We love to choose sides. We feel good about cheering for the good guys. We stand on more certain ground when we can distance ourselves from the bad guys. When something bad happens, we can become panicked and defensive, wondering am I a bad person? In fact, we all have the capacity to become Olympics-level gymnasts—bending logic, language, and even reality—just to prove that we still belong to the “good” side.
But this compulsion to self-identify as “good” or “bad” is something like only watching the first part of a movie before the characters and themes develop. Even if you feel awful about something you have done, you can surely agree that even the Harry Potter series is more complex than whether you are placed in the House of Hogwarts or in the House of Slytherin at the beginning of the movie.
If you’ve found yourself at the scene of an emotional crime, and you are at all self-aware, it’s impossible not to wonder am I a bad person?
Here’s part of the “am I a bad person?” answer: emotionally unconscious people can do regrettable things.
But finding yourself at the scene of an emotional crime does not make you a criminal. And if you have noticed a pattern of behavior that you question or feel ashamed of—it may be that you are relentlessly returning to the same scene.
Being emotionally unconscious is nothing like being morally unconscious. It doesn’t make you a bad person. We’re all unconscious to some degree – there are times we don’t know why we do the things we do, why we feel the way we feel, and how we can feel so sure about a decision in one moment, only to feel deep regret later on.
I have written about narcissists, selfish people, and how to release a trauma bond borne out of relationships with toxic people. When discussing these topics, it may appear as though we are reducing people to a set of characteristics and a pattern of behavior. The purpose of this is not to vilify, bash, blame or categorize people as “good” or bad”; “right” or “wrong”; or the “aggressor” and the “victim.”
If these characteristics sound a bit familiar to you, you may wonder if you’re the toxic or narcissistic one. If you’re asking yourself, am I a bad person? –the answer is probably no. For one thing, morally devoid people don’t sit around and wonder if they are “bad.”
The reason we identify patterns of behavior is because these patterns are borne of untold stories. While neither of these stories is “good” or “bad,” they both reside in a silent, dormant, and unaware place on the opposite sides of two kinds of pain:
- The pain of compulsively hanging on to relationships.
- The pain of compulsively letting go of relationships.
There are innumerable reasons why you may feel these kinds of pain (that have to do with the beautiful ways your body has developed to aid in your very survival, to this point). These reasons are your stories, your history, your twisty map, and even the very genealogy that got you here.
For people who exhibit a pattern of compulsively hanging on onto relationships, becoming aware of the dysfunctional coping patterns of their partners, makes them more likely to question their own propensity to remain in harmful situations, at the cost of their own well-being.
The hope is that they may peek through a small crack in a very old and fortified foundation that was built on thinking of themselves as undeserving to see: they have unconditionally loved another at the cost of unconditionally loving themselves.
We speak of the other side of this, those with the “toxic” patterns and characteristics, as the ones to cut contact with and to avoid at all costs. For those who compulsively hang on, the cost is just that: an abandonment of the entire self for someone else. That is their pattern and their pain, which gives rise to their own regrets, misdeeds, and loss. In this scenario, there is no room for gray area, for the benefit of the doubt, and for endless attempts to understand another person who has dishonored them.
But what if you’re the one who has dishonored another? What if you’re the one who has mistreated, betrayed, abandoned, ghosted, lied to, or mislead someone else?
What if you’re the one wondering if you’re the bad person? Do you deserve the benefit of the doubt toward yourself?
Of course. The following are some ways to deal with regret.
Play uncomfortable storytime.
Underneath the mistake, the pattern, or the regret is an untold story. Pathological liars don’t usually come with a narrator who interjects “you’re doing this because you never felt safe enough to tell the truth about what you were feeling as a kid,” every time they lie. If you don’t know why you feel the way you feel, if you don’t know why you did what you did and if it all just feels regrettable now, know there is sense in what seems to be nonsensical. It just may not be obvious to you yet.
We like to believe that we are in control of our thoughts, but our bodies have developed ways to protect us, long before we could think and logic our way through life. What’s more, the way our bodies react to certain situations has a lot more influence on our thoughts than we can ever know.
Sadly, we’re all so desperate to “make sense” to ourselves that we blame other people for how we feel and what we do (even if those people don’t deserve the blame) — all in an effort to remain internally consistent. For example, if your body recoils or shuts down when you get too close to someone who you like, who is not odious or otherwise dangerous, your own reaction will not make sense to you. We are both educated and designed, however, to become very uncomfortable when our feelings are out of alignment with the situation we are experiencing. In reaction to this, we are likely to mistreat, lie to, betray, or abandon others when they set off an alarm internally, even believing that they deserve such treatment.
That’s just an example. If you feel regret, if you notice you are making the same mistakes, and if you don’t understand why you do what you do in hindsight…it’s because you don’t. You are emotionally unconscious, and it’s your responsibility to wake up.
There’s nothing easy about this. There’s usually nothing obvious about this either. The patterns that you become aware of may not even be your own patterns – they may have been passed on to you through generations. There’s not a “beginning” to anyone’s story, so just start somewhere. If you’re very open to this, there’s a book called “It Didn’t Start With You” by Mark Wolynn, that could be helpful. But again, this is just a book, it doesn’t contain all the answers. The onus is on you to become more aware of your patterns, to excavate the reasons, to bear uncomfortable witness to your own reactions – both for yourself and for others.
It won’t be different next time.
Some of the biggest lies I’ve ever heard and some of the biggest lies I’ve ever told is that I will know better next time. You will probably not know better. You are a soul made of stardust, but you are also a human who has been programmed for your own survival. Your own survival is a very low bar and does not include your own thriving, much less the thriving of anyone else.
There’s absolutely no guarantee it will be better next time, even if you recognize the mistakes of your past. The pull toward the familiar is powerful. In fact, the pull toward the familiar will feel like fate; the pull toward anything else will feel like a dangerous mistake. A quote that has been attributed to Freud says, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Until you gain responsibility of your story, you will continue to live the same life, claw against the same perils, feel crushed by the great weight of your old patterns, and call that fate.
How you treat other people is how you treat yourself.
If you have lied, betrayed, abandoned, ghosted, mistreated, and abused someone else. If you have been careless of their feelings, if you have dishonored them, ignored them, shut down, if you have been condescending, judgmental, or unkind – you can be sure you have done the very same things to yourself. A step further—if you have a pattern toward doing these things toward others, it’s guaranteed you do this to yourself on a daily basis.
If you regret your mistakes, and if you now have compassion toward someone who you have hurt—start with yourself first. Pay attention to how you treat yourself. At a basic level, you are simply an awareness of the life you lead. Become a scientist, an evidence collector of your own self-talk and your reactions to your daily life. Parse it down and really analyze it. You can only make changes with other people when you first change your relationship with yourself.
Stop using other people as prototypes, in an attempt to get closer to the life you want to live.
In my opinion, there’s no such thing as being completely “healed.” We grow and heal in loving relationships with others. If you have made a mistake, this does not mean that you do not deserve love. That being said, no one should be a contestant in an attempt to trial-and-error your life.
If you have gained some understanding of your patterns, even if you share this with another — this story is still your own. Stop using other people to experiment with what will or won’t work for you in a relationship. The most we can hope is that our friends, partners, family members, or coworkers will be supportive of our attempts at introspection and self-awareness.
We are not actually “puzzle pieces,” looking for the right match. Attaining an understanding of your own patterns, fears, and coping mechanisms can be a beautifully compassionate process by which you finally see yourself as a neither-good-nor-bad developed character in your own story. It is not a quest to find other people who can or should mold perfectly to your newly discovered contours in order to make a relationship work.
How to say I’m sorry.
If you’d like to express regret to someone you have hurt, think about what you would say to yourself after you have hurt yourself. What would you say to yourself when you have betrayed yourself? When you have self-sabotaged yourself, how do you apologize?
When you feel regret toward yourself, you recognize that there is a precious soul inside you who has been hurt, who you should have cared for, and who longs for your love and understanding. You wouldn’t want to hear excuses, false promises, or grand gestures. I would be willing to bet that what you would want to hear is a sincere awareness of the harm that you have caused and an affirmation that the harm was undeserved. When there is a break, a sincere apology will attempt to piece back the love where it should have been, where it wasn’t.
All of this notwithstanding, we all will continually commit emotional crimes against each other and ourselves. It’s part of being human. This fact is intrinsic to the loss, sadness, and loneliness that we all feel — that we desperately try to avoid, as if it can be avoided. It’s normal to reflexively avoid this pain, to unconsciously float through life, from drama to drama, constantly blaming other people, without an awareness of ourselves. It’s a lot easier to be an unconscious human, than it is to be a human who is aware of how their own survival mechanisms cause harm to others. Making mistakes does not make you a bad person. You may be an unaware person, driving a car home every night, with no memory of the trip. Making mistakes can stir you out of this trance, so that you no longer want to blindly drive into your fate. So that you can take the longer, harder, more aware, sometimes more painful way, to your new home.