Do I have a defective character, or is this just a run of bad luck?
May 15, 2019 1:31 PM   Subscribe

I can’t tell if I just continuously run into jerks, or if I’m being unnecessarily picky and sensitive. On one hand, I’m very lonely and crave connection and intimacy with almost everyone I meet. On the other hand, I’m finding myself cutting people out of my life on an almost constant basis because they almost always “turn out” to be jerks. I constantly feel devalued by people in my life, which makes me angry and end up cutting contact with them over hurts or injustices towards me. It almost feels like every single person I meet almost immediately gives me a reason to stop talking to them. Is it my fault, or is this just a run of bad luck?

Some examples of people I had to recently end contact with:
• Got proof that best friend/coworker of several years was talking badly about me behind my back to other coworkers. Was very hurt by that, felt I couldn’t trust her anymore and don’t want to be friends with someone who would do that to me, so after an emotional confrontation I stopped talking to her.
• Started seeing/sleeping with my neighbor after finding them on a dating site. Around date 2 I guess he realized that I was not relationship material or something, because in my opinion he started to become condescending, kind of mean, and cold – and treated me like I had no value beyond sex which he would contact me for every week. I stupidly continued to see him, while trying to convince him that I was a valuable person for more than sex. Over about a year of weekly hangouts we had very personal intimate conversations and connected somewhat during sex and watching movies together - but when I left his place, it was like I never existed. I could sense he had a wall up with me. Initially I thought he had serious intimacy issues, but he’s been married and had long term serious girlfriends – so I know he is capable of intimate, loving relationships – just not with me. I conclude that something about me must have made him think that I’m not valuable. I feel though like I can’t trust myself when I say that he was a jerk to me – because he has friends and serious lovers and so that means that some people think he’s a decent person to be around…
• Emotionally immature fu*kboy I dated on and off for 3 years who didn’t want a relationship with me and in my opinion treated me like dirt. Too many examples to get into, but to give you an idea, his friends all asked me how I could possibly deal with his behavior, and he admitted to treating previous exes badly. However, he constantly told me things I was doing wrong in the way I was treating him, so I felt very confused about if I was the problem or if it was him.

Growing up, friends kind of entered and left my life so I never established a core support group outside of my family. At this time (and this is a pattern for really any given time during my life), I have what I would consider 1 close friend (a guy who has feelings for me, but is very kind and treats me well… so maybe not even a true friend), a few acquaintances, and others that I was once close to and saw regularly but we either grew apart or lost touch. This fact – that I can’t keep friends – makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me, which leads me to question my judgments of people and myself even more. I feel like I just can’t trust myself when it comes to determining “ok” behavior or just unacceptable behavior from others.

I would normally discuss this kind of thing with my therapist, but she isn’t really the type to have direct feedback on something like this. I’ve brought up a lot of comments like, “I don’t know why no one values me, maybe there’s something wrong with me…” and she just reminds me that others have valued me in the past which means I’m a valuable person to some. But I guess not valuable enough, because they end up leaving too.

After reading this I realize I come off as whiny and annoying… or maybe I’m the one who’s a jerk… but I truly have no sense of this. Please help me figure it out…
posted by koolaidnovel to Human Relations (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
After reading this I realize I come off as whiny and annoying…

You're devaluing yourself. It comes across in this post, it probably comes across in real life. Jerks, users, and abusers gravitate toward people who broadcast their lack of self-esteem because they have an easier time gaslighting and manipulating people who don't value themselves.
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:45 PM on May 15, 2019 [31 favorites]

Are you in your 20s or 30s? This all sounds like pretty normal stuff to me. I don't think any example you gave proves that you are doing something wrong. It does sound like some people have been jerks to you and you did the right thing in cutting off contact.

What you are doing, however, is skewing your perspective and creating a false narrative about your choices and your friendships and your self. This idea that you "can't keep friends" doesn't sound credible here. What evidence do you have for that? You shouldn't keep friends who are jerks and you've shown us examples of cutting out these friends, which is a good thing.

When you tell your therapist "no one values me" that is also a cognitive distortion. I think the "something wrong" part is your anxiety over this and your willingness to believe your cognitive distortions. Don't believe everything that you think. And you're thinking all these false narratives about yourself when you say "I guess I'm not valuable enough because they keep leaving too..." This is a cognitive distortion. One, you just said you made choices to cut off people, they didn't leave you. Two, your value doesn't depend on others necessarily. You create your own self-love and self worth.

Start looking inside rather than outside for validation. It's hard, but I would make lists of your good qualities/things about your life that are good and if you say, I have none, then start with things like, I woke up today. I can type. I can breathe. Seriously. I had to do this when I thought my life was shit. We all have a little silver lining and we need to focus on that.
posted by jj's.mama at 1:47 PM on May 15, 2019 [13 favorites]

Women are undervalued the world over. It is hard not to take it personally, because it feels intimate and painful. Often people are not nice. Sometimes it has to do with you having needs, but lacking the recognition or intuitive skills to find good matches.

All I can suggest is be a better friend to yourself, and learn a waiting game, where you do more observation, then light back and forth to see what is there.

People have limits and capabilities, energies, time or not time, and it takes some communication and waiting to see if they can be there for you. I would not waste time being angry, just breathe past it. Try again, take your time.
posted by Oyéah at 1:49 PM on May 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

And when I say "normal stuff" when you're in your 20s and 30s, I'm not talking about people being jerks to you, but I'm talking about having a loose set of friendships that change overtime. Losing touch with people, learning you don't have much in common with people you hung out with before, etc.
posted by jj's.mama at 1:49 PM on May 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

What about "for various reasons I have trouble seeking out people who will be good friends and partners to me and I'm drawn to people who will be bad friends and partners"?

Your framing here is "either there's a pattern, which means I'm defective and people hate me because I'm not good enough, or there's no pattern...buuuuuuuuuut it kind of seems like there's a pattern". I would suggest that there's a pattern and it's not because you're defective but because your personal history makes it hard for you to choose wisely. [and makes you vulnerable to awful people] This is very common, especially for AFAB people and women and especially for people who had difficult childhoods or experiences of abuse/being undervalued/isolation.

I think your therapist isn't really a great fit on this front. Do you have other options?

Like, for a long time I tended to have friends who treated me badly and who were not emotionally present for me. (Male grad student types...I didn't recognize that they were hung up on the usual masculinity stuff because they were not super macho in behavior and interests, but that's what it was.) Some of them just weren't real great friends because they didn't have friending skills and some of them were actively mean, cruel and contemptuous. I did not recognize that this was bad; I just blamed myself for being too dumb and boring.

And because my friends were either awful or lacked friending skills, it was hard for me to develop my own friending skills.

It's good that you're asking this question, right, because you've recognized and are trying to deal with the fact that your social relationships are not great for you currently. You're not just sitting here accepting an awful, depressing situation as the way of the world.

I think this is a solvable problem, because I have more or less solved it - I have much nicer friends now, even though I'd say I am still not the most socially adroit person in the world.

First, can you seek out some new social relationships? Like, join a book group, volunteer somewhere, take up a sport...and the test of this new thing should be "are people friendly and pleasant to me over time and do I see them treating each other kindly". Just being around decent people regularly will help reset your responses and give you metrics for what a normal interaction is supposed to be like. Try several groups until you find one that works. Consider groups with people older/younger/different than your usual friends.

Second, reflect and maybe journal about your earlier life - what kinds of relationships did your family and childhood friends model for you? Did you have a chance to see and participate in very many kind relationships? What were your early friendships and relationships like? How do you get along with your family now? Try to think about what you learned as a kid about being around people - did you learn that being mean was normal? Did you learn that the price of friendship was putting up with cruelty? Did you see a lot of adults who were bad friends to each other? Did you see a lot of men speaking contemptuously of women?

Third, can you seek out a therapist explicitly to talk about this? If you do okay with your current therapist, can you show her this question or explicitly tell her that you want to develop strategies for building friendships and relationships where you are valued? Maybe she's hearing "I feel like I'm not valued" as a request for ways to derail that train of thought and will be more helpful if you tell her that you want to change something.

Fourth, can you put the focus on good relationships in your life and try to deepen them? A couple of years ago, I started spending a lot more time with a friend just kind of by coincidence - we started meeting weekly for coffee. Our friendship really deepened and I realized that I hadn't had that type of deep friendship as a fully functioning adult. It taught me a lot of stuff about emotional intimacy.
posted by Frowner at 1:54 PM on May 15, 2019 [35 favorites]

Initially I thought he had serious intimacy issues, but he’s been married and had long term serious girlfriends – so I know he is capable of intimate, loving relationships – just not with me.

Plenty of people with serious intimacy issues get married and have long-term partners. I think you are expecting a lot of people. They are super flawed and the process of dating is two-fold--finding people you are attracted to and then weeding out the ones that don't fit regardless of attraction. You are too quick to assume the problem is you.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:55 PM on May 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

It seems like you have a pattern of thinking about yourself and other people, trying to place blame on either person:
"Is there something wrong with me, or the other person?"
And then the answer is either:
"Yes, there's something wrong with me / No, and it's actually the other person who is a jerk."


Instead I'd suggest asking a different question, which is trying to place growth on yourself, not about blame:

"How do I want to grow and change in ways that I think are healthy and strong?"
posted by suedehead at 2:02 PM on May 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

I’m very lonely and crave connection and intimacy with almost everyone I meet.

Often when people are lonely and needy, they broadcast that to people they meet even if they are trying to hide it.

People tend to respond in one of two ways to lonely, needy people:
1. They don't get involved because they think the person will expect them to fill unmet needs from childhood/past relationships - that you will be all take and no give.

2. They do get involved because as prize bull oktorok said, they see someone who they can take advantage of - that you will be all give and no take.
A productive approach with your therapist might be to explore how you can be discerning when you meet people so that you don't let your loneliness guide you into settling for any companionship, and how you can set boundaries for treatment from other people so that you don't let weeks and months and years of dissatisfaction build up before confronting the person and ending your relationship altogether. Relationships between friends and lovers are healthy when they have a balance of both give and take.
posted by headnsouth at 2:17 PM on May 15, 2019 [23 favorites]

There are a lot of people in the world who are self-involved, unaware, or just jerks.

Your boundaries are how you protect yourself from them. Be kind, but cultivate only the people who treat you the way you want to be treated. Weed out those who don't treat you well before they have the chance to make you feel like you have no value. Jerks will only value you as much as you value yourself. I see a pattern here:

treated me like I had no value beyond sex which he would contact me for every week. I stupidly continued to see him while trying to convince him that I was a valuable person

who didn’t want a relationship with me and in my opinion treated me like dirt

Go take steps to meet people you'd like to be with rather than convince people who act like asshats that you're worthwhile. If you let them treat you badly, they'll keep right on asshatting.
posted by *s at 2:22 PM on May 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you aren’t setting boundaries. You crave intimacy so much you’re willing to put up with shitty behavior to get a tiny bit of pseudo-intimacy. And then you have to cut them off because they have walked all over you. So, start rejecting bad behavior and setting boundaries. Be firm about your own worth and only engage with people who value you.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:45 PM on May 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

"Around date 2 I guess he realized that I was not relationship material or something, because in my opinion he started to become condescending, kind of mean, and cold – and treated me like I had no value beyond sex"

Sorry to break it to you, but that didn't start around date 2.

Two of your three examples are sexual relationships, which are probably more likely to lead to jerkish behavior than other types of relationships. Especially if you're a heterosexual woman - not all casual sex-seeking guys are douches, but the vast majority are. There are, sadly, a large number of dudes who view women only as sex objects. That doesn't reflect anything on you, other than that maybe you look at things through rose-colored glasses.

Co-workers are also notoriously fraught, regardless of gender. I have a (male) co-worker who doesn't speak to me because I once disagreed with his assertion that Kyrie Irving is one of the five best players in the NBA.

Three people is too small of a sample size to evaluate with any certainty, but early signs are that there's not a problem with you.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:43 PM on May 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

I came here to say what headnsouth said.
posted by zdravo at 5:06 PM on May 15, 2019

The problems I've personally faced with similar issues, and trying to resolve them through therapy or otherwise, is that all of the advice you'll receive goes kinda like this, "it's not you... but... here's all the reasons why it actually is you," but the real fact is that it doesn't matter how much work you put into yourself, or what you are or aren't doing, you can't control how others treat you.
If you had low or no self worth or self esteem, you woudnt be asking, why is this happening? You'd have just accepted it as your reality and stayed with those people instead of cutting them out of your life.
Someone else mentioned that this is just universally how women are valued and treated, and I'm sure that's a real factor.
I don't know what the answer is, or if there is any, but so far the best I've been able to do with it is to try to not blame myself for the inadequacies of others, continue cutting crappy people out, and to hold out on some sense of hope that one day I'll eventually meet someone or some people who aren't horrible examples of humanity.
posted by OnefortheLast at 5:33 PM on May 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

We all have people in our lives who are self-involved, unaware, or just jerks, so you're pretty typical on that account. The situations you're describing are pretty common as far as navigating 20s/early 30s life goes. It is good that you are comfortable setting boundaries in relationships that aren't working for you! It's also pretty normal to have friends or partners who you just need to cut off or downgrade.

What I'm getting to is that the presence of jerks isn't so much an issue as is the apparent absence of non-jerks. That probably doesn't have anything to do with you being a jerk yourself, though. Something we don't all learn at an early age is that the skills and actions it takes to downgrade or discontinue relationships that aren't working for us aren't necessarily the same skills one needs to build connections with others. If you have the former but not the latter, part of the issue might be that you're not actively making friends with people who seem okay to you so much as you are accommodating whoever shows up until they do something you find problematic.

As headnsouth suggested, part of why you're running into these issues might be loneliness. It also might be that you may need to do some things differently to actively cultivate friendships and choose people rather than just letting people float towards you. It does seem that people who take less of an active role early on in choosing who they really want to spend time with have worse-quality relationships than those who are more discerning. Focusing mostly on the platonic side of things, people with good friendship maintenance skills (I didn't say extroverts, just to be clear) sometimes steer clear of people they're not sure can hold up their end of the relationship. That's not to say those people don't ever befriend people who turn out to be jerks - the difference is that they triage people who are a bad fit for them quickly and efficiently.

Also nthing everything Frowner said.
posted by blerghamot at 5:34 PM on May 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Armchair diagnoses - you give too much of yourself to people, expecting that they'll give the same back. When they don't, you are incredibly hurt and behave badly towards the person, which blows up the relationship.

An important thing to know is that different people show love different ways, and also have different capacities for what they can contribute to a friendship. The Five Love Languages can be quite eye opening about how demonstrations of love can get lost in translation. You might not be as good a friend as you think you are, because your friends value different things than you do.

Also, Gretchen Rubin has a personality model called "the four tendencies", and it sounds like you might be an obliger that goes through periodic "obliger rebellions" when things get too much for you. If this resonates with you, it's useful to know that much of the population will not understand this sort of reaction, as it's pretty specific to obligers.

Lastly, being a friend to someone who's in a bad romantic relationship can be frustrating. I will often avoid becoming closer to someone who is in (what appears to me) to be a bad relationship that they could get out of, but are choosing not to. Especially if they complain about it often.
posted by kjs4 at 7:25 PM on May 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

For dating, since you've had trouble with guys being users wait a while before having sex with someone. It'll help get rid of the guys just looking to hook up but willing to lie about wanting more. I think everyone runs into people who will treat them badly. The thing to do is kick them to the curb much more quickly. You might give someone a pass on treating you poorly once but twice is a habit. It's part of who they are
posted by stray thoughts at 7:32 PM on May 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I don't think you have a defective character. Your question reminds me a bit of my younger self. In my case, I tended to be friends with anyone who wanted to be friends with me and as a result had a few friendships crash and burn and others just quietly fade.

Things that help:
* Tolerating loneliness. I'm not good at this at all. But I've learned that the feeling of loneliness comes and goes. And with the type of social self-care that works for me, it comes less often. For me that's about 2-3 social events a week, including some kind of one-on-one time with a close friend and the other stuff can be classes and volunteering. I've also learned not to spend time with people I'm uncomfortable with just to avoid loneliness.

* Right now I'm just not dating because so far all my dating attempts have been disruptive to the rest of my life and have resulted in a long bout of depression.

* Learning to better evaluate the behavior of others. Do they gossip often and would I be okay with them talking about me the way they talk about other people? Are they in general kind - are they nice to the waiter? Do they work on themselves? What matters to them? How do I feel when I'm around them?

After years of working with coworker X it hit me that she almost never talks about our coworkers and when she does it's almost always kind - this made me feel more confident in sharing more with her. Coworker Z gossips to me quite a lot about others - I don't think she's a bad person at all, just anxious, indiscrete and not self-aware, so I'm judicious about what I tell her.
posted by bunderful at 5:55 AM on May 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

The sychronicity in this question! Thank you for putting down so aptly the thoughts that have been bubbling under the surface for me for years and finally came to the surface THIS WEEK.

In the last few years, I've cut off contact with several people I've been very close to due to a delightful array of commitment issues, cheating, controlling behaviour, shit-stirring, racist/sexist opinions, and this week with one of my oldest 'best' friends because I could no longer handle being the pressure release valve for a never-ending series of issues relating to her toxic relationship and her need for me to be friends with her abusive partner. Check my question history for many, many torrid details and a lot of 'not seeing the wood for the trees'.

In answer to your question, no, I don't think we have defective characters or particularly bad luck. I think we've spent a lot of our lives not asserting our boundaries and now, as we've grown and learned that certain people / relationships don't work for us, we're starting to flex those muscles a little.

Did you feel some kind of relief when you pulled back or ended those associations? Before you started feeling guilty at asserting that boundary or started ruminating on how you ended up in that situation in the first place?

Everyone faces negative situations and relationships that won't work for them - it's not bad luck, it's just part of being human. The difference is simply in how long we tolerate the less-than-acceptable before we do something about it. Sounds like you and I are building up the ability to assess situations more accurately and say no in a more timely manner. Go us!
posted by doornoise at 7:39 AM on May 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Hi everyone, thank you so much for responding so thoughtfully. I read through every answer carefully and I'm trying to take notes on what I can do to improve the situation.

I realized as I read the responses that my real question that I didn't really articulate is, how do I know what "too bad" behavior is, since everyone makes mistakes and is a jerk to others at some point or another? I get confused about where to draw that line about what behavior I can forgive and what should be considered unacceptable for continuing the relationship. I guess this is another thing I can explore with my therapist.
posted by koolaidnovel at 8:06 AM on May 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I didn't catch the new comment before posting, but I think this is a really good thing to work on in therapy!
I think that you really captured a lot of what I would like to say, doornoise. And I think that others have already provided good advice.
If you have spent a lot of time around people who cross your boundaries or who make you feel like you shouldn't have boundaries or that your needs are unimportant it can be very uncomfortable to change. It is hard to get it right and to do something other than a door slam when someone crosses a line, or when you realize that someone is crossing a line. It may take a while to calibrate your assertion of boundaries but as you continue to work on them, it becomes easier to assert your boundaries in small ways early in a relationship. This will ward off anyone who thinks you might be an easy target and will help you avoid the situation where someone does something egregious (once or repeatedly) and you feel like you have to cut them out of your life to manage the situation. I like the analogy of strengthening muscles, you get better at it over time and you have more control over how you use it.
Things that have been helpful have been exploring self-compassion and mindfulness, particularly around how I feel when I am with people or after I have been with people. It has also helped to work on identifying my values in relationships with other people and trying to live by those things. It takes work all the time, but it is important and valuable. We are all doing our best with what we have in life, but maybe this is a moment where your "best" is changing and improving.
posted by arachnidette at 8:13 AM on May 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

What constitutes "too bad" is a tough question, because not only is it different for each person, it's different based on the other person, too. So like, "too bad" for a person you've just met in a dating context is a lot different than "too bad" for a sibling. It's highly qualitative, and as such it takes a lot of practice to figure out. Nobody ever gets it completely "right".

It sounds like maybe you've been drawing the line a little more strictly than other people, which is fine! You're allowed to have high standards, and you should be commended for that. Give yourself permission to have high standards, if that's what you want. And if it's not what you want, give yourself permission to lower your standards.

Just don't spend too much time dwelling on your decisions. As with any trial-and-error process, there are going to be times when, looking back, you got it wrong. There are a lot of people I met in my 20s with whom I wasn't interested in investing in a friendship, but now that I'm almost 40, I look back and wonder why I was so quick to dismiss them. It can make you crazy with self-doubt, so just don't do it. If you decide someone has crossed a line, that's the end of them, and you move on to the next. With each one, you'll get a better idea of where the line should be drawn, but you can't go back and retroactively redraw a line.

One simple rule of thumb, though, is that if you get to a situation like your third example, where someone's friends are questioning why you put up with that person, that's a good sign that the line has been crossed a while ago.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:37 AM on May 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hey koolaidnovel - in response to your question about how to identify 'too bad' behaviour, I've been prone to giving people more chances than they deserve and reaping the shitty rewards, so after a lot of AskMeFi and reading around and figuring stuff out on the fly, I have found these things help:

1) Asking myself "what would X do?" - where X is a person of proven kindness and integrity with excellent boundaries.
2) Asking MeFi - for the brutal truth. Come back and check the advice again in a month, two months, six months as often you'll find your perspective has changed and you'll find different responses resonate.
3) Pretending the situation is not mine but a friend's - sometimes it's easier to see how terrible a situation is if we put someone else in our place.
4) Talking things through with a therapist or a sensible friend - sounding out a situation with someone relatively objective and supportive can make the decision an obvious one. Note: I've found that certain friends can have their own issues with boundaries, so not everyone gives good advice.
5) Journalling through my feelings - write three pages as quickly as possible and see if you can get to brutally honest. You can always burn the paper afterwards.
6) Reading up on red flag behaviour - the instant hard nope out of there. Check Natalie Lue's Baggage Reclaim for excellent guides and support in assessing relationships and friendships.
7) Expanding my friend group / social life - it's much easier to see how someone negatively impacts you if you're not clinging onto the idea of them as your only hope.

Lastly, one that I'm really really working on.

8) PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR GUT FEELINGS. When I look back at all of the situations I got into, there was generally a point at which I felt something was up early on, but then second guessed myself.

I remember stuff popping into my mind: "He likes it when I'm miserable" [he turned out to be a drama queen, playing hot and cold to keep me in the relationship but stop any progression], "That 'friendly' punch was oddly hard" [he turned out to be rough and uncaring in bed], "Why would he make a generalisation like that about a group of people?" [he turned out to be sexist and racist], "Bit weird that she's telling me all this really intimate stuff about people I only vaguely know" [she turned out to be a terrible gossip and was talking about me behind my back], "Is there something fake about her?" [same person, total shit-stirrer], "Underneath the niceness there's something angry" [he turned out to be a control freak who'd threatened to kill his ex during an argument], "She talks over me when we're around other people" [she turned out to be a co-dependent martyr-type who asserts dominance by taking away other people's agency].

Times between these initial thoughts and the eventual distancing from the person have ranged from a couple of weeks to ten years. Like I said, I'm working on inviting those thoughts in, rather than dismissing them until the behaviour becomes too bad to ignore. This isn't about looking for reasons to cut people off, just keeping eyes open and adjusting my level of investment accordingly.
posted by doornoise at 9:59 AM on May 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

On your question of what behaviour is “too bad” — Brené Brown’s concept of the marble jar really resonated with me. Respect and trust go hand in hand.
posted by third word on a random page at 12:58 AM on May 17, 2019

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