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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

Am I a Bad Person?

We tend to spend a good deal of psychological energy warding off a possibility that feels as abhorrent as it is inadmissible: that we might not be very good people. It can feel extremely hard to accept that we might contain within ourselves significant reserves of envy and laziness, aggression and silliness, self-absorption and egoism – and any hints that this might be the case, received either from moments of introspection or the remarks of others, tend to be shut down with immediacy and irritation. There are a lot of bad people in the world. That’s just not who we happen to be.

Yet in reality, our growth and maturation rely on something else: an ability to bear, and explore at depth, a range of dark truths about ourselves – in order that we might put in place measures to counterbalance them and gain a more accurate and compassionate perspective on their role within human nature more generally. The truly mature among us aren’t those who are straightforwardly and easily good, those who are somehow from birth ‘nice people’. They’re those who have shown maximal courage and composure in facing up to their inevitable supply of regrettable, unglamorous and offensive dimensions and taken steps to evolve away from them in their stronger moments.

Photo of a young woman smoking and staring into space.
Photo by Riccardo Fissore on Unsplash

We might draw up a few of the more complicated and troubling ideas that might sometimes cross our minds and dare to recognise ourselves in some of them – not in order to collapse in cynical despair, but in order to know more honestly where we should continue to reflect and learn:

In love, I look for weak people I can persecute.

— The fate of humanity doesn’t interest me.

— I hate most people.

— I blame people for flirting with me, but secretly, I’m the one leading them on.

— I’m envious of my own children.

— I don’t listen to other people, because I’m too desperate to get my point across.

— I am cold inside, I can’t ever allow emotion through.

— I make others take the tough decisions.

— I really don’t care about anyone who can’t immediately advance my career.

— I pretend to be nice but I’m not so nice at all.

These thoughts can seem so frightening, we leave them alone far too soon, and thereby grow sentimental and walled off from realities that belong to humankind as a whole. We become a lot less able to laugh about ourselves; laughter stemming from a release of tension at the collision between an idealistic hope and a sharp jolt of truth. A nice person isn’t someone who doesn’t have many bad sides; it’s someone who, having surveyed their character in an uncommonly sanguine way, has come to know their capacity for evil, their reserves of envy, their tendencies towards pettiness, their lapses into meanness and their immersion in immaturity – and committed themselves to countering them wherever they can. No one is ever straightforwardly nice; they become so through their courage in fathoming their inclinations towards the negative and devoting themselves to an alternative path. The route to true niceness flows through the door of a candid acknowledgement of ill temper and vanity. 

The truly mature person doesn’t insist on their altruism and purity. They can be curious as to why they came to be the mixed way they are. They know that we all have in a variety of ways had to adapt to difficult early environments and that our ‘bad’ sides are legacies of the fear, hurt and anxiety these bred rather than innate proclivities to ‘sin’. They don’t have to add defensiveness to their list of hurdles. It doesn’t have to be a disaster to encounter a vile thought – or ten. True heroism means being able to hear the maximum degree of truth about ourselves and then shedding enough pride to laugh with humility – and learn.

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