“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 between 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 may depend upon your worldview, and how you see the relationship between a person or their behaviour. My own view is that behaviours can be good or bad, but not people as a whole; with established patterns of egregious behaviour, that distinction between person and behaviour may become blurred, but that’s another issue.
If people could 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, and getting caught up in the bad person question serves as a distraction from addressing those underlying issues.
Sometimes the bad person question may come up in relation to thoughts, such as in OCD. 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. But it’s very normal to have bad thoughts float into one’s head; the question is whether you let it float right out on its own, or whether you latch onto it, inadvertently leading to it sticking around longer.
Does the answer make a difference?
I ask myself if I’m a bad person seldom, if ever. Part of that is a decent foundation of self-esteem. Also, the answer to that question just 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 in circles.
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49 thoughts on “Am I a Bad Person? Or Is That the Wrong Question?”
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.
I’m sure. That kind of messaging to kids is so harmful.
As a former pastor I completely understand how you felt.
One of the reasons I left the ministry was just that. The message coming from pulpits is exclusive, not inclusive.
🤔 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!
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.
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.
I agree, acknowledging negative thoughts more openly would be a good thing.
Yep. The question has no relevance among those that know the asking of it is unimportant.
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 😀
Well there you go, that right there makes you an automatic good person! 😉
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”.
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.
Very good point.
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.
Catholicism sounds like it’s heavy on the guilt as well.
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…
That sound like a potentially very healing valued direction to be moving in.
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?
I think that fits very well. Others may knock us down, but our own judgments keep us down.
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.
I completely agree.
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.
Beating oneself up over things doesn’t tend to accomplish much.
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
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.
Sounds like some positive progress.
It’s sad how much of that is going on.
Hopefully it won’t last.