Asking yourself difficult questions about your behavior can show self-awareness and empathy. Reaching out for help may support your journey to positive change.

Like most people, you’ve probably done some things you consider good, some you consider bad, and plenty of things that are somewhere in the middle.

Maybe you cheated on your partner, stole money from a friend, or smacked your child in a moment of anger. Afterward, you felt unhappy with yourself and resolved never to do it again.

You may still wonder what that behavior says about you as a person, resulting in distress and uncomfortable feelings.

Keep in mind that asking yourself, Am I a bad person? isn’t unusual. Simply considering this question shows you have some measure of self-awareness and empathy.

If you try to avoid causing harm, that’s a good sign. If you can acknowledge you have some room for improvement — and who doesn’t? — you’re taking a promising first step toward positive change.

If you need help now

If you’re considering suicide or have thoughts of harming yourself, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-HELP (4357).

The 24/7 hotline will connect you with mental health resources in your area. Trained specialists can also help you find your state’s resources for treatment if you don’t have health insurance.

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This is a complex question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Most people would agree that being “good” relates to moral behavior, and an important part of this is being fair to others.

But both “fair” and “bad” can be subjective and hard to define.

Dr. Maury Joseph, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., points out the importance of considering the context of bad behavior.

“If a person makes the only choice available to them, based on their developmental history, the prejudices of the country in which they were born, and their current environment, does that make them bad?”

When it comes to defining “bad”, culture and history also play a role. What is “bad” to one person might not be bad to another. It might be acceptable or even good, depending on the influences around them. Even the concept of “good” and “evil” being polar opposites is culturally dependent and liable to change over time.

For many of us, a lack of empathy and effacement of the other are signs of unacceptable behavior, but even these can result not from personal choice but from circumstances beyond the individual’s control.

In a nutshell, everyone has a backstory that provides important context for their behaviors. What might be considered bad behavior for one person might seem more reasonable for someone from a different background.

The dark factor of personality

In a 2018 research paper and website, three psychologists suggest that what they call “D,” or the dark factor of personality, lies at the root of unethical or cruel behavior.

D-factor traits include narcissism and psychopathy, along with:

  • sadism
  • spitefulness
  • self-interest
  • entitlement
  • moral disengagement
  • egoism

All of these traits suggest that someone will pursue their own interests at the expense of others.

Maybe you’ve noticed some D-factor traits in your behavior. Regardless, the following questions can help you examine your behavior and identify areas that could use some work.

Many of the choices you make affect people besides yourself. Before you do something, especially if you have doubts about whether it’s the right thing to do, it’s wise to stop and consider whether your action might hurt someone else.

Passing on a workplace rumor to your boss could make you look good, but it certainly won’t help your coworker — especially if the rumor isn’t true.

If the potential impact doesn’t matter much to you as long as you benefit, or you have a hard time considering consequences for others, that may be worth exploring.

In your daily life, do you take time to consider the emotions of people around you? Showing interest in the well-being of others is an important part of maintaining interpersonal relationships.

Maybe you feel guilty because you don’t have a lot of time or energy to help out. But it doesn’t take much to demonstrate that you care. It’s often enough just to offer emotional support or a listening ear.

It may help to talk to a therapist if you feel indifferent, or if you believe others deserve the distress they experience.

You might do things others consider bad out of necessity. For example, many people lie, cheat, or steal on occasion. They may feel bad about doing it, but they may also feel it’s the only option available. Reasons don’t always justify theft or other crimes, but they can help put them into context.

Maybe you stole because you couldn’t pay for something you needed. Or you lied to protect a loved one’s feelings or keep them out of trouble. Sure, these probably aren’t the best moves. But if you have an underlying motive of protecting someone you care about, you’re acting to cause the least harm.

Here are some other reasons a person might do something that is unacceptable for many people:

  • They have a mental health issue that affects their judgment.
  • They have an addiction that affects their priorities.
  • Previous experience, such as abuse during childhood, impacts their ability to behave otherwise.
  • Their upbringing or culture has not taught them that certain behaviors are inappropriate in certain contexts.
  • Pressure — for example, time pressure at work or peer pressure — leads to mistakes.

Morality is relative and depends largely on the context in which a person grows up and lives. People often feel “righteous anger” when their moral code is breached, for example, regarding individual rights. A person whose social and moral code champions the wellbeing of the community over the individual might feel differently.

If, on the other hand, you do unethical or unkind things in order to hurt others, or for no reason at all, it might be worth reaching out for help.

When others help you or show kindness, do you thank them and show your appreciation, possibly by doing something kind for them in return?

Or do you accept these gestures as something you deserve, something you’re entitled to?

How do you feel when others ask for your help? Do you try to help them get what they need, or do you brush off their requests without making any effort to offer support?

If you take without giving anything in return, and don’t feel at all bothered by that, a therapist can help you take a closer look at why.

The people we’re closest to can sometimes bring out unkindness in us, according to Joseph. “We lash out, we’re nasty, we push them away, we say hurtful things.”

Maybe you tend to say mean things in arguments or put down friends when you feel down.

Most people would certainly consider this bad behavior. But how do you handle the aftermath? Do you apologize, try to make amends, or resolve to communicate better in the future?

You might feel terrible, but regret and remorse can help pave the way toward improvement.

Maybe you don’t care who you hurt. Or perhaps you believe your partner deserves harsh words or other mistreatment because they treated you badly. These are signs you might want to look at your behavior more closely.

Good self-care involves making sure you can get your own needs met. There’s nothing wrong with being a little self-centered on occasion. You shouldn’t feel bad or guilty about not being able to help other people when you’re tending to your own needs.

If you only think about yourself when your life involves other people, such as a partner or children, those other people may face pain or distress as a result.

Children can’t meet a lot of their own needs, so parents generally have to find a way to take care of their emotional and physical needs. This can be tough if you’re dealing with illness or mental health concerns, but a therapist can offer guidance and support.

Professional support can also help if you feel like you don’t really care about anyone else.

You’ve done some introspection and asked yourself some hard questions. Maybe you realize that there are some aspects of yourself that could use improvement.

Everyone is capable of change. If you’ve tried and failed to change, you might feel like there’s no point in trying again. It might seem easier to just stay as you are.

Simply choosing not to do bad things can push you in the right direction. Committing to telling fewer lies, for example, is a significant step.

Here are a few other pointers to help you move forward.

Consider the consequences

Instead of acting on impulse when you want something, ask yourself if your behavior might have a negative impact on anyone. Simply taking a moment to think about this can help you remember that your actions don’t just affect you.

It’s not always possible to avoid hurting everyone. If you proceed with caution and compassion, you can avoid causing unnecessary pain. Thinking things over can also help you find a solution that’s better for all involved.

Practice self-acceptance

It can help to remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes. You may have hurt people, but you aren’t the only one who’s ever done so. What’s most important is learning and growing from the past in order to avoid hurting people in the future.

Even if you’ve done some things that aren’t great, you’re still worthy of love and forgiveness. You may have a hard time accepting this from others until you can grant it to yourself.

Identify your values and live accordingly

Having clearly defined values can help you live a more fulfilling life.

Ask yourself what matters most to you. Honesty, trust, kindness, communication, integrity, and accountability are a few potential examples.

Then, identify changes you can make to help you live out these values, such as:

  • always telling the truth
  • honoring your commitments
  • telling people when something’s bothering you

Talk to a therapist

If you find yourself spending a lot of time wondering about what kind of person you are, therapy can be a big help. Plus, there may be an underlying issue, such as depression, stress, or another mental health concern, that affects your mood and interactions with others.

Therapy is also a safe place to learn more about what drives your behavior and get guidance on more productive ways of getting your needs met. A compassionate, ethical therapist will offer support without passing judgment.

“People with complex, interpersonal problems might put up a façade that prevents people from getting more than a superficial glimpse of them. They seem nasty, guiltless, without remorse. But that may not be the full story,” Joseph says.

Therapy can help people make changes in their behavior, he explains, by allowing them to develop “a deeper understanding of others’ emotions, to see them not as commodities, but more complex.”

Your ability to consider your actions and wonder about their impact suggests you’re probably a better person than you think you are. Even if you’ve done bad things or have some D traits, you’re still capable of change.

The choices you make in life help determine who you are, and you can always choose to do better.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.