How to be less of a kvetch
July 10, 2017 9:46 AM   Subscribe

My sense of humor is largely based on being withering/disdainful/dismissive and I think it may have turned me into an unbearable person. There has to be a way back to bearability.

Long ago, in college I suppose, I semi-consciously developed a sense of humor based on weary disdain. Dorothy Parker I ain't, but it tends to get a laugh and this has reinforced it.

The thing is I think it has bled out into my entire sensibility (or perhaps it's an expression of some depthless inner well of negativity!) and while I think of it as balanced by enthusiasm for the things I'm not kvetchy about, I am aware that we never really know how we come off to others. Meanwhile, I did have two friends (a decade or so ago) tell me somewhat bluntly that my negativity could be hard to take. I have tried to reform, sometimes.

Cut to now, and I wonder at times if I am a poisonous bitter toad. I'm certain it's gotten worse (there are some externalities that have made me feel worse in a way I assume isn't invisible, including the political reality of the present and having lived for four years in a place I dislike profoundly) and I just get a nagging suspicion I may be Debbie Downer.

How's a guy to lighten up? It's such a longstanding thing. I'm guessing it's not great for my healthy. Anyway, I'd particularly like to hear from reformed kvetches.
posted by Smearcase to Human Relations (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I used to be somewhat like this, and still backslide from time to time.

The first thing that came to mind reading your question was a CBT approach, but in my experience what worked was being jolted out of it by hearing the truth about how I came across to people. I felt so embarrassed – ashamed, really – that I smartened up. You mentioned that some friends confronted you once; I'd seek out more of those conversations.

Also, re:

having lived for four years in a place I dislike profoundly

...let me be the first to advise you to move if you can.
posted by Beardman at 10:05 AM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Been there. Made withering asides about it while I was, too.

I've struggled with this as well. Maybe the most helpful thing for me personally has been to try and respond immediately and plainly to people's cues that I'm being a sour jackass. You're getting these cues from people, trust me. And if you're at the point of thinking about how to ease up on people, you're noticing them too.

What you may not realize is that much of the time (not all! not all!) people will let these things pass if you immediately, plainly, and calmly retract/demur, with as little drama and nazel-gazing as possible. Keep in mind as you do this: this is not about making a thing about you, about taking over the conversation to come up with the exact right apology/backtracking to absolve you and make you feel better about yourself. It's more like you callously dropped a lit cigarette into a dry yard, someone totally saw you, and as long as you give a polite "My bad," and stamp it out, the barbecue can move on.

Not sure if that explanation is clear, so here's an example:

Other person: "I've been doing [hobby a person could reasonably snark about] ."
You: "[Withering ten word detonation of stupid hobby.]"
Other person: "I... kind of think it's fun."
Here's the part where you get the feeling letting you know you're being a dick. Backpedal. Be a person instead. The one thing you have going in your favor is that by having blown it at first, you've lowered the bar for courteous engagement.
You: "Ehh, maybe I have it wrong. I know some other folks who dig [hobby], too. What do you like it about it?"
And then at this point, be willing to back that up by listening and engaging respectfully.

You can't pluck the original snarky retort out of the timeline, but you can often bury it by quickly course-correcting and just trying to be decent. People don't want you to be awful and sour to them anymore than you want to be awful and sour. They will often give you a chance to back out and course correct.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:13 AM on July 10, 2017 [15 favorites]

I am a pessimist (and often right!), but I had to get a grip on it a while back. The first phase was just to be more mindful of what was coming out of my mouth (or showing on my complete lack of poker face).

Second phase was learning to think before I spoke.

Third was to watch my phrasing, if it needed to be said at all, before I spoke.

And then, overall, I just needed to remind myself going into social situations to either lighten up or at least fake lightening up. I had to exercise the muscles used to look for the good in things, and to make a point to be proactive with nice things like giving people support and encouragement. This can be practiced, and it does improve your general demeanor and maybe even your outlook. Being kind has payoffs.

And tangential to that, I had to stop trying to make jokes all the time as part of the mindfulness. Jokes that fail make people uncomfortable, there's no real comeback to snark or a dour comment, so really what you're doing is just dropping a turd in the middle of people just trying to keep a conversation going. Don't be the pooper. Think before you unbuckle.

It meant I had to go a little quiet for a while, spend more time listening and nodding encouragingly. That's not a terrible way to implement this kind of transition in existing social environments anyway.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:19 AM on July 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

An improv class would actually help a lot! Very effective in forcing you to ditch the negativity demons and switch to a "yes, and..." approach (you can still be as dark as you like of course). And it is really, really fun.

Classes would be the best way, but if you want to dip your toe in, Tina Fey's Bossypants discusses how she's used this approach in all aspects of life, and/or the UCB comedy manual is a great primer.
posted by veery at 10:23 AM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've done something like this. It helped to be on the receiving end and see how uncomfortable and disconnecting it felt. And also, seeing that I hurt people at times.

Direct your words and thoughts in a direction of curiosity and kind humor. You will slip at times, be quick to say "Wow, that must have sounded mean, I'm sorry." And make a re-framing statement: "so what has it been like for you to xxx."
posted by bunderful at 10:23 AM on July 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

You have a schtick. It gets you through social interactions, occasionally successfully. But you need more than one. You have stolen a bit and integrated it so completely that a decade after being called out on it you are still leaning on it. Steal other comedy. Listen to other comedians with different voices and try out their schtick. This isn't joke stealing for which you should be pilloried. This is the casual adoption of comedy that everyone (everyone) does.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:27 AM on July 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Find something to do that you absolutely love without irony, that puts a big goofy smile on your face, and tell people about it, no matter how hokey it might seem. Learn what it feels like to be unguarded and sincere. This can teach empathy for other people's goofy love of things.
posted by matildaben at 11:21 AM on July 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

The following suggestion might not jibe at all with your personality, but I thought I'd throw it out there in case it does.

The more you feel awed by the world, the less you will likely feel inclined to scoff at it. So get religion. Focus on the spiritual side of yourself.

That might entail beginning a meditation practice or going to religious services or whatever else you might be inclined to do in this vein. You use the word "kvetch," so maybe you are Jewish? Start going to Friday or Saturday services.

“We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn, or scoff at the totality of being.”

― Abraham Joshua Heschel
posted by Leontine at 11:49 AM on July 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm somewhat like this too & try (but occasionally fail) to keep it in check in situations where it is unappreciated. You do need to be able to switch modes.

But one of the joys of the "kvetchy" personality is that the people who appreciate it really appreciate it, because they also struggle to keep it in check, and it's liberating to have the ear and sympathy of a fellow kvetch. As someone (variously attributed) once said, "If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit by me." So cultivate those friendships in your life and save some of your choicest thoughts for them!
posted by aws17576 at 12:46 PM on July 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I used to be the world-weary sniper in the back of the room, and I think I was pretty accurate and witty but to be honest, I got bored with myself. Since everyone expected me to rain on their little parades, pretty soon, they didn't bother to invite me to the parades, and I found myself tossing off little snipe-bombs alone. Then, I met the guy who wrote Learned Optimism and found out that I could be encouraging and supportive as well as somewhat amusing. I still crack wise, but at my own expense, rather than someone else's.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:07 PM on July 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

Hmm... sounds like you have "Gen X Malaise" which is the name of a disease I made up for people who still feel the crummy feelings but aren't doing anything about them yet.

We all spend a lot of time convincing ourselves and others that change is impossible, but when we make some actual effort it happens.

I listen to a lot of happy dance music in the morning on my way to work and on my way home so I don't have to be an asshole about everything. Shitty stuff happens, I'm thinking ok... boop beep, beep beep boop <>
Life is short, start looking for the good parts of each day, even if it's one tiny thing. A smile, accidental enlightenment, a nice smell, a memorable plum, the new thermochromic stamps of the Moon just released by the USPS.

Yes, there is plenty to kvetch about, but it gets a lot harder when you are having a good time and enjoying stuff.
posted by bobdow at 3:57 PM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I suspect you're right that it has a negative effect on others and on you. Practice other forms of humor, you'll get better at it and I think you'll enjoy it
posted by theora55 at 4:12 PM on July 10, 2017

Maybe give your immediate impulse a funny face, in your head, e.g. the grouch, or Statdler/Waldorf from the muppets.

When you say something grouchy imagine that character saying it. Try and move to having the character only say it in your head. You could say bland things instead, but a good trick is just to ask people about how they feel instead of saying how you feel.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:11 PM on July 10, 2017

An alcoholic with 10 years of sobriety told me how, after stopping drinking, she learned to deal with the realization she was what you call a 'poisonous bitter toad'. Before interacting with others she'd say 3 affirmations to herself. I don't remember 2 of the exact quotes, but the essences were 'Putting down others makes me feel bad about myself.' and 'Complaining isn't conversation. It's proof I care most about myself'. The third affirmation I remember because I use it often "I don't have to feel like doing something to do it".

At first, while listening in a conversation, she had to rest the tip of her tongue between teeth as a reminder to act on her new beliefs, not react out of toxic habit.
posted by Homer42 at 7:53 PM on July 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

it tends to get a laugh and this has reinforced it.

I understand the tendency and I've found it useful to develop other ways to get this kind of positive feedback from people. I try to use more compliments, ask more follow-up questions, express more enthusiasm. It's less quick and more vulnerable but it works.
Or use other comic modes to get laughs (as muchingzombie and theora55 suggested) - one can be frivolous, absurdist, deadpan without slipping into miserabalism.
posted by Socksmith at 3:56 AM on July 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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