“The essence of morality is a questioning about morality.” -Georges Bataille
The other night, my sister and I chatted over dinner about morality. TBH.
She asked me if I thought people who do bad things know they are doing bad things. I said it probably depended on the person (what brilliance!) but made sure to emphasize that, generally speaking, I think bad people know they are bad more often than we might assume.
You’ll often hear people refer to criminals, particularly white-collar criminals I’d argue, as sociopaths or narcissists. We can’t understand what they are thinking is the subtext that attempts to assuage our confusion; and indeed, that’s most likely true most of the time. Or take Donald Trump, for instance, who is a dangerous narcissist with a value system completely contingent on immature and irrational emotional needs. Because he happens to be enacting these impetuously self-referential values in a position of immense power, these “bad” things reverberate harm to millions of people. Trump doesn’t know he is bad—but that doesn’t excuse him. He thinks he is good and can only see evidence that corroborates that. His morality is his narcissism. (FYI: I am not going to write a think piece about Donald Trump because, quite frankly, I need to think about something else for this hour.)
I have never done anything really bad to another person, so I can’t speak to the psychology of being abusive or criminal or Trumpish—although I’ve certainly enacted my fair share of run-of-the-mill emotional harm to ex-boyfriends. My family also knows how icy I can be when I get angry, and my current partner has seen me behave so monstrously that I feel horrifying just thinking about it.
But when it comes to the act of enacting harm, I have been self-destructive far more often than I’ve been abusive, and so I can speak more eloquently to the ironies and paradoxes of having harmful intentions, and how it can cooperate magnificently and terrifyingly with both the mechanisms of denial and self-awareness.
Let me ask you this: have you ever done something to yourself that you know is bad, but you do it anyway?
My guess is that your answer is yes.
The other night, I spent a good chunk of time looking at the new girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend I am no longer interested in at all. I then spent my therapy session the next day talking about why. I didn’t know why. My therapist asked how it made me feel. I said it made me feel bad and sad and undesirable, even though that was an irrational reaction. She then asked me why I wanted to feel like this. I said I didn’t. But clearly I do, which is why I check her Instagram ever so often. I am acutely aware of my own insecurity, and also in denial about it. She seems lame and I am thinner and smarter, I tell myself, loathing my own tendency to reinforce patriarchal and oppressive norms in my own defensiveness. I don’t care at all. I’m not sure if I do. But this is an instance in which I can see my own self-destructive behavior clearly—a bizarre and insidious dance between self-awareness and denial. The two can certainly coexist.
A similar dynamic occurs for me with cigarettes. I don’t smoke anymore but often when I am very stressed I will find myself wanting a cigarette. No you don’t, I tell myself. And I don’t, really. My “higher self,” if you will, knows that I don’t want a cigarette in those moments, and yet that is not enough to stop me. Please note that this inner dialogue has happened enough times that I have, indeed, played out the fantasy of obtaining a cigarette and smoking it against what I think is best for me. And so I have a great deal of wisdom, such that my next contribution to the dialogue is to say: But knowing you, you’ll probably have one anyway. And then you’ll hate it! The occasional cigarette tends to be ephemerally satisfying simply in that it scratches an itch, a categorically nice feeling. But I consistently feel dirty and disgusting and I berate myself for hours until something new comes along that I can fixate on. But I’ll do it anyway. There is clearly denial here, but one that can only exist because I am self-aware of this dynamic. It’s as if I excuse myself on some level because I know I’m doing the heavy lifting of self-inquiry. But I tell you my own cautionary bullshit as a reminder that we can do bad shit to ourselves even when we are committed to growth. It’s not linear, and the process of watching yourself self-sabotage can be excruciating.
I’ve experienced this bizarre state of self-aware denial about cultivating various permutations of eating disorders, pursuing emotionally abusive relationships, indulging my workaholism with Adderall addiction, allowing friendships to deteriorate.
This was certainly something I experienced during the years I smoked pot. Smoking pot enabled me to prove something to myself—specifically, that I could rebel against the part of myself that wanted to keep me contained and “in control.” I could still work too hard in school, starve myself and self-isolate, but also bear the signifier of someone who was relaxed enough to “check out” of life a little bit by smoking pot. It was a habit that became a performance of the paradoxes I wanted to present to the world. And I was immensely successful at that performance for many years. That was part of the deal I had made, not so consciously, with myself.
A couple of years ago, my close friend was chasing after an unavailable person who made her feel unstable and emotionally volatile. This person was unknowingly manipulative, beckoning my friend to pursue him at the same time as he affirmed and reaffirmed his own dysfunctions. My friend saw what was happening, and she continued basking in the deep, confusing well of self-destructive emotions. She would ask me why she was letting herself do it, and I told her it didn’t matter. I told her our feelings often seem to be excluded from the equation when it comes to how we rationalize things. When we’re compartmentalized, denial and self-awareness can coexist; and in that place, we can act as though we are in control.
My friend needed to engage in this cycle of self-abuse for a few more rounds until she reached a kind of requisite, “never again” moment. I’m not saying those are necessary for everyone stuck in the between the poles of self-awareness and denial—a delicate place of stasis—but sometimes the more feeling that is pumped into the equation off-sets the profound intellectual exercise that is the process of self-manipulation. We are all masterful storytellers (to ourselves) after all.
Many people don’t believe me when I tell them this nowadays, but I used to be cripplingly guarded. As I’ve written about before on here, I fulfilled a certain “role” in my nuclear family that had me believe that being “easy-going,” deferential, quiet were all top-tier virtues. I’m not sure when, why or how that story began, but it did, and it crippled me for a long time. Many of my #ish today are byproducts of the years of repression I created for myself, and endured.
I believe it was in college that I made the very artificial and deliberate decision to be, almost always, gregarious, open, warm—someone who shares too much. According to my new story, I tell it like it is. And I’m sure I even seem that way to you, writing about my inner-most emotions on the fucking Internet. But on some level, I am very much not that way, and still struggle with feeling like the disappearing, people-pleasing “good listener” who is about to have a panic attack in the bathroom while everyone else is having fun at the party. In at least one way or another, I have just developed this openness as a defense. Being emotionally open, dramatically open, puts what I feel comfortable with out on the table, and it is an external gesture I can point to when I want to show myself I have grown, that I have become self-assured and more authentic. Herein there is a kind of productive example of denial and self-awareness coexisting, but on some days, I want to be able to just be.
I don’t write this to make you all think that I am a huge asshole manipulator with a hyperactive psychological engine that has me plotting all the time how I am going to be intelligently self-destructive and guarded. But I do it because I think it is helpful to see, through the eyes of another perhaps (in this case: me) just how powerful our stories are.
For what it’s worth, I’m not cuing the violins on myself and trying to argue that I’m actually an inauthentic, pathetic person with no emotional intelligence. I am very devoted to trying to be more authentic and genuinely empowered and more skillful with how I treat others and myself. But just because that’s true doesn’t mean I have to stop checking myself. And checking oneself doesn’t have to be punitive. It is a form of radical self-care, through a kind of discipline that honors the real rigor of authenticity, of presence, of wholeness.
In these dark times, I think it’s essential for all of us to stay honest with ourselves—brutally honest, even. We have to show up for each other, for civil society, for those whose voices and experiences need to be buoyed. And to do that, we may have to sacrifice the time- and energy-consuming project of self-inquiry. But if we can’t show up for ourselves as ourselves, then what’s the point? The next time you feel your inner bento box walls beginning to go up, take a second to think about the story you’re telling yourself to allow you to compartmentalize. You might ask, “How true is that, really?” No one else has to know.