Mental health

Am I a Bad Person? Or Is That the Wrong Question?

Am I a bad person?  Or is that just my mental illness talking?  Graphic of cartoon head with flames for hair

“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 it’s behaviours that can be good or bad, but not people as a whole; 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 pretty 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 greater than 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.

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52 thoughts on “Am I a Bad Person? Or Is That the Wrong Question?”

  1. Useful post. I was hit with some bad religion when I was very young. Telling me I was a sinner just for being born. When I finally got over that and stopped questioning if I was a bad person, I felt much better.

  2. 🤔 If we have authority figures defining what is good and bad, we will end up falling into the category of one or the other.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking topic!

    1. That’s a good point. Ideally, laws would distinguish between good and bad actions, but all too often that can end up being expanded to the person as a whole.

  3. When my depression was at it’s worse, I would put myself in the middle of the good-bad scale, but then push myself right up to the Hitler end.

    I feel that we should talk more about negative thoughts so that people realise they’re normal. When I had pure O OCD, I used to worry about violent thoughts or sexual thoughts and it was hard to accept that they were normal as no one else seemed to talk about them.

  4. I know people have gotten angry at me for needing time alone and declining events or even canceling on some i had agreed to. But time alone is essential for me. I have to prioritize it. Maybe they think of me as “bad” due to spoiling their plans. Back in the day, i also bailed on many dates with men bc I felt suddenly uncomfortable. I’m sure they thought i was a bitch. I can’t worry about this though… I just have to do what I need to do.

    On the upside, I never stabbed any of these people 😀

  5. Like you, I only see actions/behaviours as good or bad – not the whole person. And I think it’s important to teach this to our children and to say you don’t like their behaviour rather than saying “you’re a bad girl/boy”.

  6. Trying to keep the facade of a good person can get people to dark places and even doing injustice to others. So yes, it is better to focus on behaviour and regulate them if it takes.

  7. Great post! I struggle with this too. And good point to the other commenter about bad religion. I was raised Catholic and the emphasis on sin and original sin is very harmful.

  8. We agree good/bad are all relative and, therefore, arbitrary. We like that you rely on your values for decisions. We want to do that. It meets our needs for Autonomy and Self-Expression.

    We are trying to instill living gently as a personal value. Having been raised in violence, this is taking time…

  9. It might be somewhat off your point (which is very well made and understood) but as I was reading this quote came to mind “You will never be defeated by what they say about you; you will be defeated by what YOU say about YOU” Not quite what you were talking about but maybe a little bit?

  10. I’ve asked myself this numerous of times, and I have friends who ask me this about themselves too. It’s only recently that I’ve had the thought, perhaps the fact that we are asking ourselves this signifies repent and therefore indicates we are not truly bad people. In my opinion a bad person would not be asking themselves this question. The guilt that we feel for being ‘bad’ tells me that we are good people deep down. Not sure if this is correct, but it seems to make logical sense in my brain.

  11. My thoughts about this subject is this: I believe that most are good people, with maybe a small part of bad. Bad in the sense of driving while drunk.
    People who are totally bad are few and far in between. Yes, Hitler was one, or the mass murders some which ate parts of their victims (Jeffrey Dahmer)
    I do not beat myself up when I have done something that might be considered bad in the eyes of others.

  12. Thank you for sharing, this was really thought provoking. I feel that self esteem certainly plays a role in whether we see ourselves as good or bad. x

  13. I think increasingly more and more people are also being told by an overwhelming number of strangers on the internet that they’re bad people and while we like to pretend we’re stoic statues who aren’t affected by this on the surface, it truly destroys a lot of people’s self-esteem.

      1. Truly. But I’ve noticed a really huge waking up to it over the past couple of months, maybe because everybody has been spending so much time on the internet that almost everybody has been twitter-assaulted by someone by this point lol. I don’t think it’ll last. That kind of ideology can’t sustain itself because they turn on people for having even slightly different opinions so they’re hemorrhaging members like a stab wound to the jugular.

  14. Your post really hits home. It took a really long time to unwire and rewire my mind (it’s a work in progress). There’s things I did in the past that I am not proud of, but they were closely linked to ego and low self-esteem. Now that I’m able to label the things where ego looms, I can navigate through these things a lot better now. I try my best to be a good person and do things with good intentions, even if they don’t always translate that way.

    I complete agree with the above comment too – to judge the person’s actions/behavior rather than their character.

  15. I liked the values point you made. When you act according to your values, it is ‘true’ for you. We don’t know what is good and what is bad, it all depends on context, morals, cultural views. Actually the question could be: How well do I fit in in my community and with my own morals and values?
    Good post to think about for a while!

    1. I agree, culture makes a difference, although one’s community may view it as acceptable to cause harm to certain kinds of people, in which case fitting in with the community isn’t necessarily a good thing.

  16. This is a question I often ask myself. I am not the nicest person when I overthink. I get mad easy and make sure anyone around me knows it. I also have low self esteem. I feel like just presence isn’t welcome and feel bad for being around that person.

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