‘I hate myself. I am a bad seed. I make myself sick. I ruin everything.’

Sound familiar?

Do you struggle with feeling like you are a bad person?

Do you try to escape and numb-out from feeling like a bad person through the use of food, alcohol, drugs, overwork, or overuse of technology? Do you punish yourself for being bad through self-harming behaviors and poor choices in your relationships? Do these behaviors then confirm that you are a bad person, and lead you in a viscous cycle of badness?

Does your sense of badness extend to how you feel about your body?

Are you driven to always be extra good, and never offend or disappoint others, in order to counteract your true badness? Do you live in fear of your bad self being exposed and seen by others?

Are you frustrated that despite the work you have done to improve your self-esteem you still repeatedly collapse into feeling bad?

You are not alone.

There are so many people who feel, on a deep and gut level, that they are bad. These generally are not the people who are ‘bad’ in the sense of lacking empathy for others, or deriving benefit from harming others. Instead, most people whose thoughts are tied up in ‘feeling like a bad person’ are acutely tuned in to other people’s feelings, feel terrible when others suffer, and do not behave in ways that are any worse than the average human. In fact, when they describe their core sense of badness, it’s not about actually doing bad things (although bad behaviors do make them feel worse). They talk about how this sense of badness just is. It is their most basic and familiar experience of themselves. Perhaps this is also true for you.

So, why do you feel this way?

It is likely that you are trapped in a pattern of interpreting your own pain and conflict, and the pain and conflict of others, as meaning that you are bad. This pattern could stem from a variety of nature and nurture combinations, such as your being a sensitive child growing up in an environment where adults did not take responsibility for their own feelings or where your feelings were reacted to with anger or neglect. Whatever the causes, the result is that you now feel, on that deep and core level, that it is your fault, as the bad person, when there is pain or conflict inside you or around you.

From a logical and rational perspective, this is a misinterpretation. Would you accuse someone of being a fundamentally bad person because they feel unhappiness or angst, or because people around them are experiencing conflict or sadness?

Yet, since this pattern of misinterpretation developed long ago, at a time when your self was forming, the sense of a bad self is so deeply ingrained that it can be difficult to conceive of another way of feeling. Simply holding up logic and rationality in the face of the bad self, or trying to counter the bad self with a tally of all the ways you are good, is seldom effective. That bad self has its heels dug in, and it does not want to budge. The more you push on it, the more it pushes back. The more you try to prove that you are good, the more cleverly it shoots holes in your goodness.

Helping Your Big Bad Self

So, what to do about your big bad self? When you find yourself sinking into the abyss of badness, gently ask yourself:

  1. Is it possible that I am absorbing the unhappiness of the people around me, and misinterpreting those bad feelings as meaning that I am a bad person?
  2. Is it possible that I am absorbing the conflict around me, and misinterpreting the bad feelings as meaning that I am a bad person?
  3. Is it possible that I am feeling disappointed, neglected, or rejected, and misinterpreting my own pain as meaning that I am a bad person?
  4. Is it possible that I am feeling an internal conflict between wanting to take care of my own needs and wanting to take care of other people’s needs, and misinterpreting that struggle as meaning that I am a bad person?
  5. Is it possible that I am feeling an internal conflict between meeting my own desires and meeting other people’s expectations of me, and I am misinterpreting that difficulty as meaning that I am a bad person?
  6. Is it possible that I am feeling the limits of my own power to help others, personally or globally, and misinterpreting that limitation as meaning that I am a bad person?
  7. Is it possible that someone is angry or disappointed with me and I am misinterpreting that as meaning that I am a bad person?
  8. Is it possible that I am feeling the internal conflict between the part of my self that is grateful for all the good things in my life, and the part of my self that feels unhappy and dissatisfied, and I am misinterpreting that as meaning that I am a bad person?

As you look more closely at your ‘I am a bad person’ pattern, you open up new choices. You no longer have to stop at the sign that says ‘you are a bad person,’ and sink into the hole of self-punishment and self-destructive behaviors. You can use the ‘you are a bad person’ sign as a chance to turn down a different path, where you identify what is really upsetting you.

When you look beyond the counterproductive distraction of ‘I am a bad person,’ you can redirect your energy toward the real problems at hand. You can get support to deal with your pain, to work through your internal conflicts, to develop skills in managing conflict with others, and to identify when and how you can help others and when it is your job to let go.

It is possible to move beyond the land of darkness, beyond the dungeon of self-hate, and beyond the bonds of badness. The process is slow and disorienting, as you shake up the very foundation of your sense of self. Aligning yourself with this work, however, has enormous positive potential as you actively transform your ‘core of badness’ from a force of destruction and stagnation into an intricate part of your road toward health.