Illustration: Pedro Nekoi
This column was first published by John Paul Brammer Hello papi Newsletter that you can subscribe to on Substack.
With all of that Latest news I’ve felt particularly uncomfortable about manipulative partners. In every relationship, I felt pressure to live up to my partner’s standards, both spoken and unspoken. I honestly think it’s because I was with people who didn’t particularly like me!
But in return, I’ve also held her to standards, both spoken and unspoken, and pushed beyond them in a way I could describe as “love bombing.” To me it felt like penance for being the problem in the relationship. I’ve done so many things that I regret and feel so ashamed and guilty that it makes me sick.
For example, I would express feelings of insecurity and jealousy towards my partner’s friends, not to control them but to seek comfort. In the end, however, they changed their behavior in a way that made it clear that it was my fault for bringing it up. When I was 15, in a moment of anger, I scratched someone I was with and they bled. I’m in therapy, but I keep seeing people say that therapy only makes an abuser more effective, and I worry that I am too.
I’ve certainly been a victim of abuse myself, so I’m afraid I’ll never know what the healthy thing is to do. I have hurt people regardless of my intentions. I feel like perceiving myself as inherently bad will not improve my relationships, but I don’t know how to forgive myself. Daddy, do I even deserve to move on?
Hello family doctor!
There’s a lot to talk about here, so I guess I’ll start with what it means to be a bad person.
Perhaps this is intuitive information, but most people do not like to entertain the thought that they have done harm. It makes them sad or anxious. After all, it’s a scary prospect. What is a “bad person” if not someone who hurts people? And I don’t know many people who want to be a bad person.
But this very instinct to avoid self-reflection naturally keeps people from changing their behavior. I understand the fear. Please bear with me as I try to explain myself. I’m not sure if this is a trend or if this has always been the case, but there is a widespread notion that behavior stems from a place of innate, absolute identity. People who are in this ideological framework cannot do that Really change. They are who they are. Bad people are bad people. Anything good a bad person does is part of their careful facade, and anything bad they do exposes them for who they really are.
Behavior can only confirm what has always been true. A person’s actions can only expose them, never change them. They either deceived us with their kindness or they showed their true colors. This also goes the other way, à la “halo effect”. It’s impossible to go wrong with a perfect squishy cinnamon bun, because we How them. I mean easy see at them! And so forth. It’s all a little bit Calvinist.
This might sound like a rant about “abandon culture” or something, GP. I apologize. But what I’m trying to say here is that most humans (actually all humans) have the ability to do harm. Most people will do harm in life. They will cause pain, and pain wants to travel. It wants to perpetuate itself. It is less common, though not uncommon, for someone to harm another person out of sheer sadism. Far more often, as I mentioned in last week’s column on trauma, a person causes harm because of self-harm, fear, or self-loathing.
As uncomfortable as it is to accept this, we are all, each of us, victims and villains in this world. That doesn’t mean we’re equal in every act, but it does mean things are a little more complicated than figuring out who’s good and who’s bad, like there’s two teams and each of us has a jersey for one or that the other would be assigned. This means that when we set out to do what is right for one another, we must be brave enough to confront ourselves and the way we perpetuate the cycle of harm.
I know there are people out there who say people don’t really change. To be completely honest with you, family doctor, I sometimes wonder about this myself. But I have to believe that people can get better. That there is something about the human spirit that allows us to go beyond our circumstances and evolve. Even my work as a humble advice columnist would be in vain if the reality were that people are incapable of deep, meaningful change.
Am i right? Am I wrong? I guess I don’t know, but it’s my belief. Maybe it’s something like faith.
You have spoken openly to me about your past, and I thank you for that. To me, it shows that you are thinking about your actions and are willing to find ways to avoid repeating them. To judge for yourself, it sounds like you have a habit of acting on rash feelings when you’re feeling insecure, and then trying to compensate with exuberant kindness. I think this suggests that it’s difficult to regulate your emotions and have the necessary conversations where you either admit your guilt or are open about where your fears are coming from.
I don’t think therapy is just a tool for manipulators. Finally, therapy is a broad term that encompasses a spectrum of practices, techniques, and treatment approaches. It’s all about finding the right therapy that works for you. As I also struggle with managing my emotions I would recommend looking into Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) which focuses on teaching skills to help you manage intense emotions and negotiate social relationships.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you on your journey, GP! Remember that guilt and self-flagellation don’t do much. What you “earn” is above my pay grade. Some cultures invent whole pantheons of gods to delegate the question to them. But I think, I think if we want to get better and we’re willing to try, then yes. You and I can change
With much love,
Originally published August 8, 2023.
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