Cycle of Badness

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

How do we become psychologically troubled? Oh, let me count the ways…

For some of us the seeds of our most harmful and simultaneously puzzling behaviours were sewn so long ago that it makes sense that we may not now clearly see how we got here.

As a general example, let’s suppose that as a little one, doing the things that a little one does, we’re scolded by an overly stressed parent, perhaps even a young parent who is still rather unresolved about his or her own life. What if we hear, “What the hell’s wrong with you!”, or “You just make me sick”, or “You stupid brat”. And we hear some number of those judgments with some frequency, because an unresolved parent may be unresolved for years. Being overwhelmed and bursting out with angry verbal smacks is a regrettable and unintended pattern that a stressed parent may have.

As little people we internalize the things we hear. If these big people tell me I’m bad, then, ouch, I must be bad. As the negativity continues the message of badness is strengthened, conditioning deeper feelings. A growing mind also explores this badness, a self-protective curiosity that helps with learning about the conditions and contingencies of badness.

In time a young one may do bad little things to see what happens, testing their standing in their relationships. It might unfold that ‘bad behaviour’ is met with some greater frequency of more or different scolding, with neglect or with surprising understanding, making the mystery more complex and more important to explore.

Our ‘badness’ becomes something that we begin to participate in, born of our essential emotional curiosity, and a dynamic cycle spills forward. With more negativity, withdrawal or resentment and anger become the roommates of the question about our badness and whether we’re loveable. Being ‘bad’ may look rebellious, but it’s often a litmus test, with the ‘proof’ of how loveable we are residing with the one(s) who does the judging. Kids and teens may so test and do scary things secretly. Some number of those secret things may be discovered and the judgment cycle creaks forward again.

If the pain and question about our badness remains unresolved and is carried forward into our teens and young adulthood, we may find that we’re still doing bad things like drinking, taking drugs, skipping responsibilities, having random sex, vandalizing. Seeking acceptance by peers gains even greater importance, as if they have the power to give us value. Independence and dependence, acceptance and rejection, good and bad, self-determination and helplessness, now and then – borrowing from Cormac McCarthy, if this isn’t a mess it’ll do until a mess gets here.

Lots of research shows that when we have been mistreated as kids we are much more vulnerable to developing substance, psychological, physical and social problems later. Also, because most ‘bad things’ can provide ‘good feelings’ from their direct effects or from temporarily decreasing stress, ‘bad things’ can become a life-feature, a habit.

We hopefully reach the point in our development where we are able to look at our life and ‘discover’ our own responsibility for what happens to us next. When we see that we have been carrying the question and exploration of our badness and of being judged forward, we realize at last that we have different options. “Ah, I’m hurting myself here! If I do something that’s bad for me, of course dad/mom/teacher/boss will disapprove. It’s really about me doing something bad to myself.”

That one’s life is up to oneself is a pivotal developmental epiphany.