Greta has a noticeable obsession with blankets. This fact came to light again during a recent shopping trip to Costco in Omaha. She made a bee-line to the center of the store where there was a large display of various comforters, blankets, and throws. Greta tossed five throws into the large shopping cart I was pushing, then resumed going about the rest of the shopping chore.
A few minutes later Greta asked me to follow her back to the blanket display because she had changed her mind about a couple of them. She removed two of the blankets from the cart and placed them back on the display stack. She then pondered other colors, patterns and styles. While looking at the display, Greta mentioned how her dog needed a new blanket because his old one is pilling. Greta wanted a new one for herself because she always replaces them every couple of years. She also
described how she wraps herself in a throw so she can keep the thermostat lower and save energy costs.
Greta also buys her next-door neighbors new throws each year for Christmas. They politely thank her for the gifts because they’re nice people. A new blanket is Greta’s way of thanking them for making sure her sidewalk is cleared of snow after each storm. (I wonder if they really use all those blankets.)
Altogether, we probably spent 15 or 20 minutes at the blanket display while Greta rationalized about her blanket buying habit. In the end, she only kept three throws. Then she began justifying why she decided to put the two blankets back on the stack. Greta told me she felt sad that we took a 300 mile round trip to Omaha to buy some blankets and we would have to return to Norfolk with only three.
I reminded Greta that the main purposes of the shopping trip were to replenish her dog food supply and for her to purchase groceries in bulk. That said, she continued to justify her selection of the three blankets and her reasons not to buy the other two.
I had to wonder what it says about Greta that she had to endlessly rationalize her decisions about the blankets. Then I remembered that she has the same habit when it comes to her other decisions. What does self-justification say about Greta? What does it say about other people? What about the times I do it?
All of us justify our decisions, beliefs, and attitudes to some extent. If Greta drives a few miles-an-hour over the posted speed limit, she has some sort of “reasonable” excuse for doing so. Her choice of one political candidate over another one is justified by a belief that is justified, in turn, by another rationalization.
If we take the time to ponder why we decide to do what we do, why we have the attitudes we have, why we believe the stuff we believe, why we have our obsessions, and so forth, we might realize we live in houses of cards and consume mental diets of pie in the sky.
We homo sapiens are experts at cloaking reality. We reject opposing criticism and opinions. We cling to our attitudes, choices, and beliefs for dear life. We place a great deal of time and effort into defending our attachments. If we encounter or feel any doubt about any of these things, we retreat into the safe harbor of self-justification.
To some extent, we all have the urge to avoid owning responsibility for actions that might end up being stupid, uncompassionate, harmful or otherwise unskillful. One of the most difficult things to say is, “I was wrong.” The more serious the decision, the greater the difficulty.
The upside of justifying ourselves is that it enables us to go on with life. We can ease the pangs of embarrassment and regret. We believe that self-justification can soothe and ease us so we can sleep at night. The supposed benefits come at great costs. We lose the ability to objectively notice our errors and correct them. Rationalizations distort reality and prevent us from obtaining the true information we need to analyze our issues with a clear head. At its root, self-justification sprouts from cognitive dissonance.
Basically, cognitive dissonance is what we have when we hold to concepts (cognitions) that are mentally inconsistent. For example, Driving fast is stupid because Greta could get a traffic ticket, her insurance premiums could increase, and she multiplies her chances of getting killed in a wreck–yet she fails to set the car’s cruise control and drives too fast anyway. The mental conflict of cognitive dissonance causes mental discomfort and sometimes anguish. With self-justification, there is no integrity of character.
It’s bad enough that we make the extreme effort to make ourselves feel good about our attitudes, choices, culture, and beliefs. We not only hurt ourselves, we also hurt other people in the process. We hide our mistakes in the hope that people won’t see us as a fraud or a hypocrite. We run the risk of becoming righteous and sanctimonious about our beliefs and running roughshod over the rights of others.
The way to avoid getting stuck in the quagmire of self-justification is to practice being more self-aware. We can own up to our mistakes right away and avoid the need to construct excuses for our actions. Instead of allowing the habit of relying on automatic, self-protecting cognitive dissonance to crowd out our better nature, we can cultivate mindfulness and awareness. This choice helps us become sharper and smarter. The more honest we are, the less often we’ll repeat our mistakes.
With less self-justification, it’s easier to live with ourselves and for others to relate to us. To live a life of integrity, wise people own their mistakes, apologize to those who are harmed, then make every effort to correct their own thinking.