Am I Depressed or Just Surrounded by #!%holes?

“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”  ~ William Gibson

When I saw this quote on a friend’s Facebook wall I laughed out loud with delight and recognition. It hit me on a subconscious level. Why did I like it so much? I couldn’t tell you. It even seemed wrong that I, a psychologist, would like the idea of blaming depression on others. And then there was the swearing bit.

But I did like it! A lot! Enough to share it on my FB wall. And others liked it! A lot! And I started asking myself, what is going on here?

People clearly related to this quote as I did. I started thinking of my own life experience. How many times did the behavior of others effect how I felt about myself? How many times did I have to leave relationships because of the damage they were doing to my self-esteem? How often do I counsel my clients to take a good hard look at how a friend, boss, spouse or lover, is treating them?

The different ways people can be assholes are infinite! Here three top qualities for asshole-ness that pop for me.

1. They can be stupid. And by stupid I don’t mean unintelligent. Not being smart all the time can’t be helped. No one can know everything about everything! I know nothing about fly-fishing except that it looks pretty when it’s done right. Would I assume to teach someone, anyone, about fly-fishing? No. That doesn’t stop the asshole. The asshole is deliberately, obtusely dumb and happy in their stupidity. Knowing nothing about fly-fishing does not stop them from lecturing you as if they were a prize-winning angler.

2. They can be loud. Can an asshole be quite and shy? Maybe, but not in my experience. Most a-holes are not interested in the give and take of conversation. They monologue, take over, shout, get into your personal space, and don’t even realize they are doing it. Or maybe they do it on purpose to intimidate. Either way, not nice.

3. They can be selfish bullies. Selfish is NOT the same a self-caring. The asshole is self-centered in a way that is exclusive. The feelings, thoughts, input or contribution of others is minimized, cast aside, even ridiculed, in order to pump up their own sense of self-worth. It’s sad really, if it didn’t come with the stupidity and the loudness (see above).

Why do assholes make us feel depressed? If we are exposed repeatedly to assholes they can wear on our self-esteem. Most of us are reared to be nice. Being nice means listening to others, sharing a conversation, pointing out the other person’s good qualities and reasonably expecting the other person to reciprocate. We respect others’ opinions even if they are not shared. We generally defer to authority. Nice people are slow to anger and tend to emphasize the positive (for everyone else, anyway).

Assholes somehow make us feel like dopes for being nice. At first we might get angry and if the asshole is someone we only see once in a while we can be angry and get over it quickly. But if they are someone we see everyday, at work or school, maintaining anger is very difficult and eventually our self-esteem begins to erode leading to feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, sadness, depression.

This is actually not a joke. Even though the quote makes light of it, chronic emotional abuse can indeed lead to diagnosable depression.

Ok, so where do we find assholes?

You can find them everywhere: at school, socially in your circle of friends, at church, at work and in the family…

What can we do about them?

1. Be honest with yourself. Give yourself permission to see the situation for what it is. Once you’ve identified that there is a person in your life who is harming you emotionally, you can begin the work of getting your self-esteem back.

2. Take action. Action in empowering. Taking action is what’s important, even if you can’t change the relationship because the asshole is your brother, you can still take action. Did I say ‘action’ enough?

3. The action you choose to take can be reducing your exposure to that person, requesting a transfer to another unit, office, state. Not calling your relative everyday but rather once a week. In extreme cases, you may decide you need to break up with them altogether.

4. Put into place healthy self-care strategies that will charge up your Asshole Protective Shield. That means keeping an eye on your sleep, eating and exercise habits. Spend time with people (and animals) you can count on that make you feel good about yourself.

5. Find a good therapist who can help guide you through your asshole recovery. If the damage done by asshole exposure is deep the journey to robust emotional health can be complicated. Be strong and get help!

Here are some related articles and books you might find useful:

Seven Rules for Surviving an Abusive Boss

Ten Survival Tips When Being With the Family is Like Walking Into a Minefield

Six Tips for Dealing with Bullies

What Makes a Family Functional vs Dysfunctional?

These books by Susan Forward: The Toxic Parents, The Toxic In-Laws, Emotional Blackmail and Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them


  • Oh my goodness – I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this brilliant article, Dr. A! My family and I have often mused about why the “polite” people of the world sit nicely while the “rude” people of the world go about saying and doing whatever they like in order to suck the very life out of us. Yet the “polite” people seem reluctant to be so “rude” as to refuse the social invitations or interrupt the mind-numbingly self-absorbed monologue or simply walk away from the blowhards.

    Your advice about ‘taking ACTION’ is so bang on. Since surviving my heart attack, I have two general questions that I like to ask myself as a kind of test:

    1. “Is this what I really want to be doing right now?” and 2. “Is this the person I want to be doing it with?” If the answer to either is NO, then I know it’s time to DO SOMETHING. More often than I could have ever imagined, what I’ve been suffering through is not compulsory!!

    When I now look back at the endless hours I will never get back listening to my hubby’s oceanography colleagues go on and on (and ON!) during dinner parties about snore topics like zinc and copper sediment in the Fraser River estuary, all while trying to look interested but really wanting to poke out my own eyes with a stick from sheer boredom…. Sigh…..


  • Shel

    Thank you thank you thank you for this acticle!
    This is exactly what’s happening to me right now in my life and it really sucks!
    I went through a horrible divorce and the only place I could afford with the disabled person I am caring for is the commune I am currently living in.
    This place is asshole central and makes me feel like pulling my hair out, (or better yet, theirs!)
    Its really bad to be surround by assholes when your life hits Rick bottom. They think they are superior and offer the most unsolicited and condescending advice imaginable. They treat me like shit and I hate their intrusion. I want to move but need to find a suitable job. My car was stolen and I am just getting used to my bicycle and public transportation to get back the once very successful life I had before moving into this pothead haven.
    I could write a book about this place it is that dysfunctional. I am the only one who doesn’t abuse drugs and the only one who has ever owned a home, had a long marriage, have some rather remarkable past successes.
    So why do they think THEY know more then I do? (And trust me, these people are out to sabatage me at every turn though I had never messed with any of them).
    I hate assholes. I want a good life back. I wish their was a repellent you could buy and spray to keep these fuckers away for life.
    Jesus this is annoying.
    Anyway, sorry for my rant. I am really glad I found your article. It helps validate my situation and fuel my motivation to keep trying and get back up to “normal” again.
    Thanks! I wish you all am asshole-free life!
    ; )

    • Thank you, Shel. I wish you the very best also! I hope things are getting better.

  • AmyThe STrawberry

    Hahaha! My friend posted this on my wall a few months ago! It was really funny. But the thing is i do actually have depression x3 and anxiety, a chemical imbalance and a severe one at that. ALL the doctors told me that and psychiatrists all agreeing ahaha. But i do love that quote. There are alot of mean people in the world and every corner you turn, theres always one standing right there. Its so annoying x3

  • Ingalill

    Hello Dr Aletta!
    I am trying to find out WHO made the quote you are referring to, originally. It is NOT William Gibson, he has denied it himself. He says that some Steven Winterburn made the statement, but I believe Mr Winterburn “got it” from someone else. I think it was said by Sigmund Freud originally, and you, as a psychologist, should perhaps know that?
    This is not a very important question for me, I´m just curious, but I think the right person should be credited to a quote that goes viral on Facebook. :)
    Looking forward to your answer! / Ingalill

    • Neal

      I hate pointing out the obvious, but the actual point of the article wasn’t who wrote the quote. It’s what the quote actually means for us non assholes,and what we have to deal with from assholes. Kind of like the completely irrelevant post of you shared. Here’s some important and useful advice for you: Don’t be an asshole.

    • Carlos

      Apparently Neil is the real asshole! But I really don’t think Freud would ever say anthing so crass.

  • DM Henahan-Bryan

    Assholes = Toxic people. Toxic people = neurotic, probably neglected and abused people themselves who’s assholica (a word? lol) was developed as a defense mechanism growing up. Assholica actually = naricssism.

    The rest of us = Basically balanced people or people with enabling and co-dependendent tendancies. Many of us also were neglected and abused. But instead of buidling a grandiose wall of narcissistic defense, we grew more and more compassionate to the pain of others, often more so than having compassion for ourselves. We also didn’t grow the strongest boundaries while the assholes have no sense of (your) boundaries,ony theirs.

    Some of us grow up in dysfunctional families with assholes and then go out into the world and because of this are attracted to and attract…assholes. Of course, assholes always wear great masks and it takes awhile to see through the masks and realize you’ve been had and used by… an slick, assholes. Assholes are also con artists on various levels. They have the world often thinking they’re the kind one, nice, one, caring one…lol.

    Assholic Narcissists and some of us are magnets. We have to learn more how to recognize them earlier and how to build better boundaries to protect ourselves from them.

    And… to find more people who are not assholes! LOL Where are they? On this page, it seems. ;-)

  • Uncle Mike

    I would like to add that assholes that make one feel depressed or upset are not always the loud or rude ones. There are worse ones. At least we can see/hear the loud one coming. They are all too often people we hold in high regard even if it’s unwarranted. This type of asshole is underhanded and their back-stabbing ways wrongfully hurt others. Sly and covert remarks or statements often introvert us and make us wonder about ourselves – destabilizing us and causing unexpected upset. This type specializes in hurting people’s relationships by acting as a negative and hidden 3rd party – making one’s friends into suspicious enemies.
    Sometimes it’s hard to identify the secret asshole that’s messing the place up – but just observe the area where all the trouble is and you will eventually be able to spot the offending trouble-maker. It usually isn’t the very first person you think of. The one you are thinking of is usually being made to look bad and upset a lot by the real asshole. Just ask people, “Who’s upsetting you?” and after so many of the same answers you just might have the culprit.

  • Willow

    Sometimes, we don’t have a choice but to be surrounded by these types of people. In my current job, our internal customers are often a-holes or b-tches. As one of the low people on the totem pole, I get all sorts of piles of balogne dumped on my lap on a daily basis. Much of the balogne is the stinky sort.

    Case in point: Yesterday one of the b-tches decided to throw a hissy fit simply because we were telling her via e-mail whom to send e-mail questions to. No, she wants us to forward them because she is too lazy to remember or write down the correct people. We have told this b-tch numerous times the correct people to e-mail, but she refuses to write it down or remember, and then gets everyone on the team in trouble and lectured by the boss. Now we are all being forced to forward our e-mails because this woman cannot follow simple instructions.

    Then there was the a-hole who demanded two extra columns on our tracker be added just for him because he is not scrolling over and reading the comments section. If he is not scrolling over and reading the comments section, why then should we logically expect him to scroll over and see if there is a Y/N in two extra columns? It is work, after all. But no, these changes have to made just for this one a-hole.

    *Head desk*

    I would like nothing more than to have a winning lottery ticket. Until then, I guess I have no choice but be surrounded by demanding a-holes who nitpick and henpeck tiny little things all of the time.

  • TheKnowerseeker

    Formal terms for “assholes”: sociopaths or narcissists, depending on the “type” of asshole. And yes, they’re everywhere; they’re born-gifted amateur psychologists (so they know what makes people “tick” and just what to say and do), they know how to bend the rules but not quite break them (until they’ve gained enough status to not be touched), and they tend to become your boss through ruthlessness. (But first they started off as your bully in the schoolyard.) And if you shoot them, you go to prison.

    They’re the bane of civilization.

  • Me

    Thank you, this is so relatable, I wish id heard this quote earlier.
    What sort of action could be taken if the a-holes were your family?
    I’m too young to find a therapist or whatnot.

  • Marie

    Oh no. A psychologist amused at the newly discovered fact that people actually behave like assholes. Most people are reared to behave nice ? I suggest you get yourself acquainted with the term of bullying and its statistics.The truth is that anyone slightly different has almost certainity to be picked on. And that dealing with people treating you like crap on a regular basis makes you depressed because that´s how your anger transforms if you cannot do anything about the situation. I am appalled that a certified psychologist is so totally out of picture regarding human character and nature.

  • noname

    My doctor told me this as well. I was letting assholes walk over my self-esteem. They are everywhere and don’t care about your opinions or feelings. Much better keeping a distance to them.

    • You are right. Much better to keep a distance from people who do not have your best interests at heart. I’m glad you are taking care of yourself and that you have a doctor who supports you.

  • Jayme

    I was all set to enjoy this article, and as I read it I became more and more uncomfortable. Your 3 descriptions of assholes describe half of my family. Half of my family is made up of high functioning autistics (Aspies). People who meet them casually do incorrectly perceive their behavior as ‘being an asshole’ but living with them has taught me that they are often unaware of this and certainly have no mean-spirited motive. They ARE educated about many subjects which they have not actively experienced and are eager to share their knowledge with others. They feel they are helping by sharing it. They usually have no perception of acceptable social behaviors such as proximity to others or volume of speech or laughter. They can be self-centered and lack empathy toward others. Even though adults with an understanding of their condition and intense social training in an effort to overcome these traits, they often default to them, especially when excited or stressed. I’m actually pretty shocked that as a psychotherapist you don’t recognize the liklihood that your ‘assholes’ are, in fact, intellectually disabled people.

  • Navneet

    i dont know much baout depression but yeahi felt good and related to the article

  • Jenna W.

    The family that I live with consists of a-holes. My kids are learning it from them!

  • Distance yourself from family

    Distance yourself from your family. They are the biggest bloodsucking assholes in your life. This extends from your brothers and sisters, their kids, their kids kids. You have to realize some people lack common sense, some people lack common courtesy, some people are not on your level, and realize you are not on others. Family, friend, co-worker- you don’t have to put up with anyone’s crap from 65 to 14, tell them to take a Hike. My family, except for my parents and oldest brother, who were the most wonderful, caring, compassionate, funny, children loving people, that you would have wanted to meet, rest their souls since they passes away, are the balance o my world and are full blown assholes. They are the most ungrateful, jealous, mean, backstabbing, abusive,using, take what you can get, I won’t get off my ass and get job kinda people you ever want to me. God bless the rest of us, give us strength and do what you want to do. Do what you feel is right.

  • Distance yourself from family

    My family of assholes make up their stories. They are pissed off because I did not have kids, went to college, travel the world, met a beautiful person who is exactly the same- never had kids, went to college, travels the world with me. We worked hard for the past 20 years, sold a house in the city and was able to buy a house for half the price in the country. We love it, we are working hard at hour jobs then we one home nights and weekend and work hard renovating the house the way we want it. We want to bank all our money the next 10 years starting next year to retire comfortably in a sunny warm climate year round. We have goals, we have plans. My family doesn’t, so is it my fault they did not take a different route in life? I help them emotionally, physically when they need help moving, painting etc. and financially but it’s not enough. They still treat me like shit, they still talk about me behind my back, still argue about stupid things. As Auntie says sometimes you need to leave it alone, stop the contact , even when you’re on your death bed. So sad but true, you took care of them but they will not be there for you when you need them.

  • Meg

    Thank you, thank you all for the article and posts. I’ve been feeling this way for longer than I care to admit. Why on earth did I wait so long to google “I’m really surrounded by assholes” ? Bless you all.


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