say.

She's helping on a higher level. "I could just sympathize with you [about getting fired or sick] and make you feel a little better about yourself today, but what you really need is honest advice: [stop being a dick at work, stop smoking/drinking/overeating, whatever] and things will get better for you. The choice is yours."
posted by pracowity at 5:18 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Except she's not giving "advice", as per the OP. "You're a bad person" or "You're being sick on purpose" is rarely actionable or helpful. I'm revising my answer based on reading the question again and the other answers here. I agree it could be she's deeply afraid of the uncertainties of life and blaming others for any calamities they experience that effect her is how she makes herself feel safe again.
posted by bleep at 7:36 AM on March 18, 2013

People who lack empathy, particularly if it's limited to close relationships when they behave differently around other people, are often victims of abuse who have not healed. This doesn't excuse her behavior, but it might provide insight for you and a way for her to move past it eventually.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:47 PM on March 19, 2013

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