How can I chill and accept the slight grossness of my human loved ones?
November 13, 2018 8:36 PM   Subscribe

Ever since I was kid, I've been very easily irritated by the physical habits of other people I'm close to and whom I actually love very much - my mom eating with her mouth open, my dad making a mess in the bathroom, my partner not washing his hands before he prepares a meal, my brother sneezing into his hand, my best friend clearing her throat because she has a cold.

These things actually enrage me to the point of making a snotty comments at the person or even slamming doors, which I know is terrible. My mom used to call me "Miss Priss" because of the way I'd police her behavior when I was little. Strangely, the same "gross" behavior by a stranger would not bother me. I also don't think I'm particularly a germaphobe.

I would describe the feeling I get as being similar to misophonia but with various things, not just sounds. I suspect from their behavior that my grandmother and one of my uncles have the same issue. Is there a name for it?

More importantly, six of my family members are coming to visit for the holidays and I would really like to not be a jerk to them and just be cool and accepting. I need coping strategies, if you have them.
posted by Brain Sturgeon to Human Relations (24 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This is the opposite of what you wanted, but I would encourage you *not* to accept your partner not washing his hands before preparing food. Hand washing is a strong contender for the title of single most important advance in public health ever.

China has a nursery rhyme for this: fan qian bian hou yao xi shou. Before food and after poop*, wash your hands.

* bian includes both urine and feces, but "before food and after elimination" doesn't have the same ring.

Anyway: in the 21st century, in a major metropolitan area of the first world, your partner has no excuse.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:15 PM on November 13, 2018 [30 favorites]

Any chance this could stem from you being required to follow rules the rest of your family didn't follow?
posted by XMLicious at 9:17 PM on November 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sometimes we fixate on flaws of others in order to protect ourselves from... something. Only you know what it is. Vulnerability. Admitting that we love them. Feeling exposed ourselves. Can’t accept our own flaws. Feeling unloved or unloveable unless we are perfect. A deep inner self hatred coming out.

The key here is that strangers grossness does not bother you. So there is the intimacy in there somewhere that then pushes the need for revulsion.

Spend some quiet time thinking about this.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:18 PM on November 13, 2018 [26 favorites]

I’m not like this, but I do have my own list of non-logical things that infuriate me and cause me to be rude (slow walkers nooo). I choose to see these as a personal test, and that only by finding love through the disgust will I pass.
posted by samthemander at 9:22 PM on November 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

Oof I feel you. One thing I've realized is that some of the things that annoy me are universally considered annoying, while others are just my own special blend of neuroses. Like in your examples, eating with your mouth open is considered rude in some circles but no big deal in many, making a mess without cleaning it up is pretty much always frowned upon, ditto not washing hands before preparing a meal. Sneezing into hand is now considered not the thing to do but is still better than just spraying your disease mist into the air. Clearing your throat while you have a cold is just . . . a thing that happens with any kind of upper respiratory ailment? I'm positive having a cold is always worse than hearing someone else's.

So what can you do about that? Well, as a fellow behavior-policer, I've figured out that a lot of my behavior-policing is in fact a learned behavior, and that this behavior is itself as annoying to other people as whatever obnoxious thing they do that I dislike. And it can be kind of horrid, actually - at least in the person I learned it from, it was really designed to make others insecure, and has carried through three generations now like some sort of criticism virus. [on preview this is definitely related to the point about intimacy]

So I try to remember that. And every time I get ready to criticize someone, I've tried to train myself to think "is this behavior so dangerous or horrible it must be pointed out right this second?" Most of the time the answer is no. And if the answer is no, it can wait. And if I wait and actually think about it, most of the time it's really not an issue, and if it is it's probably full-on-intervention time.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:24 PM on November 13, 2018 [18 favorites]

If it's not germophobia, it sounds to me like an unconsious dominance strategy.... like you're trying to establish a pecking order and put yourself above them.

Maybe on some level you feel uncomfortable with what you perceive to be the relative status between you and these other people, so you're policing their habits to lower their status and raise yours.

Are there other things in the relationship you feel resentful about?
Are there ways in which you feel lesser than them, or insecure in your dealings with them?
Could this behaviour of yours is a way to "even the score"?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:39 PM on November 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

I used to be housemates with an absolutely wonderful friend. The first few weeks were great, and then I started noticing how loudly and grossly he chewed his food. It was unbearable and drove me to mean behaviors and weird resentment. Oddly enough, a few months after that I realized that I had been in one of the worst and longest depressive episodes of my life, was having serious anxiety problems and ended up moving across the entire country. Were these things relately? Absofuckinglutely. My lovely friend's horrible disgusting chewing hadn't registered for the years I'd known him before, and he was a fantastic housemate by all measures. The problem was me, and the change in his status from good friend to seeing him daily meant that I went from having nobody to offload anxiety onto to having him to poke holes in.

I think that the key in your question is that strangers doing gross things don't bother you in the same way. I have no doubt that if you watched someone in a restaurant not wash their hands and then prepare a meal, you would take issue with that as well. But the way you respond would be different. Try taking a long look at your mental health and like, general comfort and feeling of security (or lack thereof) and see if there's anything sticking out that you can finagle. Also try to think through scenarios where strangers do the things you take issue to with your loved ones - how would you like to respond to them? Are these truly problems (some of them might be, some not) and how would you like them to be resolved in an ideal world? Maybe some of them can be resolved. Try to separate how you respond to things from how you feel about the people who do them, tease out where the annoyance is.
posted by Mizu at 10:04 PM on November 13, 2018 [16 favorites]

You aren't going to change yourself to not be grossed out by those things. (NOR SHOULD YOU HAVE TO BE! UGH!)

However. You can decide to strategically give a pass to things you gotta give a pass to, things that you aren't going to change, and which aren't, in the larger scheme, hills you want to die on. Maybe you decide, ahead of time, to give a pass where the issue is aesthetic (open-mouth chewing); but still remind your brother, kindly, to wash his hands before preparing food because that really is necessary and basic hygiene.

And there are some things you can do to anticipate and defuse issues. I had a loved one who was an open mouthed chewer. It was a horror. So, for years, I placed myself next to him at the table instead of across from it, so I wouldn't have to see it. (And over the years he actually got a lot better about it so now I don't have to do that.) Try to get your shower in before your dad uses the bathroom; and place cleaning supplies and paper towels in there so you can easily wipe up nastiness and go about your business if you do find it disgusting. Things like that.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:07 PM on November 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

My therapist helped me realize that whenever I rage about smaller things I can't control (other drivers for example) it's because I'm feeling out of control in some larger way. Could this be part of what's happening for you?
posted by bendy at 10:32 PM on November 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

This sounds exactly like misophonia.

I know someone who has life-defining misophonia, and from what I hear, it can absolutely extend to things other than sound. It is also not unusual for misophonia to act up worse around those you're closest to, or in times of stress. Look to resources for the standard self-care & coping mechanisms for anxiety.
posted by aniola at 11:59 PM on November 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

Disgust is actually an emotion it's possible to train yourself out of feeling; it's also one you can cultivate and nurture until it becomes a huge deal. A lot in the modern world encourages nurturing it - see, for example, a bunch of the responses you're getting here. But it's actually fairly unhelpful in a lot of ways, even if you aren't feeling it in circumstances that are inappropriate and stressful. I could go onto a huge derail here about politics here, but I won't - but there are definitely positive side-effects from relinquishing a desire for personal purity.

A foundation to this is that you have to separate the 'this may under some circumstances cause sickness' thought from the 'urgghhhh this is awful get it AWAY from me' thought. You will not get yourself into a state where you can relinquish the latter until you decouple it from the former, which is a useful and necessary evaluation to be able to make. But you can do it without feeling intense disgust. Even recognising this is often enough to reduce the headspace disgust takes on in your mind.

The next thing is exposure. That can come from two directions, I've found. The obvious one is doing gross or disgusting things yourself. The good thing is that most of the things that bother you are fairly harmless, so having a go at them yourself, on your own, is unlikely to cause harm. (honestly, even cooking without washing your hands is most of the time not going to hurt you. You should still wash your hands, because sometimes it will make you very sick. But mostly it won't.) Keeping a compost heap and a worm farm have been powerful agents against disgust, for me. I really hate picking up slugs but my garden demands it, so I've got over it.

However, an underrated source of exposure is simple education about the realities of the physical world. Once you truly begin to understand what a writhing mess of microbes and secretions and creepy-crawlies the human body is, it's a lot harder to be disgusted by things that it does. But you really have to open your mind up to this and ponder it intensely - to see, not the clean bright skull beneath the skin but rather the colonies of bacteria and dermodex living on its surface or in its crevices. You're getting disgusted because your loved ones actions remind you that they too have bodies, with all the horror that entails - and the only way to deal with that realisation is to dive deep into it, to never not be conscious of it, but also to see the intense beauty in the way that life teems and creeps. Good luck!
posted by Acheman at 12:26 AM on November 14, 2018 [24 favorites]

So this is basically me, and I also have (self-diagnosed) misphonia, and I see and experience it as a manifestation of my anxiety. Do you have anxiety? The more anxious I am, the more these sounds and behaviours "trigger" my anger and annoyance. The more calm (and the more control I am) the less it bothers me. (Except if my partner didn't wash his hands because that's totally separate).

I also accept that being "chill" is not in my nature, but also knowing that it's anxiety that is the ultimate trigger means I would focus on all the things that are likely to decrease my anxiety when family is coming to stay. For example, getting the house clean and ready for guests is a major source of anxiety for me - so, I outsource it and get a cleaner in. It's more expensive but it leads to less anxiety and then less being irritable over these things.
posted by liquorice at 2:17 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nthing that misophonia can feel this way.

I don’t have any helpful advice for dealing with it, but I wanted to encourage you to embrace that label if you like, particularly if it frees you from looking for psychological explanations for what is going on (about dominance or whatever else.) Misophonia seems to be better understood as neurological, and in my own experience, worrying about whether it was saying anything about my deep hidden feelings for my loved ones (it wasn’t!) was adding more anxiety into an already unpleasant situation.
posted by wyzewoman at 5:53 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

>My mom used to call me "Miss Priss"

Um, dude? This isn't cool. You were probably taught, as most of us were, that things like sneezing into your hands or chewing with your mouth open are anywhere from rude to downright disgusting. You were probably taught that by adults in authority and people you trusted. You might have even been taught those things by your parents.

That kind of judgemental dismissiveness when you were a child trying to parse the rules of society and figure out your own boundaries and sensitivities was not okay.

That isn't to say that your mother and other family members are or were necessarily required to change their behaviour because you disliked it. That isn't exactly the point. The point is that they shouldn't talk to you like that.

It's okay to be sensitive. It's okay to be grossed out by people doing gross things especially when those are also disrespectful to other people. It's okay to be a bit particular. It's okay to have some boundaries (for example I would have a boundary of not eating food prepared by these people, except for the throat-clearing friend).

I wonder if it would be helpful for you to do a little work on defining and asserting your boundaries with loved ones, not just regarding gross body stuff but in general.

Ironically, once you feel more secure in your boundaries and better able to defend them, and/ or feel like other people are respecting your boundaries better in general, I think it's possible that this stuff will bother you less.
posted by windykites at 6:48 AM on November 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

my mom eating with her mouth open, my dad making a mess in the bathroom ...

There is a real medical/mental condition that covers that. For the life of me I can't remember what it's called
or where I read about it.
After spending an hour researching this, I came up with Misophonia, but I still think it's called something else. Anyway, there are things you can do to ease the condition. There are support groups and much info out there.

I hope you find some peace.
Full disclosure: I used to suffer from the same thing. I'm no longer bothered with it, I guess I outgrew it? But I know where you are coming from.
posted by james33 at 7:45 AM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

For the short term, notice that you're getting fed up with some gross habit(s) and have an excuse ready to get away for a minute so you can calm down (bathroom, a walk, check on something in the kitchen, get your book from your room). It's okay to find these behaviors gross, but it's not okay to be rude and slam doors. Even if you have misophonia.

2nding figuring out ways to be extra kind to yourself when you know you're going to be in a situation where you're stressed. I do stuff like go to bed early, exercise more, take long walks, and do a bit of extra grooming stuff.
posted by momus_window at 9:12 AM on November 14, 2018

This is going to come across as blunt or harsh, but sometimes when I feel compelled to say mean things to people I love I try to remember that saying those mean things (or slamming doors) is probably something an objective third person would find much more unpleasant than the things that had set me off in the first place. With that said, it's good that you're looking for help for this, and I'm sorry that you're experiencing distress.

Have you ever tried mindfulness practices? Learning to observe your feelings without judgment of those feelings might help you gain a sense of control and greater equanimity. I wonder if you might benefit from something like the Headspace or Calm app.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:39 AM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I, too, am naturally inclined to be annoyed with people's foibles. I try to turn this back on myself whenever I notice it, like, yes, that person is slightly annoying, but it's unconscious in that person whereas you're perfectly aware you're thinking all these mean things and you aren't doing anything to think kinder things, are you, so who is worse, here? When did you get so uncharitable? I'm not saying this works perfectly; it doesn't. I remain awful, in essence, but if I can shift the locus of my annoyance and make the irritating thing my own failure to be kind instead of the other person's failure to (usually) get the fuck out of my way, I can by degrees get all my outward manifestations of awfulness curtailed to the point that only I know how terrible I am. Then I'm my own problem. My responsibility is first not to be some innocent someone else's problem. Then to not be a problem, full stop. So first limit the suffering you cause other people. Then you can begin to chip away at the misery you cause yourself.

I've been doing this case by case. An example: at the farmer's market I used to fly into a state of fury and grumble under my breath and writhe irritably because certain of the farmers like to chat about their wares at intolerable length with each successive customer, so that the line around their tables (I'm looking at you, milk lady!) grows enormous, meanwhile ALL THE OTHER FOOD IN ALL THE OTHER STALLS IS GETTING BOUGHT AND I'LL STARVE AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

Over years I've worked with myself and counseled myself to simply breathe and not thrash about and keep a gentle smile on my face at all times and to remember that everyone has a right to be at the farmers' market and everyone has something interesting to say and that I'm not, in fact, likely to starve, ever, and that, no matter how difficult it is for me to encompass emotionally, in fact I am not more important than everyone else in the world. After years of work, I am no longer a rude monster at the farmers' market--and in fact I feel much less impatient and more content to simply stand there and wait and get the Turkish yogurt when the woman is finished explaining farmer's cheese to three separate people, at excruciating length, one after another. So I've solved the farmers' market problem, but that doesn't mean I'm not still naturally pretty awful.

For instance, the other week I had about ten minutes to get from terminal B to terminal E in Charlotte, and I noticed that I took a certain amount of dark glee in racing down the moving walk and not really paying all that much attn. to my shoulder bag maybe just grazing the flanks of the MORONS STANDING NEXT TO THEIR WHEELIES BLOCKING THE ENTIRE GODDAMN THING IGNORING ME CHARGING UP BEHIND THEM SCREAMING "SCUZE ME" AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-


I can report some real and very beneficial progress, though, specifically that after years of being annoyed by every other person in the world, I've learned how to "mute" family members and other loved ones who do irritating stuff. So I'll never be finished working on this, but I've done good work so far and people around me suffer less and I suffer less, so that's good.

(I of course missed my flight and I spent the ensuing six hours walking around the deserted parts of the airport--staying well clear of the moving walks--while reading Hunger, by Roxane Gay, which is a good book to read if you're interested in developing feeling for other people. I got 40,000 steps and took advantage of the "half back" program at the airport bookstore, where if you turn the book back in, they give you half your money back. And the same person who sold me the book was still there five hours later when I handed it back and remembered me and was impressed that I'd read the whole thing, which gratified me enormously because I am essentially a three-year-old child.)

(I agree with everybody that he'd better start washing his hands, for his own sake as well as everyone else's.)
posted by Don Pepino at 12:10 PM on November 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

Regular meditation made a big difference for me
posted by Dmenet at 12:22 PM on November 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have this issue too. And every time I go back on my meds, I notice a steep decline in how frequently I have an urge to rage out at a kid for leaving shreds of paper or plastic on a table after eating or crafting (this is my personal Waterloo).

I don't love SSRIs for a few reasons, but when I'm in a really prolonged tough place, they are magic for getting me to feel and act "normal" and not so bugged out by everything.
posted by witchen at 12:30 PM on November 14, 2018

My son, who is 15, has this issue. He sometimes explodes (or erupts?) in anger at a tiny slight that the other person had no idea they had committed.

I have a much less intrusive version of the same - something closer to misophonia - and when my son is a little older I will strongly suggest Prozac for him. It helped with my issues and I think it will help with his.

Having said that, I have tried to point out to him that his horrible eruptions of anger are much, much more harmful than whatever annoyed him. I try to couch the situation in terms of "degrees of harm" to show him that being annoyed might be out of his control, but his reaction to the annoyance shouldn't be to make other people miserable.
posted by tacodave at 5:11 PM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sounds like misophonia. Not all cues are audio, some are visual or invoke multiple senses. Misophonia parallels (some) anxiety disorders and shares features with but is not the same as phobias, OCD, synesthesia, gross-outs or plain annoyance... it is certainly not a dominance strategy! Jeez!

It can be life-alteringly bad. Like a full blown panic attack but instead of fear and anxiety you feel rage, disgust and anxiety. Sometimes it blinks on in a split second. The reaction is immediate and visceral. You can spin out for hours once the cue is triggered, even with good coping mechanisms in place. It's not the same as being irked by your neighbor's messy lawn, hating the sound of nails on chalkboard, or trying to control someone with abuse. (Though you do need to take responsibility for bad reactions.) It's like turning into The Hulk because a fork tine scraped on a plate.

Wikipedia: "Reactions to the triggers can include aggression toward the origin of the sound, leaving, remaining in its presence but suffering, trying to block it or trying to mimic the sound."

Research is thin. So far it seems most like a sensory processing condition. Please go see a specialist about this. I mean, feel free to lift helpful coping techniques wherever you find them. But you should know exposure therapy is not always successful, and if done poorly, it may increase the strength of your triggers!

Prevention is key: lower your stress levels, minimize cue exposure, recruit allies, plot escape hatches, and decide in advance what responses are okay. Stress exacerbates misophonia but doesn't cause it, and genetic factors do seem to be involved.
posted by fritillary at 12:08 AM on November 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

After reading a bit more about misophonia and realizing it does encompass more than auditory triggers, I think this is definitely what my issue is. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like it's easy to treat. And I do agree my reactions are much worse than anything anyone does to trigger them.

I'll work on pre-empting any sources of stress/anxiety before the family comes to visit and see how that goes. Maybe just leaving the room with a polite excuse when my misophonia is triggered and staying away until I calm down would help.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 5:17 PM on November 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have Sensory Processing Disorder which misophonia can sometimes fall under. I definitely have misophonia but if other sensory information is triggering anxiety or fight/flight, it could be SPD since misophonia is only sound related. This link touches on both briefly.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:54 PM on November 16, 2018

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