I Am the Monster You Should Be Afraid Of

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Monster Check by Adrian Sommeling
(Artwork by Adrian Sommeling)

How far back can you remember?

I’m pretty sure I can remember moments when I was 3. We must have thought and felt things before our earliest memories. I can only guess that the things I thought and felt as a baby are consistent with what I remember through most of childhood.

Unless you value money above all else, I had it sickeningly good.

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, a child will die because there’s no sanitary drinking water in his family’s village, another will be physically abused or abandoned by her father and/or mother, and another still will become a pariah within his family, social circle or community because of appearance or handicaps or interests or beliefs. It’s unspeakably tragic.

But me? I was immersed fully in constant affirmations of love, had all of my basic needs met, had most of my wants catered to (within the context of our financial resources), and experienced nothing in the realm of abuse, neglect or rejection by family or friends.

“You’re such a good boy, Matt!”

“You’re so smart, Matt!”

“You’re so handsome, Matt!”

“You’re so polite, Matt!”

“You’re so funny, Matt!”

“You’re so nice, Matt!”

“You’re so SPECIAL, Matt!”

Not the sarcastic “special,” either. They meant it. Parents. Grandparents. Aunts and Uncles. Parents of friends. Teachers. Coaches.

I’ve had embarrassing amounts of nice things said about me.

It’s a nice way to grow up. You’re never afraid to meet strangers. You’re never afraid people won’t like you. You’re never afraid of failure.

Because you’ve never heard, experienced or even CONCEIVED of a situation in which people didn’t like and accept you, or where you failed to succeed at whatever you set out to do. From your earliest memories, everything about you is “good.” When everything about you is good, you don’t have to work at anything. There’s nothing to improve because everything’s good as it is.

Suggestions from someone to the contrary makes them “weird,” or “wrong.” How many people think YOU’RE the nicest, smartest, most-special person in the world?! Hmmmmm?!, you think to yourself without saying it out loud. Because that wouldn’t be “polite.” And polite = good. Just like me.

When the world sees a happy, polite, nice, smart, funny person, no one raises any red flags or sounds the alarms. In a world with people who rape and murder on purpose, no one’s going to center any public-awareness campaigns around protecting society from people fitting my description.

Violent crime is scary. But in the United States you have less than a 2% chance of being a victim of one in your lifetime, and that’s including a punch to the face.

The vast majority of human suffering stems not from violent acts, but from the trauma endured from the emotional and psychological damage inflicted in our human relationships.

So, philosophical question: What’s a more frightening proposition—the easy-to-spot emotionally abusive and neglectful person you should obviously steer clear from, or the happy, polite, nice, smart, funny person you never see coming?

And this last part is important: The emotionally abusive, happy, polite, nice, smart, funny person isn’t using deceptive subterfuge to trick anyone. The ability and/or tendency to neglect and abuse isn’t part of some clandestine conspiracy.

Because even they themselves can’t see behind the cloak.

A monster.

A terrifying one. Not because you’re afraid, but because you’re NOT afraid.

A dangerous one. Not because they’re intent on destruction, but because they don’t know what they are.

Undetected Monsters Don’t Just Sleep in Our Beds, But Stare Back in Our Mirrors

Remember when little I-see-dead-people Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense” said that the ghosts he saw didn’t know they were dead? Same thing.

Sometimes, we are monsters. Dangerous ones who WILL destroy things, including ourselves, and the scariest part about it is that it’s NOT scary.

Non-imaginary creature definitions for the word “monster” include:

  • a powerful person or thing that cannot be controlled and that causes many problems.
  • one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character.
  • a threatening force.

I was, and likely remain, dangerous because I’m conditioned to assume that my good, polite and intelligent (arguably) thoughts, intentions and actions are completely benign. That something I do or say is harmless. And if someone suggests that something I do or say isn’t that, then the instinct is to assume they’re getting something wrong.

I fundamentally changed the course of several people’s lives just by waking up every day and doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, or at the very least, making normal, reasonable choices.

The expectation was for my girlfriend/fiancée/wife to think of me and treat me the same as all of my family and friends did from every second I could remember, until whatever present-day moment I was ever in with her.

When she didn’t, she was being unfair, or she was being crazy, or she was just being WRONG.

On matters big and small, she seemed so wrong because of her failure to see how nice and smart and polite and thoughtful and correct and GOOD I was.

It seemed totally insane to hear her say things like: “How could you be so mean to me?” or “If you really love me, why can’t you act like it?”

The Good Guys vs. The Bad Guys

I’ve been a sports fan for as long as I’ve known what sports were.

Football, basketball, baseball and others. My Cleveland Indians are getting ready to face the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

Almost no one outside of Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals fans dislike the Cubs. They’re the quintessential Lovable Losers. The Indians are too, but the Cubs sort of out-pathetic them in an Ultimate Baseball Sadness competition.

Because my dad’s side of the family is Illinois-based, most people I know and love there are Chicago sports fans. And because I grew up with my mom in Ohio, and live here today, I and most of my friends are Cleveland sports fans.

For the first time in 37 ½ years of life, I am forced to actively root against the team my dad and hundreds of people I know and love are rooting for. The Cubs, who I have ALWAYS also rooted for because there’s never been a conflict, are now the enemy.

The Cubs (it hurts to type) are the bad guys.

I realized as I was going through this thought exercise that the Indians—my lovable-loser, underdog Indians—are ALSO the bad guys. They’re the good guys to me and my Ohio friends. But they’re the bad guys to the legion of fans in Chicago who have been dying for a Cubs championship their entire lives.

Every time something good happens to the Indians and I feel happy, a bunch of other people will feel sad.

If we win a game, we’ll celebrate while Cubs fans will hurt.

And vice versa.

The heroes in our World Series stories are different, depending on who we are and how we feel.

The good guys and the bad guys are different, depending on your individual circumstances and opinions.

Who is right? Who are the good guys?

It’s always been hard for me to imagine the people rooting for the other team to be rooting for the good guys. I’ve never had much sympathy for them.

But this really drove the point home for me. A bunch of very good people. Amazing people. People I love. Craving desperately a result that will make me and a bunch of my friends feel shitty. And me wanting the opposite even though it will adversely affect people I love.

Yet another example of the two perspectives, and how two people can look at the same thing and describe it differently. How two people can disagree with neither being wrong.

The lovable losers have become the monsters.

Monsters who don’t think they’re bad guys.

They look in the mirror and can’t see the monster underneath all the good guyness.

Maybe just like you.

Certainly just like me.

14 thoughts on “I Am the Monster You Should Be Afraid Of”

  1. Hmm, well said, Matt.

    I don’t think you’re a monster at all. Just the same, I really avoided guys like you and I still do, I give them wide birth. Not trying to be impolite here, it’s just that the guys who never believed they were good, the ones who know they are monsters, are a lot easier to deal with, you can see them coming, you know what their flaws are. The good guys are just crazy making.

    So, those red pills, the ones who sometimes annoy you in your own comments section, they tend to all think they’re good. They cannot see themselves as they really are. Some were raised well, but still others come from a lot of abuse. It’s interesting, both ways of growing up make it hard for us to see ourselves as we really are.

  2. Matt, I take issue with a couple points you make here.
    One, (and I’ve thought about mentioning this to you few times before) presenting your bad behavior, ignorance, and possible emotional neglect as emotional abuse is almost insulting to actual emotional abuse. I know you’re not joking when you say you feel like you were emotionally abusive in your marriage and that you don’t do so lightly, but it’s kind of like when a certain frequent commenter on your blog accused another commenter of being capable of rape. It detracts from and undermines the severity and the atrocity of rape. Saying that you were emotionally abusive towards your wife is like calling a fight between elementary school kids on the playground assault. I’m not saying any of this in an “Oh, Matt, you’re such a good guy. No way were YOU emotionally abusive.” Not at all. That’s not my style. Nor am I trying to minimize the problems you perpetuated in your marriage with your over inflated sense of being The Good Guy. Your behavior was bad, hurtful, and not acceptable but that’s just not the same as emotional abuse. It’s probably within normal limits. It’s typical People Effing Up stuff, not abuse.

    Two, there are very, very few “easy-to-spot emotionally abusive and neglectful person you should obviously steer clear from”.
    The vast majority, if not ALL, emotionally abusive people present as nice, good, decent, even kind people. They draw you, in slowly and thoroughly, before revealing the monsters that they truly are. This revelation isn’t a quick pulling off of a mask, it’s slow and subtle so that you don’t really see how crazy and damaging their behavior is until you are out of the situation. It’s done in a way that distorts your own sense of self and reality so that all along you question if, in fact, you aren’t the monster. You start to believe that maybe you are. You probably are.

    Emotionally abusive people are almost never blatant or easy to spot. They’ve spent years, probably their entire lives, learning the art of manipulating people whether they are aware that’s what they’re doing or not. They likely grew up in an environment where treating people as things that need to be controlled and proven inferior so that they themselves can have worth is the norm. That’s just how life is to them. And because of that many emotionally abusive people don’t have the capacity or self awareness to acknowledge that they are abusive, because of that they can’t or don’t change. Ever. They just conquer, destroy, and move on not seeing this as problematic. Maybe the ability to reflect upon and modify behavior and treatment of people is a defining factor of emotional abuse. One of the major problems with emotional abuse though is that its parameters are so difficult to pin down. It’s like pornography, hard to define but you (probably) know it when you see it.

    Yes, everyone is someone’s bad guy. But not every bad guy is a monster.

    1. Super-fair criticism and commentary.

      I probably didn’t write this very well. My point here was NOT self-flagellation.

      My intention was to demonstrate that the biggest threats to ourselves and loved ones are the accidentally damaging things we do that we don’t identify — or worse, deny — are damaging.

      I think you make super-important points about abuse, and my cavalier use of the word. I promise to spend some time thinking about that and perhaps rethink my word choices.

      Thank you for taking the time to respond thoughtfully.

      *tips cap*

      1. I didn’t see this as self-flagellation at all and I thought your overall point and this post as a whole were both well done and valid. The, as you put it, cavalier use of the emotional abuse label and the idea that there are easy to spot emotional abusers were really the only things I took issue with.

        Everyone really is somebody’s bad guy and it’s important to try to view your self and your behavior through a different prism. Definitely worth thinking about.

    2. “The vast majority, if not ALL, emotionally abusive people present as nice, good, decent, even kind people. They draw you, in slowly and thoroughly, before revealing the monsters that they truly are. This revelation isn’t a quick pulling off of a mask, it’s slow and subtle so that you don’t really see how crazy and damaging their behavior is until you are out of the situation. It’s done in a way that distorts your own sense of self and reality so that all along you question if, in fact, you aren’t the monster. You start to believe that maybe you are. You probably are.”

      This has been my experience and since my first experience of it was ats a child from a parent it feels more “normal” to me than, well, whatever is really normal. So I participate in the distortion – even seek out (unconsciously) people who will treat me that way. I’ve kind of decided I’m not healthy enough for relationships for now. Not sure when I might be – but it will probably take a long time.

      1. I’m in a similar place. I’ve tried dating a little since my divorce and it was…interesting. A bit like walking in a mine field. And that was just with casual dating, I haven’t even come close to attempting to find or maintain an actual relationship. Just the thought makes me sweat.How do you foster a healthy relationship dynamic when you really don’t know what that looks like from the inside? How do you pick the right people to invest in when you don’t know what the right kind of person is? That’s a big one for me. I picked my ex. I chose to marry him. What ever confidence in my ability to assess people, my gut instinct, that survived my ten plus year marriage evaporates when I think about that.
        I’m not sure how this “healthy enough for relationships” comes about. Time? Maybe. I’m guessing a lot. And some hard work relearning what is acceptable treatment and what is not. If you get it figured out you’ll have to let me know. Good luck.

        1. Tina’s experience was mine as well. As far as being healthy enough for a relationship, until about a year ago I would have called it “dumb luck.” Now I just have come to realize I’m broken.

          And Matt, I think I’d call the “obviously emotionally abusive” person a bully…

  3. This was very thought provoking. My husband is considered the “good guy” – his family always gushes about how good of a guy he is, how considerate, how nice, etc. etc. His mom always says what a good little boy he was. It is the behavior behind closed doors that make him the bad guy and he cannot stand that I could possibly question his “good guyness” It makes me a critical b*^ch because I don’t fall in line with the general opinion he portrays to the outside world. Little does that world now how he barely provides any love and affection for his wife and kids, how he does nothing to take care of day to day things (unless of course someone is coming over because then he has to live up to his “good guy, I do the dishes and clean the house and cook too! image”), and the hateful comments I receive if I bother to state my opinion. I’m not allowed to question his work, his time away from his kids, etc. because everyone always tells him “you work so hard to take care of your family – you are such a good guy.” I’m over it.

  4. I am really enjoying your blog. Thanks Matt. Just in relation to the previous message, whilst I agree an emotional abusive person can be hard to spot and have manipulative traits, emotional abuse can also happen from someone who is simply unaware of themselves, their traumas and their impact. My ex was emotionally abusive but also a great many other things as well and it took our break up for him to really see the impact of some hidden and damaging behaviours he was unwilling to look at during our marriage. He, like you is now doing his inner work to face and understand himself and to live with more integrity. I am curious and sorry if you have already written about this but how does your ex feel about your blog? Has your writing and self exploration assisted with repair work and co parenting? Cheers.

    1. “…emotional abuse can also happen from someone who is simply unaware of themselves, their traumas and their impact.”

      Exactly what I was coming here to say. The impact of the abuse is the same, whether the abuser is doing it consciously or not.

  5. There’s no monster here, only a young man lacking perspective, unaware of the value of introspection and very emotionally attached to the “echo chamber” that is his family, home town, and the gendered (socially constructed) reality he lives with every day.

    “In news media, an echo chamber is a metaphorical description in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an ENCLOSED system where different or competing views are censored, disallowed OR OTHERWISE UNDERREPRESENTED.” (wikipedia)

    To me, it is this insular type of life that is the major culprit in our inability to LISTEN to or empathize with others. Few of us — as young people struggling to construct our own “realities”– react well to criticism that comes from those who live outside our chosen “feedback loop” i.e. echo chamber. If there are only positive voices in the echo-chamber, there is little incentive to question them — AGE, perhaps living in an entirely different culture and GRACE in the form of life challenges may help the young man mature into a fully-functioning, empathetic and generous human being.

    I don’t think there is any way to protect ourselves – in advance — from the behavior of the “monster”. We are constrained by the stereotypes that tell us what who “real” men and women are.

  6. Matt, your initial question inspired an entire article, which I added to the (digital) stack I’ve compiled but haven’t worked up the nerve to send to editors. Even though the question of how far back I remember wasn’t really the point of this post, it’s the question I want to answer, for several reasons (which you’ll see if you read this comment).

    I have a sister 22 months older than I, and a brother 22 months younger. Mom & Dad were light years ahead of all the encouragement to parents to talk, read, sing & all that because they began doing it with my sister in 1956. I believe I benefitted from that before birth, and certainly after. Mom had this great plan for four kids, two years apart. The first bump in that road was my arrival two months early. She didn’t expect a preemie to develop as quickly as my full term sister, and she CERTAINLY was unprepared for an infant who seemed to be determined, from the moment she took me home, to catch up with her sister and if possible, surpass her. Mom told me that when I first sat up, she shoved me back down in the hope that I’d forget how I did it. That sounds kinda mean, unless you were acquainted with my sister and me. Before my sister hit her 2nd birthday, Mom was pregnant with our brother.

    My sister sister has some accurate memories of the first house we lived in, and the dachshund who had to be re-homed if my parents were going to keep ME. I know that my not-quite two-year-old sister had a different opinion about who should stay and who should go. (And has never let me up on that.) My memories of that house are vague and non-verbal. We moved into the house where I grew up when I was a year old (and my dad stayed in that house until his death four years ago).

    I read in a college text for non-psych majors that most memories are stored verbally. So for the most part, you can access only those memoires from the time you began to speak. Certain scents, touches and sounds can trigger memories but if you weren’t yet speaking you probably recall the emotions associated with those triggers, rather than an event.

    I was walking, and began speaking words, at nine months. (If mom were here she’d tell you that I have never stopped.) It didn’t take me long to begin speaking in sentences. I recall many incidents before my brother’s birth. One vivid memory is the time my pregnant mom took my sister and me, with an “aunt” and her daughter to the circus. I turned to Mom and said, “Dat’s not a bear, dat’s a man in a bear suit!” And Mom said no, it was a bear which had been taught to ride a bicycle. Since mom only carried my brother to seven months, I had to be between 15 and 17 months old. I also recall multiple attempts by my mom to get me to eat oatmeal. EVERY CHILD in the fifties was fed oatmeal. I detested it and would not eat it. As an adult, I was told I was highly allergic to it, but I knew before I was two that I didn’t like it and wasn’t going to eat it. As I couldn’t escape the high chair, Mom would try to disguise the oatmeal by putting it in a mug, covering it with brown sugar and making a raisin happy face – all to no avail. Imagine your frustration when the fifteen month old kid in the high chair looks into the bowll or mug, crosses her little arms, looks you in the face and says defiantly “NO! That’s oatmeal. I’m not gonna eat it.” You threaten that she won’t get any food until supper and the kid says “OK.”

    My point is: you don’t really know when your kids start to remember. You’re probably not aware of how much they’re taking in – from you, neighbors, the TV. And you’re REALLY not aware of how much some of them understand from the TV news, and that they have very real fears and maybe nightmares because of it. Some parents don’t believe in shielding children from “the real world,” but I would caution this: even if your two year old is speaking full sentences, can generalize knowledge and amaze the neighbors, emotionally she’s still two years old.

    And I think that the things which cause us fear and anxiety are too much for children. Don’t bring the news to the dinner table. You don’t want to findmout twenty years from now that she had nightmares aboiut stuff on the news untik junior high.

  7. Matt,

    I read somewhere that, “…the trouble with men is the fear of the judgments of other men.” I don’t know if that is true — it does seem logical and reasonable to me. The “monster” which that particular FEAR creates is the one that encourages men to LIE, it’s the one that normalizes compartmentalized living, it’s the one that makes inauthentic behavior and living behind a mask acceptable — painful and the price one pays for living as a “real” man.

    That particular fear often makes decision-making feel easier and less traumatic because it reduces options to stereotypes; THAT FEAR ERODES TRUST, it hampers the free expression of individuality, it’s the one that makes men avoid self examination it makes openhearted loving impossible.

    So men who want a different type of life are left to combat the monster usually alone. Young men are especially vulnerable to it’s assaults on their spirit. It’s up to older and wiser men to do whatever is necessary to kill the monster. They must play the part of “dragon slayers.”

    Matt, I think you are trying your best to show the dragon slayers where it hides, it would be fantastic if more men would join you..

  8. I’m thinking Hillary Clinton is the good guy monster we all need to be afraid of; which shows my head is just full of politics right now. Ugh, not a norm for me…

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