“Am I a bad person?” It seems to be a fairly common question. Searching for that question on Google yields 263 million hits. I’ve also seen it raised in the blogosphere. Regardless of what the answer may or may not seem to be, though, is it a valid and/or useful question?
What exactly is a bad person?
I have a pretty analytical mind, and I like things to be clearly defined. What exactly is a bad person? What are the attitudes/behaviours characteristic of a bad person? How do you differentiate a bad and a good person? How does one measure badness of personhood? If a term isn’t clearly defined, it means whatever whoever happens to be using it thinks it means. That makes the answer to the question entirely arbitrary.
Even if one wanted to define “bad person”, is it possible for someone as a whole to be “bad” or “good”? The answer to that may depend upon your worldview, and how you view the relationship between a person or their behaviour. My own personal viewpoint is that behaviours that can be good or bad, but not people; perhaps with established patterns of egregious behaviour, that distinction between person and behaviour gets blurred, but that’s another issue.
If, for the sake of argument, people can be either good or bad, what kind of spectrum are we looking at? If we’re talking Adolf Hitler towards the extreme of the bad end and Mother (now Saint) Teresa fairly far towards the good end, that’s one huge gulf in the middle for most of us average people to fall into. Even if you were somehow bad, you’d still be light years from the Hitler end of the scale.
Where’s the question coming from?
The am I a bad person question may well come from the voice of the inner critic, who is extremely poorly qualified to make that kind of evaluation. If your inner critic would tell you that you’re a bad person even if you were on track to be the present-day version of Mother Teresa, it doesn’t deserve a seat on the self-appraisal judging panel.
Maybe the question is from guilt, shame, or perfectionism. Might the bad person question be a way of actually tackling those underlying issue head on?
Sometimes the bad person question may come up in relation to thoughts. Does having a really icky thought mean you’re a bad person? Most of us don’t have a lot of access to the innermost workings of other people’s minds, so the only frame of reference is our own assumptions about others’ thoughts. Having worked for years in mental health care, I think I’ve probably had above average access to inner workings, and I’m quite confident in saying icky thoughts are not at all uncommon.
Does the answer make a difference?
I ask myself if I’m a bad person seldom, if ever. Part of that is a solid foundation of self-esteem. Also, the answer to that question isn’t useful in my life in any way. I am who I am, whether that be “good”, “bad”, or anywhere in between. Even if I was “bad,” so what? Does it change how I sit within myself or move through the world?
For me, the most useful yardstick for behaviour is congruence with my values rather than a vague global appraisal of goodness or badness. And maybe if it comes down to making a decision about how to deal with a particular situation, “would this make me a bad person?” isn’t a very relevant question.
Perhaps “how well does this action in this particular situation fit with my most important values?” is a more meaningful avenue to explore. It’s a much wordier avenue, granted, but one that’s more likely to lead somewhere other than around and around in a circle.
Originally published at https://mentalhealthathome.org on July 6, 2020.