Of course in this day and age of social media, people also worry about whether they come across as a good person. Which is arguably a different thing than actually wanting to be one.
But it raises some interesting questions that can bring clarity:
How long have you had this nagging feeling you aren’t a good person?
Deep down, what is the real reason you want to be a better person?
What do you think being a good person will change for you?
Is it really about being a good person, or is it about something else entirely that you need to address (including childhood experiences you haven’t resolved?).
What is a good person from the view of psychotherapy?
It’s a question debated since the very beginnings of psychotherapeutic thought. But relax, as nobody is expecting you to be an angel in these parts.
Freuddescribed the human psyche as a three-part battleground. He believed in an instinctual part with sexual and aggressive drives (“id”) going up against a moral conscience (the “super-ego”). And the battle between them is mediated by “the ego”. The most we can hope for is to find a balance.
Jung, on the other hand, felt we misunderstood our ‘bad’ side. He called it the ‘shadow’ and felt it had gifts we need. Anger gives us boundaries, for example, and sadness allows us to recognise joy. Life is about integrating all the pieces of ourselves, including the shadow side, into a healthy and productive balance.
And Viktor Frankl, the creator of logotherapy and perhaps the most qualified to speak of good and evil given that he survived a concentration camp, didn’t believe any of us are strictly good or otherwise.
“We must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils,” he stated. And he also said, “Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil?”.
Frankl suggested that a good person is rather someone who constantly chooses to be ‘decent’. He felt in every moment we have that choice. “There are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man.”
Looking at Frankl’s definition, do you know what being ‘decent’ is for you, personally?
A feeling of being a ‘bad person’ is often because you have internalised someone else’s skewered viewpoint of yourself and haven’t taken time to form your own.
This could be, for example, a strict and critical parent whose voice you have internalised without realising it. It sounds like that little voice in your head saying, ‘you never try hard enough’, ‘you could do better’, ‘I am so disappointed in you’.
What to you is decent behaviour?
Where did you learn these ideas? Are they really your own, or your parents?
What are your personal values? (Yours, not your parents, or your friends, or even your partners)
And even if you did, there is actually no scientific proof that you can’t change.
But I was born bad
Research increasingly show that babies are not the blank slates once thought, but naturally altruistic. Wynn and Bloom, Yale psychology professors and experts on child morality, state that “babies show concern at others’ pain and sorrow, make spontaneous efforts to console others, and spontaneously help others even at external costs to themselves, suggesting that helping others is intrinsically rewarding.”
Instead of being ‘born bad’? Most of us who have done things we aren’t proud of were born, and then had experiences that left us ustraumatised and feeling helpless. And this can lead to anger issues and rage.
Shame can stop us from seeing that we have also done good things. Or that we can’t change the past, but we can make a different choice in the present.
Many children internalise trauma, feeling like somehow it is their fault that the bad thing happened to them. And that guilt creates strong hidden beliefs that you are bad and unworthy.
Recognising and changing these beliefs and processing the repressed emotions of trauma can mean you are free to finally see that you are not what happened to you. And that you don’t have to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but can be somewhere in the middle, doing the best you can. You might after all just be perfectly imperfect, like everyone else.