Avoiding Bad People

Wilhelm Wundt (seated) with colleagues in his psychological laboratory, the first of its kind.

Let me begin by stating unequivocally that we are all flawed psyches; we are all damaged, we all deviate from psychic harmony. The world is full of damaged psyches.

If we learn from experience, we soon discover the above truths. Still, this obvious truth is not apparent to children or to unreflective adults. They are satisfied with platitudes like “she seems nice” or “he’s so sweet” or “I’m a good person.” The inexperienced peer no deeper into the psyche. But the reality behind the mask that humans wear often differs from the appearance. Seemingly nice and ok people are often neither nice nor ok—and you might not be a good person either.

It goes without saying that understanding the psyches around us is important. Individuals and groups are led astray when they misread them. Women think they’ve found the perfect man, and six months later they have bruises. Nations trust their leaders and later die in their unjust wars. Americans wonder about the appeal of Hitler or Stalin, psychopaths full of rage and patriotic fervor, but they fawn over their own psychopathic leaders and provocateurs. We are drawn to those who make us feel good about ourselves by directing animus toward others. Many political pundits and politicians are vile, horrific human beings filled with hate and vitriol, but people listen to them intently. Without a careful reading of the psyche, the demagogues hold sway.

And this says as much about most of us as it does about them. We too are often filled with hate, anger, treachery, irrationality, homophobia, xenophobia, and sadism. As Shakespeare put it: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves …” We suffer in the presence of damaged psyches that spew their psychic waste, and we suffer enduring our own psyches too. So what can we do about this?

As for recognizing and eradicating our own demons, we might begin, as was suggested in a previous column, by quieting our minds, re-assessing who we are, and trying to become whole, integrated human beings. But how do we do this? It may involve professional counseling, rigorous study, meditation, exercise,  and more. But I think people should be continually in the process of becoming, changing, transforming. This pursuit should last a lifetime. We must begin by changing ourselves.

As for changing others, that is unlikely. Instead, we should avoid those who spew their toxic, psychic waste. If you can escape their presence, do so expeditiously. They will damage you. If you must interact with them, minimize contact. But respond to such interaction not with anger but with sympathy, for others had no control over the external situations that in large part created them. All you can control, as the Stoics taught long ago, is your own mind. Try not to be disturbed, but avoid masochistic tendencies too. You have no obligation to endure the psychologically unhealthy, escape them if you can.

As for recognizing severely damaged psyches in others, be patient. Don’t conclude too quickly that someone is “nice.” Aristotle said that everyone slowly reveals their character … and they do. No one remains opaque for long. People gradually become translucent and then transparent. Just wait. I didn’t know my wife well after I’d known her for a few months, and she didn’t know me. But now, after 43 years of living together, I sleep soundly next to her as she does with me. We don’t fear the other will kill us in our sleep!

How then should we live in a world of healthy and unhealthy psyches? Through the experience of living, we can slowly learn to discriminate between them. We can learn to be astute, savvy, judicious, sagacious, and discerning. We can learn to discriminate between those who care for us, however flawed they might be, and those who don’t care for us or who would hurt us. We learn that everyone, even the psychologically healthy, will sometimes hurt us. But this isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid them, for solitude and loneliness damage us too. Avoid then those who intend to hurt you, but love those that sometimes hurt you inadvertently, if they have shown previously that they care for you.

Thus a lifetime of experience teaches us that a large part of living is psychic intercourse; that is largely what it is to be conscious. In such a world, interact with beauty and avoid ugliness as much as possible, while continually trying to beautify yourself. And yes sometimes it is good to be alone. Many seers and saints have found something preferable in solitude.

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15 thoughts on “Avoiding Bad People

  1. Psychopathology is different in everyone. And, we can’t always or in all ways avoid people. So, I guess we must be observant enough to know who we are dealing with. And when to decide it best to stay away, if possible. Most of the people with whom I have associated are now no longer in my everyday life. None of my former co-workers or former classmates, at any level, have a place in my life. A long time friend who was ten years younger than me died suddenly. I still don’t know the cause of his death because I don’t see anyone else who might know. He was an engineer for a large research and development company, here in Ohio (Battelle). So, I am a recluse, mostly. It hurts less.

  2. “It was only when I lay there on that rotting straw that I felt the first stirrings of Good within me, the line between good and evil does not run between nations. races, or states,
    the line between Good and Evil runs through all human hearts ” Alexander Solzenitsyn
    “Gulag Archipelago “

  3. thanks for the honest remarks. And sorry about your friend. Also I added a final line based to the post based on your comment.

  4. There is so much discernment in all you wrote. As you suggest, we should be very careful and selective about what we let into our minds. And the weaker the mind one has, the more strict and selective one should be.

    Youngsters nowadays are in a really bad place……if I could, I would simply ban all social media like Facebook, etc. Everybody is shouting about their ‘freedom’ and their ‘privacy’, but I think there’s too much of that, not too little. The fact is that stupidity and ignorance is contagious, like a disease. I would not try to tell others what to do, but I would kick Facebook etc out of the galaxy. Not because it creates stupidity, for that was already well in place, but because it greatly help to spread it.

    I always remember what I heard one lecturer say in a course from The Great Courses (I am very bad at remembering names, dates, etc): ‘we should only read what elevates our minds’.

    As for being alone, I could not agree more. ”It is not an ideal solution, but it is the least bad of two evils, for otherwise you must mix with society, where the worst of humankind is found.”, as Schopenhauer wrote. (He also wrote elsewhere: ‘I do have my own shortcomings; I just don’t keep adding to them.’).

    Seneca also comes to mind: ”When I come back home after mixing with the crowd, I come back in a worst state than when I left. I feel that I am….. more mean, more hard of hearth, more malicious, as if others had infected me with their disease.”.

    ”As for changing others, that is unlikely.”. I completely agree. Most people will never change, because changing requires learning, it requires work and effort. The person who changed was already predisposed to change, and learning….the change was more of a case of a latent potential that bore its fruit. And who can claim the authority to change others? Only the tiniest minority spanning centuries and even millennia…..they were all philosophers.

    I never stop shaking my head about the world of tv ‘entertainment’…. so much of it is degenerate, and it shows a world where things are upside down: the sub-moronic, ignorant man who is a gangster (I believe all gangsters are like that), is portrayed as someone ‘cool’ and likeable…..the most stupid, selfish, mean and ignorant fools are made to seem intelligent and indeed sagacious.

    It’s a real problem when movies are mistaken by the weak minded and undiscerning, as philosophical lectures. I am always amazed at how highly people speak of stupid movies like A Clockwork Orange and its preposterous ideas at the end where the perpetrator becomes a victim of the government, which appears to be as bad as him or something. ( I only watched the beginning and end of the movie, I really could not bear to watch the whole degenerate thing.).

    And what about most of the politicians you alluded to? Schopenhauer sarcastically said about them: ‘Ah, yes. These improvers of the world.’. They seem intent only to ‘win’ and for the opposing party to ‘lose’, and then you see the ‘winners’ on the news with these stupid smiles on their faces, as if they just pulled off an incredible feat.

    Of course, a few politicians have been remarkable people.

    Thank you!

  5. We all find the people we are looking for, I can’t pretend to know how it happens, I think it is unconscious behavior, but it does happen, Birds of feather flock together and so do like minded people.

  6. As always thanks for the comments. I would push back on Seneca’s claim though. I often find myself in a better state after mixing with people–depending of course on the people I mix with. If they are people I like I find myself uplifted. That is another reason to choose companions wisely.

  7. Dr. Messerly,

    Sure. The problem has never been getting on with like-minded people, or even just reasonable people, though, but getting on with dissimilar one, which are the majority. There have always been few people like Seneca or even yourself. But if one is fortunate enough to know a few people he can get along with, great. No one would unwisely reject their company, a priori.

    The rule in society is that the majority of people are crazy, irrational or dumb, and a very few ones are wise and reasonable and try to learn something. Therefore it would seem the case that it is more probable to find people unlike yourself…I would say inferior, though this idea seems to be unethical by modern day thinking standards. Are we all the same, really? Only insofar as basic human rights, nothing more, i.e. a criminal (the really bad people) has the same basic human rights of someone who is not criminal.

    But if you can claim that you are better off with people, that is great, I would not wish the opposite to you or anyone. Even Seneca or Schopenhauer, who were notoriously diffident of society, always recommended to never treat a friend roughly, or to whine and moan to them about common problems that everyone experiences.

    But finding people you get on with is down to either mere chance, or variable factors, such are where you live, how likeable you are, your health, even how you speak.

    Of course, I am not saying anything you don’t know already 🙂 For me, though, the best I can do is what I learned from AS when he made the distinction between “what a man is, and what a man has.”, i.e. to never rely on others, or external factors, which includes society. Of course, I am not saying that you are doing that. 🙂

    I think it is also down to personal experience, which again includes much chance, though that is of course not always the case. For example, how many women marry men who are bad for them, or bad in general? They even marry men who are in jail. These people are weak minded and unable to make rational choices. I too did so when I was young.

    Women are attracted to status or influence a man has on others. There’s a very good story about AS that you might know about: when he was younger, he proposed to a woman, who rejected him. She didn’t even answer to his letters (I don’t remember the precise details). Then AS during his last years, became famous, and the same woman sent him a pair of handmade slippers she made for them. AS concluded, rightly I think, that “Although women can have even more potential and more talent than man, they always lack in judgment.”.

    Thanks for reading! I wish you a great week ahead. PS. you don’t have to publish this message on your blog if you don’t want to, it is long and rambling and would probably take a lot of space. I am not interested whether others read it. I am just honored that you even read what I wrote. Thank you.


  8. Thanks as always. I hate to disagree again but, as much as I generally enjoy and admire AS’s philosophy, his remarks about women are often extraordinarily sexist and I completely disagree with them. The quote above is an example of this sexism. It is quite misogynistic. Sorry to disagree but we don’t always have to agree.

  9. Dr. Messerly,

    No need to be sorry about the disagreement. I respect your opinion. But I find it strange how whenever women aren’t sanctified and spoken of as if they were wonderful ethereal butterflies, it means one is ‘misogynistic’.

    Women are riddled with flaws typical of women. Likewise, men do, too.

    Women exert control in certain ways. Men do so, too. Just like in the animal kingdom. Because we are animals, in the end. Yes, yes. We have ‘reason’. Yet this has always been nothing compared to instinct. AS explained this in detail.

    In regard to women, I speak from experience, and AS did so too. If you want, we can dig deeper at some point. I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about women: they are complicated cookies. But I have observed the world around me long enough to draw certain conclusions.

    Sorry, but truth must have the upper hand, not respect (and I concede that I have not demonstrated truth at this point, or saying that I even could: not everything can be easily demonstrated.).

    Respect, after all, is a mere cultural product. As Schopenhauer explained it: ‘It is an unwritten rule observed by all parties, in which each of them temporarily put aside their many defects, in order to come to an agreement or to complete a transaction.’. Not exactly same words, but that is the gist of the message, more or less. Thank you.

  10. PS. of course, respect is indispensable: there’s always too little of it, and if there were none, all hell would break loose. Thank you.

  11. I was responding specifically to this quote “Although women can have even more potential and more talent than man, they always lack in judgment.” That is straightforwardly and self-evidently false and obviously misogynistic. As much as I admire his pessimistic philosophy he writing is extraordinarily sexist.

  12. Well, I respect your opinion, because I respect you. However, sorry but yours is so far just that, an opinion.

    But even if you were right, the question is, why would someone like Schopenhauer be ‘misogynistic’ ? How can a man be attracted to women and hate them? That he was attracted to women, is no secret, this is what he said about them: ‘I always liked women, but they didn’t want me.’. He also proposed to several women.

    Simply a case of hurt ego?

    The answer, I suspect, is that the ‘hate’ part is a bit too simple an explanation. By the way, Epictetus was way more brutal:

    ‘Women only care to lie with men.’.

    It seems to me rather strange that people like these would hate anyone, simply because of how someone was born, since no one gets to choose the gender before being cast into the world. Was their simply irrational discrimination? I mean, they maintained that ‘reason’ is ‘virtue’, in the case of Epictetus, and that thinking is all one’s life, in the case of AS.

    I think things are more complicated than simple hatred, but, well, that is your view. It is ironic that in the accusation of misogyny, lies the very hatred for the purported misogynistic. So be it. (once again, you do not have to publish this if you do not want to. I’ll avoid this remark as it might start to be annoying by now.). Thank you.

  13. PS. of course, the statement by Epictetus is rather crude. But crude or not, the question is whether there’s any truth in the claim. I was merely pointing out the question of why thinkers like these said this stuff about women.

    And before I too am at least suspected of ‘misogyny’, I add: ‘Men only care to lie with women.’.

    Thank you,

  14. …” ”they always lack in judgment.” That is straightforwardly and self-evidently false.”.

    I fail to see this straightforward falsity in it. Not only that, I have proof of it being true, gathered through the years, observed in an endless list of examples from credible sources, for example the news. The examples are all around us.

    How many times have you heard of women marrying abusive men? That they complain about them later, doesn’t prove they did not want to marry these men. They just did!

    How many times have you heard of men marrying aggressive or abusive women? Almost never, and in the cases when this happened, than man must have truly been unable to get his head out of a paper bag, to say the least.

    But how many times you heard of women marrying aggressive and abusive men? It’s a never ending list. These women don’t do it because they are stupid, but because something in their nature makes them do what’s bad for them. That is the lack of judgment AS mentioned: you can be pretty certain that what we notice today aren’t really new trends…..I’ll make one example, Beethoven’s mother: she married a drunkard who beat her and his son with absolutely no problem.

    I find this stuff very puzzling.

    I never married, but I assume that before marrying someone, you get a very good idea of who it is you want to marry.

    Well, how is it possible that one marries someone who is abusive, and never suspected this in the months of years before the marriage?

    No clues at all? Nothing? No, the clues were there. This is what Schopenhauer was talking about. He saw this stuff with his own eyes. He asked himself ‘How can this good natured and attractive woman be married to this kind of man?’.

    So he shook his head for many years, and in the end he wrote that essay everybody hates.

    I mean, divorced women say so themselves: ‘We were incompatible!.’. Well, did she had to date someone for months or years, and then marry him for several years, to find out they were incompatible?.

    Sorry, this accusation of ‘misogyny’ in regard to Schopenhauer, holds no water. I have heard others say the same in regard to that essay he wrote, but I have never heard anyone robustly refuting it.

    Besides, I do not right now remember what AS wrote in his essay, so I do not pronounce myself fully in this regard: I would have to read it again, and I do not remember exactly what he wrote. But about his statement before, I completely agree with him.

    Women DO have judgment, but only after paying the price for not having had it.

    Let’s be clear, when AS mentions ‘judgement’, he is referring specifically to what one does that makes sense or not, in general, or that is benefit to themselves, or not.

    Thanks, Luigi

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