Some of the reason why our lives are harder than they should be is that many of us wander the world with a hugely misleading notion in mind of what a baddie might look like. We imagine those who could most seriously harm us in cartoon terms: they might have a mean face and an angry growl, they might carry a truncheon and wear a dark cape. Their intentions would focus on violence and transparent extortion. They’d be utterly unknown to us and surprise us at night by trying to scale our bedroom wall or smashing the front door in. They’d be a cross between Voldermort, Zorro and Darth Vader.
But it may be time to get a lot more imaginative and rather more realistic about what those who harm us might actually be like. We should learn to distinguish baddies not by their outward identity but by their wholesale effects upon us: a baddie is, in these terms, quite simply anyone who makes us less than we could be, anyone who impedes our growth and diminishes our spirit; anyone who draws us away from our best selves and highest possibilities, anyone who – despite a helpful outward manner – damages our brief lives.
Defined in these broader and less outwardly-specific terms, the status of a baddie might turn out to be entirely compatible with some of the following: having our front door key, knowing us well, being deeply kind to us at many levels, being extremely physically gentle, claiming to love us dearly, sharing our lives intimately, seeming highly logical and sane over a range of issues, being our good friend, our parent and, most terrifyingly and destructively of all, our lover..
How might such people earn the title of ‘baddie’? Not by hitting us over the head or stealing our money, not by badmouthing us in public or betraying our secrets, but by doing some of the following:
– telling us repeatedly how much they love and care about us while quietly failing to listen to our needs or attending to the real issues in our lives.
– asking us to be close to them and give up our attachment to others while not allowing us properly into their hearts: wanting us and yet, when it comes to it, not wanting us.
– being masters of the art of apology and vowing always to change while reliably failing to do so.
– making highly intelligent-sounding and convincing claims to ‘know’ us and using that position of privilege to sell us a range of falsehoods about where our true interests and ambitions might lie.
– controlling us not through anger or force, but through sad eyes and a melancholy expression: using the suggestion that we are hurting them in order to hurt us in turn.
– masterfully denying any awareness of bits of their behaviour that we find problematic. Always using the argument that they love us to throw us off the scent and abuse our credulity – as though the claim of love were simply automatically the same as love itself.
– Using their knowledge of our fragilities and self-doubts as a weapon against us. Implying that we don’t know our own minds, that we are where it matters a little too insane or immature to understand what is good for us.
– continuously delegitimating our doubts, not by hitting us over the head, but by saying in the kindest voice ‘you should learn to trust me more..'
Like a cartoon baddie, real baddies are interested in extracting what they want from us. But they are too deft and complicated ever to allow themselves to be painted in villainous colours. They are our friend, and friends don’t harm those closest to them, do they?
Poignantly, baddies may not even be overly conscious of harbouring dark motives. If we were being very kind to them, we might say: perhaps they’re not bad as such, they’re just afraid of being abandoned. They’re not bad, they just don’t like dissent. They’re not bad, they just had a very difficult time when they were little and want to ensure that they aren’t left high and dry ever again. They don’t set out to destroy people, they are simply not so focused on the independent existence of others. They don’t mean not to listen to you, it’s that certain rooms in their minds are bolted shut. They don’t mean to harm you, it’s that they haven’t fully realised you quite exist as your own autonomous entity. They aren’t bad as such, what they are above anything else is very damaged and very ill in ways they cannot think about and that they will try at all costs to stop you noticing as well – but their effect on us most certainly is bad – and in that sense they may royally deserve the punchy title we’re threatening to accord them.
Interestingly, we’re not all equally poor at spotting baddies. There are backgrounds in which we were taught that if we were not happy in a situation, we didn’t have to worry about causing a problem, we could just politely make our excuses and leave. But others of us were brought up by people who were – in the sense we’ve been examining – something akin to baddies themselves, who sold us an ambitious story about loving us and then didn’t honour it, thereby seriously scrambling our ability to know our minds, recognise our feelings and protect our interests. We may now be adults who can’t tell for a very long time when bad is being done to us, who think it might be a good thing, or that it might become good over time or that it is a punishment we deserve or that a bit of trouble doesn’t really matter, given how little we matter in the end.
We learn the art of spotting baddies by realising that it isn’t anywhere written in the stars that we deserve emotional deprivation or punishment, control or submission. We spot the bad on the basis of a highly unlikely-sounding new skill: trusting that we are, where it counts, likely to be ourselves very much good enough.