In this political climate, there is probably no line that better captures the sense of foreboding that most people are feeling than the title of Carol Travis and Elliott Aronson’s book, Mistakes Were Made: But Not By Me.
Self- justification is the act or fact of justifying oneself especially in terms of offering excessive reasons, explanations, excuses, etc., for an act, thought, or decision.
To listen to any of the presidential hopefuls is to hear rationales for what they did or didn’t do in the past underscored by guarantees of knowing exactly how to handle the challenges of the future. How many of us are wondering if they will take ownership for mistakes they make that could risk the welfare and life of others?
The Necessity of Self-Justification
According to Travis and Aronson, we need a certain degree of self-justification as a means to hold on to our convictions, shore up self-esteem, and avoid endless worry, ruminations or regrets.
- You choose the car for good reasons despite your brother-in-law’s opinion.
- You started your own business to create your own brand because you had some exciting ideas even though your family was worried about earning potential.
- You weighed the options and decided not to follow the invasive medical suggestion.
Justifying our behavior, however, is an almost automatic way of dealing with the dissonance of feeling or fearing that we have made a mistake. It is the reason that most of us have selective attention for what we want to see and what we want to remember. There is, however, a fine balance between self-trust and fear of making a mistake. Sadly, this is a culture that hasn’t quite embraced a growth mindset. In this culture, most of us still associate mistakes with incompetence, poor planning or lack of ability.
The downside of this perspective and the automatic rationales we use to justify even small mistakes is that we cannot benefit from them. Without a growth mindset there are no lessons learned.
- I failed the test because the teacher didn’t give us enough time. She is ridiculous! – It doesn’t sound like a new study plan is going to be set in action.
- Get this-she was nice when we met but she turned cold when I asked her why I couldn’t go back to her apartment. – Hello Romeo!
The Danger of Self-Justification
Self-Justification gets dangerous when it is applied to choices, orders, decisions or behaviors that prove to be or are intended to be harmful to self and others. In such cases, self-justification becomes more dangerous than lying.
To lie is to know that in fact we did something wrong. It implies a self-judgment of culpability for which we are trying to avoid censor and consequences. Lying comes with its own dynamics. The cost of lying is often the loss of trust by those connected to or depending upon us. To admit to a lie, ask forgiveness and change behavior, however, can be a step toward re-setting trust.
“ I lied about having the affair because I was afraid I would lose you.”
Self-Justification is more dangerous because it involves lying to self.
“ I had no choice but to have an affair—you stopped caring about me.”
Self-Justification allows decisions and behaviors that harm or hurt others to be made without culpability because intent and impact is denied. There is no self-reflection that allows lessons learned. At an extreme it legitimizes atrocity as necessity and discrimination as protection. It demands more and more insular thinking such that dissonance is destroyed.
In his book, Eichmann in My Hands, Peter Malkin, who captured Eichmann and spent hours with him before he was sent to Israel to stand trial, tried to share with Eichmann the pain of the personal loss of his nephew in Auschwitz. He was startled when Eichmann looked perplexed and asked “ But he was Jewish, wasn’t he?” ( Gobododo-Madikizela, 2004)
The justification of killing had become seamless. There was no room for doubt. No culpability. The Nazi conscience was so warped, it had become a clear conscience.
How Do We Avoid the Dangerous Use of Self-Justification?
- Keep in mind we are wired to move away from dissonance –from the discomfort of being wrong.
- With that in mind consider you action, decision or behavior from other people’s perspectives.
- Let time be on your side. Wait before you act. Sometimes it is anxiety not motivation that rushes us into unwise decisions that impact self or others.
- Consider the consequences and feedback associated with an action or decision that has not worked well. Most people don’t move away when we own mistakes, they move in with more trust.
- If you are in a relationship, consider what part you bring to the pain as well as the pleasure.
- To hold a partner responsible for everything as a way of justifying your feelings and actions is to believe you are beyond reproach and human error – unlikely for any of us.
- Build your children’s confidence by inviting them to make decisions and learn from mistakes.
- If you become one in thinking with everyone around you without question or doubt–wonder if you are really thinking.
Mistakes are made by all of us. It is what we do about them that matters.