Behaving badly: not all bad behavior is rooted in mental illness

by Roger Verdon on September 21, 2010 · 11 comments

in behavior

I see a lot of poor behavior that I can explain, yet I am less and less tolerant of it. This is a real change. For many years, I would spend days upon days wondering why it was that so-and-so treated people around them with such contempt or hatred, or why someone expected their obvious misbehavior to be tolerated, which always seemed the rule and not the exception.

Brazil - it's big.

I had an aunt whom I realize only now had a personality flaw the size of Brazil. Every interaction I ever had with her left me feeling terribly guilty about the flaws I perceived in myself. It never occurred to me growing up that maybe the problem was not me, but her. My sister recently told me she felt the same way, blaming herself for ticking Auntie off all the time. My aunt was a middle child and a single mom who had a rough time of things. Still, that’s no excuse to make everyone around her as miserable as she was.

Misbehavior or idiosyncrasy is not necessarily constructed on a foundation of mental illness. Some people are simply rude with unkempt personalities, sort of like some people who live in New Jersey.

No bad children?

As a layperson, I no longer feel compelled to practice empathy around bad behavior, despite Peter Fonagy, PhD, the prominent psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist, once telling me “there are no bad children.” He said this without blinking.

I blinked a lot hearing such a thing. (And I tried, I really, really tried, Peter, to adopt your thinking. I was, and remain, unsuccessful.)

Over and over we hear that there is a human or psychological reason or explanation—not badness—for every action. Every serial killer, every thief, every failed politician, every dictator has a compelling back story that explains their poor behavior; therefore, we can and we should understand that behavior within the context of a diagnosis frosted with empathy and forgiveness. My deductive, Sherlockian response for this is “fuggedaboutit!”

Self forgiveness

Karl Menninger said the primary cause of mental illness was the inability of people to forgive themselves for being imperfect. How forgiving need we be of others whose rude, nasty behaviors raise our hackles? Forgiving ourselves is difficult enough; forgiving others is even harder. What we need not do is enable bad behavior by tolerating it. If a person requires clinical help, they should get it, and we are obligated to point them in that direction. But even a great psychiatrist like Stuart Yudofsky, MD, author of Fatal Flaws, a book about personality disorders, has said if you come across someone with borderline personally disorder, run the other way.

Mean people

For example, there’s Mary Ellen (not her real name), an overly critical woman whose father died when she was a child. He slipped off an icy apartment roof during a storm as he was adjusting a TV antenna. Nowadays, as soon as MaryEllen gets too close to someone, or admires someone, or finds someone like her father, she acts to scuttle the relationship through meanness, before the relationship is scuttled for her. She apparently believes all relationships will end as her father ended, in surprise, horror and misery, and therefore she needs to be in charge of her relationships.

What is bad?

Is this person bad? I don’t know. Whatever you call her behavior, it is certainly not good. It is destructive and hurtful. If I can’t change this person and she won’t respond to suggestions for change, what am I to do but abandon hope that anything will change? The least I can do is not blame myself for her bad behavior. This isn’t about me, it’s about her, although troubled folks have a great ability to transmit blame anywhere but themselves. That doesn’t mean they are mentally ill. It may mean they are merely uncaring and rude. There is a difference.

Toxic children

Richard Friedman, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, recently wrote about a child who was mean, unkind and unsympathetic. The kid’s parents felt horrible that they had raised such a monster and blamed themselves, while overlooking the other two perfectly adapted children they had raised in the same environment.

Dr. Friedman found nothing untoward clinically with this boy. That was no surprise to him.

“The fact remains,” he said, “that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children.”

Bad parents?

That thought has evolved into a new maxim for the 21st century. “The era,” he said, “of ‘there are no bad children, only bad parents’ is gone.”

Is Dr. Fonagy wrong? No. But human evolution has yet to catch up with his observation, so while we wait, let’s give ourselves a break. Sometimes people are exactly who they seem to be: mean-spirited, out of sorts, rude and unmannerly. Forgiving them by attributing their behavior to a clinical diagnosis gives truly ill people a bad name.

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