The Reason for Evil

Gwen Adshead begins her recent book, The Dev­il You Know: Sto­ries of Human Cru­el­ty and Com­pas­sion, with an epi­graph from Carl Jung: “The rea­son for evil in the world is that peo­ple are not able to tell their sto­ries.” As a foren­sic psy­chol­o­gist and psy­chother­a­pist she’s heard some unimag­in­able ones — from decades of lis­ten­ing to peo­ple in pris­ons and secure hos­pi­tals. Her clients have been mur­der­ers and child abusers, arson­ists and the men­tal­ly ill con­vict­ed of vio­lent crimes. And indeed her sen­si­tive recount­ing of how she lis­tens to peo­ple who are oth­er­wise cat­e­go­rized as psy­chot­ic is noth­ing less than absorbing­ly beau­ti­ful, if some­times also fright­en­ing or sad. “The work we do,” she tells us about her­self at the book’s begin­ning, “requires peo­ple to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for their life sto­ry, which can be a dif­fi­cult and lengthy process.”

What does this have to do with lead­ing and lead­er­ship? You might well ask that ques­tion and if you are ask­ing it I rec­om­mend you read the eleven sto­ries of clients she presents. I think you will find your own answers in the way she dis­cov­ers and mir­rors the human­i­ty of each per­son back to them. I think you will also find it in the notion that psy­chosis is relat­ed to the inabil­i­ty of her clients to sus­tain their own intol­er­a­ble emo­tions, whether feel­ings of loss or humil­i­a­tion, self-dis­ap­point­ment or fears from trau­mat­ic and ter­ror­iz­ing expe­ri­ences of the past. I per­son­al­ly came away under­stand­ing much more about the dif­fi­cul­ties any of us face in own­ing our own stories.


For sure, I was remind­ed of clients and col­leagues who have trou­ble telling their sto­ries and tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for their rela­tion­ships. They are def­i­nite­ly not psy­chot­ic, just some­how trou­bled or in trou­ble, peo­ple who may strug­gle with mak­ing emo­tion­al con­nec­tions with oth­ers. That dis­tance may be cov­ered up through any num­ber of clas­sic defen­sives and deflec­tions but always leaves the feel­ing that the true per­son is hid­den in some way or too dif­fi­cult or too com­plex to real­ly know. We are not let in past a cer­tain point. My mind goes back to an exec­u­tive man­ag­ing a bil­lion dol­lar project through a maze of high-lev­el reports. He’d learned to oper­ate in high­ly polit­i­cal envi­ron­ments but the cost to his clos­est work rela­tion­ships was high. Col­leagues described him as a “locked door” that nev­er opened and so the man­age­r­i­al rela­tion­ships he depend­ed on nev­er gained much inter­per­son­al depth. One day at a staff meet­ing he announced flat­ly, “I under­stand some of you have a hard time read­ing me” and after a pause con­tin­ued, “and the rest of you don’t know me at all.” After anoth­er few sec­onds, peo­ple broke into laugh­ter. He was, after all, mak­ing a joke.

But that is a minor exam­ple. More seri­ous­ly, I recall a time when I hap­pened to attend a work­shop with a col­league, some­one very accom­plished in her trade and some­one I had worked with close­ly. As par­tic­i­pants, there came a point in the work­shop where trios of peo­ple had a chance to dis­close to one anoth­er some of their inse­cu­ri­ties about them­selves and their lead­er­ship. When it was her turn to speak my col­league was silent. “I have noth­ing to add,” she said, with a clipped tone of voice that marked a firm­ly placed bound­ary. “I don’t have that kind of expe­ri­ence.” I and anoth­er par­tic­i­pant in this trio were sur­prised, asked sym­pa­thet­ic ques­tions, and got exact­ly nowhere. There was no fur­ther option to share much of any­thing at all, no “I made a mis­take once…” or “This is where I have doubts…” or “I hurt because of this…” We were just done.

I recall the impact of that guard­ed moment and it was con­fus­ing, as if com­mon ground and a tak­en-for-grant­ed sense of con­nec­tion had all but evap­o­rat­ed. An awk­ward silence fol­lowed, as you can imagine. 

I’ll bet you’ve expe­ri­enced some­thing like this some­time in your life; this process of anoth­er per­son shut­ting down and shut­ting out oth­ers. In that par­tic­u­lar moment, it felt like some­thing sharp had sud­den­ly been unsheathed with the clear mes­sage: “Oh no you won’t. You can’t make me be vul­ner­a­ble. I won’t let you.”

And right there, it was as if the per­son were act­ing out a lit­tle play called, “I will hurt you if you put me in that cor­ner.” If I learned one thing from Gwen Adshead­’s book it is that there are rea­sons behind this, human rea­sons that have to do with those “intol­er­a­ble emotions.” 

There are cer­tain­ly cir­cum­stances where a per­son, any of us, can feel invad­ed and unsafe for any num­ber of rea­sons and it’s entire­ly fair (and wise) to set bound­aries. But in the case of my col­league at the work­shop — and this is why I’ve nev­er for­got­ten this inci­dent — the force of the bound­ary set­ting also had a sense of supe­ri­or­i­ty and dom­i­nance to it. It seemed whol­ly unlike her, incon­sis­tent with the fine human rela­tions work she did, as if the con­text and the intent of the shar­ing were an abom­i­na­tion, a vio­la­tion of her stature or some kind of pow­er-play. All that seemed out of place and some­how wrong, as if there were more, maybe a lot more to that secret cham­ber — and she had been trig­gered. I accept that my reac­tions could reflect some of my own pro­jec­tions, but not alto­geth­er. I know this: it changed for­ev­er the rela­tion­ship we had.

It’s worth think­ing about these expe­ri­ences for our­selves. What secret cham­bers and locked doors are there in us? And from the per­spec­tive of reflec­tive lead­er­ship, it begs a pos­si­ble inquiry for any leader: What are those more dif­fi­cult or intol­er­a­ble emo­tions for me? What do I do to pro­tect myself from feel­ing them and what’s the result­ing impact on oth­ers? Some­one who has a psy­chot­ic break may act out in phys­i­cal­ly vio­lent and destruc­tive ways; the rest of us may enact a far more sub­tle ver­sion of the same thing.

In some ways this is the sim­plest of all emo­tion­al dynam­ics. We strike out to pre­vent an expe­ri­ence we can­not han­dle. It makes me think back to all those times when I did­n’t want to feel wrong or igno­rant or exposed in any way and then what I did to pre­vent myself in the moment from drown­ing social­ly or oth­er­wise feel­ing hurt. That’s where the dev­il I don’t know lives; the sto­ry of my life I can’t or won’t tell yet.

It is often said that lead­ers should be vul­ner­a­ble; that their strength is in their open­ness. In our self-delud­ed way we may believe we are already too vul­ner­a­ble or, from anoth­er per­spec­tive, that we’ve already mas­tered the skill. Either way I hear Adshead respond­ing as she often does in her book by quot­ing Shake­speare. There, on page 2, she para­phras­es “the beau­ti­ful words of Lear’s daugh­ter, ‘We ever but slen­der­ly know ourselves.’ ”



  • I used to be an expert in defen­sive­ness and deflect­ing. Fear­ful of my shad­ow self.

    Many years ago I joined a spir­i­tu­al group…based on East­ern tra­di­tions and West­ern prin­ci­ples of psy­cho­dy­nam­ics. It was­n’t until three (extreme­ly chal­leng­ing, fright­en­ing, and very uncom­fort­able-men­tal, phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, spir­i­tu­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal) years of fak­ing it and being a fraud) that I was able to let down my guard, take respon­si­ble for my past and present and share the mess­es I made in my past. It was like I was sit­ting next to my for­mer self ‑real­ly, my child self-fright­ened, scared, embar­rassed…- with my arm around that lit­tle boy that I was able to set myself free. 

    My own inter­pre­ta­tion of ““The rea­son for evil in the world is that peo­ple are not able to tell their sto­ries,” is (I used to believe) no one ever made me feel safe enough to do so. That’s par­tial­ly true and the oth­er half is I became addict­ed to, and an expert at, telling my stores…but nev­er was inter­est­ed in or curi­ous about the root caus­es of my dys­func­tions. Bet­ter late than never.

    My work as a coach, man­ag­er, and leader has vast­ly improved as a result of my becom­ing com­fort­able in my own skin…

  • Peter, this is a very pow­er­ful sto­ry. I think you would like Gwen Adshead­’s book and find unex­pect­ed res­o­nances. At one point she describes the grad­ual process she and her col­leagues observed as peo­ple took own­er­ship of their stories:

    Refer­ring to their vio­lent acts, the sequence might be:

    I don’t know what you are talk­ing about.”
    “It was­n’t me.”
    “It was me, but I was men­tal­ly ill at the time.”
    “I did it when I was men­tal­ly ill.”
    “I did it.”

    The doc­tors referred to this sequence as the “scala inte­gra­ta,” a path­way of com­ing to terms with one’s actions. The author notes that every men­tal foot­step is painful and some­times all a ther­a­pist can do is be a com­pan­ion on a jour­ney along the “via dolorosa.”

    Thank you so much for shar­ing a lit­tle of your own jour­ney here!

    All the best, Dan

  • A fab­u­lous post. I had to read it twice, a week apart, and sit with it for a while before responding.

    I love the phrase intol­er­a­ble emo­tions .. though I cer­tain­ly don’t love expe­ri­enc­ing them. In my expe­ri­ence, there is no way to sup­press these emo­tions over the long haul. They will even­tu­al­ly be expressed in one way or anoth­er .. and pos­si­bly many ways .. most­ly destructive.

    While some peo­ple may chan­nel these emo­tions out­ward­ly — such as the peo­ple in Gwen Adshead­’s book — oth­ers chan­nel them inward­ly, often wreak­ing hav­oc on their bod­ies, as doc­u­ment­ed by Bessel van der Kolk (among oth­ers) in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Heal­ing of Trau­ma.

    Among the many relat­ed insights that came to mind while read­ing this post, I was remind­ed of a few slo­gans I first encoun­tered in 12-step pro­grams, such as “We’re only as sick as our secrets” and “Hurt peo­ple hurt peo­ple”. One of the many ben­e­fits of par­tic­i­pat­ing in such pro­grams is the safe con­tain­ers pro­vid­ed by [some] meet­ings in which par­tic­i­pants can be hon­est and vul­ner­a­ble in express­ing intol­er­a­ble emo­tions with­out fear of judg­ment. And, of course, good coach­es and ther­a­pists can also pro­vide safe con­tain­ers for access­ing and chan­nel­ing intol­er­a­ble emotions.

    I will end with one of my favorite quotes about empa­thy and com­pas­sion, by Hen­ry Wordsworth Longfellow: 

    If we could read the secret his­to­ry of our ene­mies, we should find in each man’s life sor­row and suf­fer­ing enough to dis­arm all hostility. 

    Thanks, as always, for shar­ing your valu­able insights and experiences!

  • Joe~

    Thank you so much for these insight­ful reflec­tions, espe­cial­ly your obser­va­tions that intol­er­a­ble emo­tions will find their means of expres­sion, as much inward­ly as exter­nal­ly in the world. I total­ly agree. 

    One of things in Adshead­’s sto­ries that I find most remark­able is the incred­i­ble lev­el of patience it takes to cre­ate the lev­el of safe­ty need­ed for full dis­clo­sure and own­er­ship. In one of her client accounts, for exam­ple, it takes lit­er­al­ly years of lis­ten­ing before the client was able to remove a hat he had con­stant­ly pulled down over his head, a hat that cov­ered the white scars on his head he could­n’t endure oth­ers seeing. 

    Indeed, and what hat am I wear­ing still? 

    All the best to you, Joe!


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