Mary Ann Glynn, LCSW: Why We Don’t Believe in Badness

By Mary Ann Glynn, LCSW, located in Bernardsville, New Jersey

Throughout graduate school for social work, when the professors were teaching us about how to establish a working therapeutic relationship with a client, they repeatedly drove into us to “have unconditional positive regard for the client.” Implied in that phrase is the stance that we cannot accurately help someone we have prejudged. We learned first and foremost to see the valuable human being behind the behavior, to have compassion, and understand the reasons that brought a person to their present circumstance, even if it is criminal behavior.

People in the helping profession are there in the first place because they are hopeful about making a difference through their work and tend to be optimistic about the processes that make that happen. Therapists believe that people can be honest with themselves and effect change in their lives. We see it happen before our eyes. We believe in the core goodness of human beings.

We see the good in others

Even if you’re not in a helping profession, you were probably raised with values that directed you to treat other people well and see the good in them. We are taught early on to be “nice” to others. If our sibling or friend hurt us, we were trained to make up with them. Most of us are taught that if a rift happens between us and someone else, we should take an honest look at ourselves and take responsibility for our part, not blame the other person. Many of us are raised with ideals, religious or otherwise, of forgiveness and non-judgment, which foster the idea that others should be valued and regarded with compassion and understanding. We should overlook a person’s faults as much as possible. We are taught to “listen to our conscience” to know when we’re doing something wrong. And, if we find we are doing something wrong, then we should change it to the better or right thing. It is expected to think that all humans have this same social concept of a conscience.

Bad behavior in movies

As Americans, we have all been influenced in our perceptions of criminals and bad behavior by movies and TV shows. Scripts are written to be layered, so they will usually show background psychology of why a person has gone wrong, always including some type of brutality or hardship from their past. If you have any heart at all, you have probably felt some compassion for this person. These portrayals encourage that same concept I ingested in graduate school, that people are inherently good. People start out good, and if they do bad things, it is because circumstances have molded them. So, wouldn’t it follow that with the right help or rehabilitation, they could resurrect that good person who got lost along the way?

We do tend to draw the line of redemption before the extreme savagery of, say, a serial killer, a “grudge collector” who opens fire at a crowd or schoolroom, or a terrorist — what the media may refer to as a “psychopath.” A show like “Criminal Minds” makes no bones in graphically portraying the savagery of the sadistic killer, making it hard to perceive that behavior as anything but evil. But, when the show traces his path from abused or neglected child to adult killer, in spite of ourselves, we can feel a twinge of pity for him. It is in the nature of people with consciences to feel empathy, if for no other reason that s/he is a human being like we are.

To make matters worse, we are raised on endless movies about the “bad boy,” or girl, turning around through the power of another’s love, romantic or otherwise. They inspire our faith in humanity. Some of these stories are even true. We cut our teeth on movies like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” driving home the “diamond in the rough” theme, that encourage us in the belief that people are inherently good and are capable of change. They affirm our belief in love.

Hard to accept evil

It’s easier for us to accept badness on a grand scale. There are a multitude of examples throughout recorded history of tyrants dehumanizing or annihilating people in their ruthless grasps for power, and on a lesser scale, cults. We have no problem calling this “evil.” We may understand people like that as having gotten too much power that has clearly corrupted their conscience. But, a regular individual in society must have that core of human goodness that can be turned around. Aren’t they the same as we are? So, they can change, too, right?

We don’t even like to judge people as bad or “evil.” That feels a little evil itself, doesn’t it, because of how we are taught to not judge and give a person the benefit of the doubt?! We don’t consider that everything in nature and psychology is on a spectrum, including the gradations of human evil. We certainly do not recognize evil in that disarming and charming person right before our eyes. Because we’ve been conditioned to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity, and that hope springs eternal, we don’t recognize danger behind those eyes of love. We don’t second-guess love.

This is why we are so we are so completely surprised at the devastation wreaked in our lives once those eyes target us.

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76 Comments on "Mary Ann Glynn, LCSW: Why We Don’t Believe in Badness"

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Sorry I haven’t read other comments yet (just off work) but as to the article – WORD! My ex spath gave all kinds of excuses for his behavior, and me being the trusting person believed him. Older brother died of horrible genetic disease when he was 6. Dad died when he was 18. I totally fell for that. But looking back, I had some pretty severe trauma early in life, but I would never use those times as an excuse to abuse, dominate, and subjugate another human being. Why did I fall for that?! Oh yes – because I’m not a sociopath, and I desperately wanted to believe that people were basically good.

Thanks for the article, and be blessed today.

I too over the years came to perceive that the whole “vampire” genre of literature, film, and characters really is a metaphor for both narcissistic pd and psychopathy, which are really entwined anyway according to Dr. Robert Hare. In his “psychopathy checklist” for diagnosing psychopathy in forensic populations, one section lists the narcissistic pd traits. Really, the classic vampire character: attractive, seductive, predatory, totally lacking in empathy for his or her human prey, is nothing but an undead yet still predatory psychopath. Ew!

I also have run across this tendency that the author of the original article discusses, that its not OK to be judgmental of people and to not label people who do really, REALLY atrocious things as “bad” or “evil.” Well, then, my answer to that is, “OK, fine: don’t call the person “evil, but sure as hell call the BEHAVIOR evil and DO SOMETHING about the atrociously bad, dangerous, toxic behavior!”

To my own way of thinking, me personally, I think of “evil” and “psychopathy” as the same thing; so, the label doesn’t matter so much to my way of thinking. Deliberately choosing to do things that harm other people for the reason that it benefits the perp in some way, is “evil aka psychopathic”.


Skylar, I felt my spath was a psychic vampire. He drained me totally so it felt like there was nothing left of ‘me’.

I threw him out and he went ballistic. Luckily I wasn’t there, I was staying elsewhere, but he tried emailing, phoning etc. Luckily my solicitor was good and told me not to answer & that made the break easier..

By accident I did speak to him a few weeks later. I was at a mutual friend’s house and he rang while she was out. he denied all his bad behaviour which had been the final straw that had made me throw him out. Did he really think I would believe him? Did I believe the friend who had rung up in the middle of the night scared for her life as he’d threatened to kill her, or did I believe the drunkard? A no brainer :-).

Dear Mary Ann,

I just wanted to comment here on his article. My Sociopath/Exploitative Personality experience came prior to my Grad School experience. I just finished my MSW in May and my sociopath experience was about 8 years ago.

I am thankful for my experience with that man I call “Bad Man.” This experience has served me well among my peers who want to see good in all people and feel sorry for all. This is not the kind of social worker I will be. I have a deep well of compassion for others but I also have the discernment to protect myself from being snowed by someone that truly doesn’t have a care for anyone else.

And… I am in a unique position. At the moment, I still work with abused/neglected/emotionally disturbed teenagers. I know their history and I can see disorders peculating in many of them. Sometimes, it is hard to maintain the balance of hopefulness with the knowledge that I see what I see and I know what I know. It is my job to be hopeful and helpful for these kids. Still, sometimes, there are those that seem to have to the true potential for physical and emotional danger that they will perpetrate on others.

What to do?

Anyway, I was hoping you would tie together at the end of your article how MSW’s are trained, and how we instinctively are with what social workers should know about humanity.

I don’t see my job as a call to believe in the goodness of all. I think I am valuable because I know something about humanity that many people don’t get…. that we ARE NOT all wired the same… and believing so can have devastating consequences in our lives… consequences that I know from experience.

I say this with all due respect: I sat in classes for 3 years with a lot of saps and suckers. I am grateful that I am no longer one and I know what I know now.

Thanks for listening…

Aloha, MSW :O)


Medical and therapy professionals are told and taught that we must give NONjudgmental acceptance to all patients/clients, and the trouble is (A) we are human and (B) some of us know that NOT everyone has good deep down inside them. LOL

It is a difficult to remain “hopeful” for some patients, no matter how young they are…we see the “signs” and we know that there are humans who are so broken or missing some components that they “can’t be fixed.”

In PHYSICAL medicine I saw the same thing Aloha. Physicians who would NOT tell a patient that there was “nothing more I can do, you need to prepare for death” It used to DRIVE ME BAT GUANO when patients who were brain dead were kept on ventilators for years because the parents or family couldn’t come to grips with the fact that the patient was GONE….

That case in Florida I think it was where the parents of this young womann and her husband were fighting over the right to either discontinue “life support” or keep it going. AFter her death (the husband “won”) it was determined that her brain was essentially so atrophied as to have her skull essentially empty, but her parents were so into denial that they thought she was “in there.”

When I showed up at the hospital were they took my husband I was met at the door by a physician and a chaplain and the physician told me that they were going to do everything for my husband and send him to Memphis burn center (3 hours from my home) when THERE WAS NO WAY HE COULD HAVE LIVED 48 HOURS —and they said NOTHING about him being terminal.

Of course they didn’t know that I worked at that very hospital or that I had been at the scene of the plane crash, but I asked tat doctor when he said they were going to send him to a burn center “WHY?” and he said “Well, it is the bEST burn center in the country” and I again said WHY????!!!! He had no other answer. I finally told him that I was an RNP and that I had been at the crash and that I wanted NO “heroic” actions taken to prolong my husband’s death and that he wouldn’t have either.

Actually, my husband was totally alert and oriented (and THANK GOD in NO pain) and we had our time to say goodbye, but for SO long I was SO ANGRY at that physician because he did not have the guts or mercy to ave told me the truth…now, if I had NOT been a medical professional I would have spent the last remaining hours of my husband’s life driving frantically to the hospital in Memphis with HOPE IN MY HEART….when there WAS no hope.

Unfortunately, psychological “no hopes” are much more difficult to determine than physical “no hopes” but the fact is there are those people who WILL NEVER GET BETTER….will never be functional, will never be not dangerous…my son Patrick is one of those. I can see now, in retrospect—20/20 vision of the past—that there was no hope for him by the time he was 15, maybe earlier. NOTHING could have been done to have “saved” him or turned him in another direction.

I too worked with the kind of kids you describe (inpatient) and looking back in my mind’s eye at some of those kids, I can see that there were some of those too for whom there was NO hope.

It is sad…it hurts those close to those kids, and their future victims as well….and not all psychopaths end up in prison, some end up in the governor’s offices, senate seats, or dictators of small countries.

I remember thinking hmm… I didn’t like the way he talks to me. But, I didn’t look at it hard enough. I didn’t take a step back and take time away to think about it. I had already made up my mind that I like him and wanted to work it out. But, work it out? in the first several dates? When he is supposed to be impressing me? and I’m focusing on having a talk with him and try to reason with him? What is wrong with me?

Of course he ditched and dodged me until he wanted my attention again. By that time my idea of talking was over. I was doing the dance.

Unbelievable, the guy who walks on garbage in his trashed house, and he stores pee bottles by his couch. And he got me doing the dance.

What the hell was wrong with me???

You gotta remember this is the same guy who is articulate and fooled the judge.

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