Of the three ‘self-help’ type books I ordered after my encounter with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, I finished the first that arrived, “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil” by M. Scott Peck, M.D.
As I was reading it, I wrote a number of blogs referencing it and ideas shared within the book. Now that I’ve finished it and had a couple of days to reflect on its content, I have a few final thoughts.
I felt, as I was reading the book, that the suggestion that some people may be guilty of evil acts, while others may truly be ‘evil’ was interesting, but I was distracted by the Christian references throughout the book. After the first few references, I stopped reading the footnotes.
My understanding of the author’s definition of ‘evil’ as the repeated commission of ‘sin’, without remorse, without the acknowledgment that they themselves are guilty of sinning seems reasonable if you’re approaching the topic from a religious point of view. There are many people who easily identify the ‘sins’ of others, but are unable to see the same behaviors in themselves as sins. This premise seems problematic in that what is a sin and what is not, in my experience within different denominations within Christianity, seems to be subjective and differs depending on interpretation.
There are many Christians who commit the same sins repeatedly, who will tell you they ask for forgiveness for their weakness, or will tell you they are human and therefore not perfect and will make the same mistakes or who blame Satan for deceiving them or working through people around them to cause them to stumble – refusing to take responsibility for their own weaknesses and mistakes. Are these people all evil?
I, myself have committed the same mistakes over and over throughout my life, I have ‘sinned’, I know I’ve hurt people and at the time I made these errors of judgment I didn’t feel badly about it, I thought I was right, justified. I was at times arrogant, ignorant of the feelings of others. Does that mean that I was ‘evil’?
As the author talked about the characteristics he attributes to someone who is an evil person, I was somewhat horrified to be able to identify so many of those characteristics in most of the people in my life. It left me feeling as if I’ve been surrounded by evil all my life.
It took me 7 years of psychotherapy, both individual and group, to better understand not only the behaviors of my parents and family members, but my own as well. I spent a lot of time examining my responses to the behaviors of the people around me.
The conclusion I came to, after all that therapy, was that all people act in ways they think protect themselves, to preserve their sense of security or sense of self. They create ‘stories’ that allow them to live with their own short comings and failures, their pain and inadequacies. They are, often, immature and react to emotional or painful things the way children do. Too often, as I believe is the case with my mother, those stories and methods work for these folks, no one holds them accountable, no one challenges their lies or stories, their cruelty or abuse, I suspect, out of fear that the behaviors will be turned on those challenging them.
I concluded that these folks become so comfortable with creating these lies and stories, they no longer see them as ‘lies’, when a lie is repeated often enough it becomes the truth. If anything, these folks are delusional, they have created a sort of ‘alternate reality’ within their own minds, where they can do no wrong, where they are the abused or neglected. They cannot face the reality of their lives, failures, and losses. Their identity has become so entangled with their lies, they aren’t able to distinguish between reality and lie any longer.
After reading this book and identifying so many of the characteristics detailed in the case studies in the people around me I can’t help but to conclude that this behavior is the result of a mental health condition, perhaps multiple mental health conditions, left unidentified, and therefore untreated. Over the course of time, these behaviors have proven beneficial for these folks, they have allowed them to protect their own self-image and self-esteem and at the same time, kept others who may have challenged them or put them in a position of taking responsibility at arm’s length, on the outside of their ‘circle’.
This in no way excuses their behavior, it does not justify it, but rather, explains, perhaps, one reason why people behave the way they do.
It is likely I will never fully understand how my mother’s mind works, why my sister does or says the things she does, why my sister-in-law behaves as she does, but even if I can gain some level of understanding, it makes coping a little easier, it helps me to process these behaviors without absorbing the blame or guilt that does not belong to me.
The wonderful thing I did get out of reading this book was the affirmation that the sickness of others is not my sickness, that just because I think and/or act differently than the bulk of my family doesn’t make me the person with the problem, necessarily. I am not the cause of the stress and drama brought about by these struggles.
It is healthy to reflect upon one’s behavior, motives, interactions with others. It is healthy and quite difficult to honestly examine one’s own role in such a difficult and painful dynamic as that which has been my family’s. There will be a lot of emotions, a lot of doubts, a lot of questions to be dealt with as a result of such examination, which is likely a determining factor in why so many family members refuse to discuss or examine the disastrous interpersonal goings on within these families.
This book also reaffirmed for me that, yes, there are toxic people in the world, people who are so ‘messed up’, so lost within their own emotional fiction that they are only capable of spreading toxicity to those around them. They have created ‘fantasy worlds’ to exist in, perhaps because it’s emotionally safer for them to do so than to face reality, worlds that most other people can’t survive in, can’t relate to, can’t be part of.
It reassured me that one way, perhaps the only way, to preserve one’s own sanity, to cope with the fall out of such toxic people, is to remove them from your life. Certainly, putting distance between oneself and such a toxic individual will lessen the effects of their fallout, but I suspect that someone like myself, so attuned to the emotions of others, prone to absorb the emotions of others, would be best served by eliminating interaction with such a person. Doing so, without feeling guilt can be difficult for someone who wants to ‘rescue’ everyone from themselves, but I do think, after reading this book, that it is possible.
The one thing I remember above all else that my psychologist told me when I started therapy with him was, ‘The people who seek out psychological help are often the most sane and the most healthy, it is the people who denounce and refuse such help that often need it the most.” We talked at great length about the fact that the people in my life who have brought about the most pain are people who will never be helped, they will never seek out help because they cannot bear to have the light of reality shone on their ‘fantasy’ lives. This book shared and validated that opinion and has helped me to see that I can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, I can’t help someone who doesn’t think they need help and by trying to do so, I’m allowing myself to be pulled into their ‘stories’ and ‘lies’.
I can’t expect someone who is so dishonest with themselves to be honest and ‘real’ with me.
I am only responsible for the things I say, do and think. I only have control over me and the choices I make. The unfortunate choices of the people around me are not for me to try to fix, they are not my fault, I am not responsible, their choices, their lives, their sickness is not mine.