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The Judas Syndrome
Why Good People Do Awful Things
By George K. Simon Jr.
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
When Bad People Do Bad Things
Bad things happen and good people are often the cause, but not always. Before we look at why good people do bad things, we need to separate the sheep from the goats and consider that sometimes bad things happen because, as much as we might like to think otherwise, there are bad people. As hard as it is for many of us to accept, there are individuals whose character is so deeply flawed that it predisposes them to do bad things much of the time (Simon, Character Disturbance, 34–36). They might have been born with troubling inclinations or shaped by life full of tragedy. But whatever the cause and even if their first impression is favorable, bad people do exist. In fact, it's precisely because this is such a hard thing to accept that many folks become entrapped in and remain in toxic relationships (Simon, In Sheep's Clothing, 140).
When I speak of "bad people," I'm not referring to folks who are generally well-adjusted, God-fearing, and well-meaning but nonetheless injure others in a moment of personal weakness and with some degree of obliviousness. Rather, I'm speaking of those individuals who know well the difference between right and wrong and understand what most others might regard as appropriate and responsible conduct, but who knowingly and purposely adopt an approach to life and dealing with others that is adverse, inconsiderate, and reckless. Such individuals frequently, and often deliberately, bring pain into the lives of those with whom they come into contact.
Basically good folks have their shortcomings to be sure; they can also do things that hurt others. And this is not to say that bad people can't sometimes do good things. But because they harbor unresolved emotional wounds, conflicts, and so forth, about which they are often not even consciously aware, much of the time when basically decent people do bad things, they truly don't know what they're doing or even why they're really doing it when they cause harm. Not only do they lack malevolent intent, they also most often regret and feel appropriate guilt about the harm they might have caused once they realize the nature of what they've done.
But there are some folks who knowingly, intentionally, and repeatedly do things that hurt others. Chief among these individuals are the narcissistic or egotistic personalities, who pursue their own selfish desires with pathological indifference to the rights and concerns of others, and the aggressive personalities, who get what they want by deliberately trampling the rights and concerns of others (Simon, Character Disturbance, 98). The vignettes in this chapter are intended to highlight how these seriously character-deficient individuals wreak havoc upon the lives of those around them, and how the absence of faith in anything greater than themselves keeps them from becoming better persons.
When There's No Room in One's Heart for God
For God to dwell in us, we must first make a space for him. But some people simply have no space in their hearts for a power greater than themselves. Oh, they might outwardly profess a belief in God. Sometimes, they will even "protest" some kind of religious conviction to the point of near absurdity. But in the deepest recesses of their souls, they can barely even conceive of a power greater than themselves, let alone turn themselves over to one. The very idea of humbling and subordinating themselves—in complete faith and trust—to the unseen, incomprehensible, great "I AM" is anathema to them. The various gods these folks truly worship and their lack of faith in the one true source of life most often come to light when circumstances put their characters ardently to the test.
Chief among the gods that egotistic or narcissistic characters worship is the grandiose image they have of themselves (Simon, Character Disturbance, 91). They regard themselves as inordinately "special" and view nearly everyone else as pathetically inferior. They're often so convinced of their special status that they feel entitled to do whatever they please in their dealings with those they perceive are beneath them. And because they have no concept of anything more powerful or important than they are, there's nothing in their mental or psychological framework to inhibit them from selfishly using and abusing those around them.
I've counseled many times the kind of person depicted in the vignette that follows. They've worn different faces, have come from different backgrounds, and were of various colors and races. Yet they were remarkably the same with respect to the essential features of their character. Many were quite accomplished and successful, at least by worldly standards. But their character defects generally rendered them failures in their relationships. Their stories were often so similar that it wasn't difficult to fashion an illustrative example.
The Story of Philip and Nan
Philip would be the first to tell you that he knew himself pretty well. He was also not ashamed to admit how much he liked the person he was. From the outset, he made it clear that he agreed to make an appointment with a therapist mostly because his wife, Nan, was pressuring him to do so. She had threatened to file for divorce unless he got some help. He didn't really see the need for it, he complained, and he readily admitted he had always been more than a little leery of "head shrinks." But he'd promised Nan he would see someone, and he was also a little bit curious about what a professional might say about his situation.
After introducing myself to Philip, I informed him that I would most likely defer a final decision about working with him until we had visited a few times and I had a chance to complete both an evaluation of his circumstances and an assessment of his "appropriateness" for the kind of character development enterprise in which I typically engage. He appeared somewhat incredulous about this and more than a bit fascinated. Still, he assented to the conditions.
Philip would be considered a remarkable success in life by any number of commonly accepted standards. Coming from relatively humble beginnings, he was able to land a job with a large corporation and steadily rose through the ranks of the company, eventually making it all the way to the top. He had accumulated substantial monetary wealth, social prestige, personal power, and political influence. He knew a lot of important people and wielded a lot of influence. The world, it seemed, was his oyster.
Philip had done some very good things in his life. Under his leadership, his company regularly donated substantial sums (not incidentally enjoying noteworthy publicity and significant tax breaks in the process) to several popular and worthy causes. But Philip had also done many bad things, some of which were even illegal. Most of the time, he was able to elude detection, and even when he did get caught, he had the intellectual, legal, and financial resources to get himself out of trouble. Philip never fretted. He generally did just as he pleased without fear of sanction. He never experienced a moment's hesitation, even when contemplating what many might view as unthinkable. That's because Philip did all the bad things he'd ever done for the very same reason he did almost everything else in his life: he felt he could and should be able to do them.
To anyone who inquired, Philip would insist that he believed in God, and would readily point to his hefty donations not only to his church but also to various charitable causes as indications of his commitment to leading a "Christian life." But as would eventually become all too apparent, in truth Philip recognized no entity or power greater than himself. This made anything but self-worship virtually impossible. And even when Philip gave, he appeared mainly concerned for the recognition that would be afforded him or his company as benefactor. In the deepest recesses of his soul, there was only one entity Philip ever really believed in, worshiped, or served: himself.
More than anything else, Philip relished the notion that he was a self-made man, and he was happy to boast that fact to anyone he met. He happily attributed his successes in life to his tenacity and hard work. Nobody ever gave him anything, he asserted with fervor. And he would readily admit that he might not have the talent or intelligence of some of his friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. But he believed in himself because he had determination and the moxie to make the best of any challenging circumstance. By his own account, he was shrewd, confident, and always a force with which to contend. And he was undeniably and unabashedly proud of those facts. Place before him any challenge, he would boast, and he had confidence he would emerge a winner.
At the moment, however, Philip was in a most unusual and difficult place. Nan had recently come across evidence that he had been having affairs for years, had been engaging in some accounting irregularities into which the government was now looking, and had quietly been pilfering their accounts to the point that the family's once substantial savings were now virtually nonexistent. She suddenly found herself seeing what once appeared as an almost idyllic world crumbling all around her. And she'd had enough of what she now knew to be his lengthy history of lies and deceit and was seriously contemplating divorce.
I wish I could say that Philip showed signs of concern over the possibility he might lose the woman he purportedly loved and cherished, or that he was experiencing some degree of distress because of the pain he had caused her. But as the evaluation progressed, it became quite apparent that he was far more concerned about the potential personal costs (in money, property, and image) he could incur as the result of a divorce. Some other things also became clear: Philip had been using some clever tactics to prey on Nan's conscientious nature in the hopes that she would be manipulated into standing by him. He frequently and openly lamented to her that she would be deserting him just when he anticipated some very difficult times ahead and really needed her support. And he questioned the sincerity of her religious convictions in view of the fact that she was considering renouncing her marriage vows. He also argued that she really owed it to him to help preserve their home, lifestyle, family, and reputation he'd worked so hard to maintain. And when these arguments did not appear to be enough, he took aim at Nan's sensibilities. He pointed to the fact that when she told him she wanted him to get some help, despite the many reservations he had about it, he honored his promise to do whatever it took to keep things from falling apart. So, he asserted, it was only fair for her to hold off seeking a divorce as long as he was agreeing to see a therapist. But Philip's behavior made it clear that it was for largely practical and selfish reasons, and not because he felt horribly about having done wrong, had deeply hurt the woman who had been faithful to him for years, and was internally troubled and motivated to make some crucial changes in himself to avoid inflicting pain on loved ones again, that he had come to a therapist's office.
It never sat all that well with Philip that I would reserve judgment about whether I would even accept him as a client until I had completed an assessment of his suitability. For one thing, he'd never heard of a situation in which someone who supposedly made his or her living talking to people willing to pay good money to have someone else listen to them and help them deal with their problems would actually consider turning the opportunity down. But inasmuch as trust is the very foundation of any potentially therapeutic relationship, it was important for me to acknowledge that I wasn't sure things would work out—at least at this particular moment in time and in view of the kind of work I had in mind. Still, by the end of the second visit, Philip was already putting some pressure on me to commit. "You'd have to agree, wouldn't you, George, that it's a bit unusual for a person who is supposed to be in the business of helping people, to actually consider turning away someone who's come to them for help? Besides, you don't really know me, anyway. Shouldn't you be giving me a chance?" Part of me wanted to retort that I'd spent the better part of our first two sessions making structured clinical observations and gathering relevant background information. Another part was tempted to point out that we'd spent several hours outside of sessions gathering history and incorporating Nan's input, and that the evaluation was not yet over. I also thought about calling attention to some of the tactics I felt he was using to subtly coerce me into giving him what he wanted, such as leveling (putting the authority figure on the same level as the person needing guidance), posturing (trying to put the other person on the defensive), and subtle guilt-tripping and shaming (insinuating that there was something not only wrong but also shameful and possibly even unethical about a professional "helper" actually considering not providing services to a supposedly needy and willing client) (Simon, Character Disturbance, 188–93). I was also more than tempted to point out that Philip had already spoken at length about what was mostly motivating him to come and see me in the first place, as well as what he clearly announced that he wasn't too interested in pursuing. But rather than address those issues just yet, I simply and cordially reaffirmed that I would discuss my overall assessment at the end of our last evaluative session. I could tell he was provoking a defensive reaction from me and I observed that, sadly, I too had some narcissistic tendencies that I needed to address but, obviously, not with my client.
During our visits, there were many ways Philip tried to put and keep me on the defensive, which is a cardinal sign of a serious character disturbance in which a person too readily, too often, and too intensely tries to assume the more dominant and controlling position in a relationship. He also immediately and consistently addressed me by my first name and made subtly derogatory comments about the field of psychology and the various mental health professions, which I regarded as a possible sign of a character intent on either establishing a position of superiority or diminishing another's position, especially one who would naturally otherwise occupy a position of relative authority. But it was not until I asked him to give me some details about the accounting irregularities at work that had gotten him into trouble that Philip revealed the most significant features of his character fairly clearly. "Boy, could I write a book about the useless waste of time and money in our government and how absolutely stupid the idiots at the IRS can be," he ranted. "And to think our tax dollars pay the salaries of these dummies," he added. Then he told me how common it was for folks in his line of work who had access to certain cash accounts to temporarily "borrow" funds as a sort of informal loan with every intention of paying back the money when circumstances permitted. So, he asserted, taking the money wasn't really that big of an issue. Besides, it was because of his hard work and acumen that the money was even there in the first place! His real mistakes, which he boasted that he was "perfectly willing to admit," were that he'd lost track of how much he'd borrowed and was "stupid" to have been so sloppy in the manner in which he'd handled the transactions. His sloppiness led to some questions about his tax returns and got the IRS looking into things. He should have been much more discreet, that's all. Philip never addressed the decisions he made or the actions he took that got him into trouble. Nor did he address the rightness or wrongness of those decisions. Doing so would have provided a prime opportunity for him to express genuine responsibility and possibly even some regret for his behavior. But over the entire course of the evaluation, all he offered me was a series of justifications for seriously improper acts, a trivialization of the nature of his transgressions, and weak, token admissions of minor errors in practical judgment.
Things began to add up pretty quickly. Philip's sense of entitlement was massive, and any degree of conscience he might have was markedly impaired. He was displaying some of the most telltale features of individuals with a particular kind of character disturbance. And as the rest of his history came to light, it was clear that his sense of entitlement had been with him a long time, reflected in many subtle ways long before his current problems surfaced. When he threw lavish parties at his home, he didn't ask his neighbors if they minded folks parking in front of their homes or blocking their driveways. He simply took for granted that they should understand. And if they didn't, he dismissed them as hapless, jealous souls whose discontent was probably rooted in their envy that so many notables in town were always gathering at his house instead of theirs. And when he discovered his wife kept a diary, he didn't have to justify reading it without asking her permission. After all, a wife shouldn't keep any secrets from her husband, anyway. Now as to why he never told her about the affairs he had—at least the three he distinctly remembered and that really counted—that was simple: she'd probably only get the wrong impression of him. A man who travels can get awfully lonesome at times. And the hotel rooms in the cities he had to regularly visit could feel so terribly empty. Besides, the women with whom he kept company were merely dinner dates and sexual companions, not real lovers. They really meant nothing. So you could say he was never truly unfaithful because Nan was the only one he really cared about. You could even say he never reneged on the spirit of his marriage vows. He might have had multiple liaisons, but he wasn't really being unfaithful. He was still a great guy, worthy of Nan's love and devotion. Listening to Philip, one could even be tempted to think he had every right to do all the things for which he was now in trouble.
Excerpted from The Judas Syndrome by George K. Simon Jr.. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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