Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Do people who are no good realize they're being bad?
Q: Here's something that bothers me to no end. I accept (reluctantly) that some people are just no good. How do these mean, lying, no-good, manipulative thieves see themselves? Do they know they are bad or what they are doing is bad? Do they have an inner narrative that makes them/it good somehow?
I'm not just being philosophical here. I have a very hard time believing the worst of people. I make excuses for them. Someone at work was writing crude messages on whiteboards and changing people's computer file names to (vulgar words), and I was too lenient with her. I rationalized it by thinking maybe she thought it was funny.
If I could have believed she was a twisted person (which later turned out to be true), I would have taken harsher measures that might have stopped her from going to medical school. I actually shudder at the thought of her being a doctor one day.
Carolyn: I think we all have internal PR shops that spin our stories to our advantage. Some won't really need that justification because their childhoods taught them dog-eat-dog ethics. Others are torn up by their failings but can't let go of whatever pleasure jolt they get from misbehaving.
And don't rule out the psychopaths. The numbers are squishy — experts estimate 1 percent of the general population (and 99 percent of the people who use the breakdown lane when a highway is backed up, according to me) — but I assume you've encountered some. A psychopath can be charming and even seem normal, through imitation of normal behavior, but underneath the image is someone who feels neither empathy nor remorse. There's nothing to say they can't have office jobs, medical degrees, families, pool club memberships.
No one wants to assume the worst of everyone. Instead, reduce your exposure to harmful people by being courteous, kind and reserved, and by training yourself out of believing anything about anyone until you have enough evidence to support a belief. Mary Ellen O'Toole's Dangerous Instincts has a lot to say on this. She was an FBI profiler for years. Worth a read.
Anonymous 2: Another way to think about "bad" people is that they're simply unable or unwilling to own their dark side. Every person on Earth has a dark side — you have one, I have one, Mother Teresa had one. Each of us also has a light side. Only by knowing/making peace with the dark side of the self can we have the most control over it. And even then, the best of us struggle (a difficult/potentially impossible process in the case of personality disorders and mental illness).
You don't have to make excuses for people who do terrible things. But by allowing yourself to know your own dark side, you gain wisdom, which is the best protection from the dark sides of others.
Carolyn: The moment when you realize, "Wow, I did this bad thing, on purpose, and I've always regarded those who did that as bad people," isn't the kind of thing you put on your calendar to celebrate, but it's more useful than pretty much any of the milestones for which we eat cake. Thanks for the reminder.