* Or are they?
When you make a mistake, what’s your first reaction?
I’ll tell you what mine is.
Recall that I’m a psychology nerd; I love to learn about why people do what they do. I spend a lot of time studying this stuff; I even blog about it. Yet for as much as I understand the failures of our human nature, I am reminded that I have much to learn.
This story begins with my wife asking me to buy tickets for an annual, children’s Christmas event today, both for our kids and two of their good friends. The event is very popular and sells out within minutes of the tickets going online.
No problem, right? Wrong. Here’s the deal; I don’t do well with details. I never have. Maybe you do and you don’t understand people like me, but I’m a big-picture thinker; I love big ideas, but often get lost in the brass tacks.
Of course, I’ve known this about myself for roughly the last twenty years and have developed coping mechanisms, for example relying upon the use of my calendar, notes and reminders apps to schedule out my day and keep track of everything that I’m working on. This system mostly works when I use it, but there are still times when I fail to record important details; in this case, the correct date and time that my wife wanted to take the kids to the Christmas event.
Knowing how important this event was, I set a reminder in my calendar and dutifully logged onto my computer at exactly 9 A.M. to buy the tickets … but I bought them for the wrong date. By the time I was made aware of my error, the tickets for all remaining dates were completely sold out.
My heart began pounding; my stomach tensed. Visions of four disappointed children and two mothers rolling their eyes at me flashed across my mind. At that moment, my brain launched into red alert and did what any rational, human brain would do when confronted with the cold reality of a mistake.
Justify, justify, justify.
“She didn’t tell me that she wanted that date!” [Stops to scroll through the last five days of text messages and finds a note saying, that date.]
“She (my wife) knows I am scatter-brained; why didn’t she leave a sticky note by my computer?”
“If [the event organizers] know that it’s going to be so popular, why the hell don’t they have more tickets?”
“Why is this thing such a big deal, any way?”
“Where is the Halloween candy? I need chocolate!” (When I’m anxious, my sweet tooth becomes a raging, 800-pound gorilla.)
Of course, as my mind is furiously blurting out these [admittedly lame] excuses in rapid succession, there is one, overwhelmingly simple truth that stands quietly in the corner, waiting to be acknowledged:
I am a thirty-six year old man who was provided plenty of opportunity to book the tickets for the correct date and time. The mistake is mine and mine alone; I screwed up.
Don’t we see this sort of thing all of the time and everywhere? I don’t mean you, of course**: but with your partners, your in-laws, your co-workers and your kids? It may be hilarious (or infuriating) to listen to your children argue about “who started it”, but the truth is that we do this as adults too.
We all like to think of ourselves as moral and competent people, so when confronted with evidence that we may not be those things, our minds rush to our defense; latching on to any explanation we can concoct which may get us off the hook. This need to protect ourselves from ourselves is situational but within all of us; it also tends to rear it’s ugly head in our most important relationships. (Say, marriage.)
Self-justification isn’t just toxic to our relationships; it can be devastating to our personal growth and happiness as well. And it can be so insidious because the justifications we weave for ourselves are usually partially true. It may be true that there should be more tickets or that my wife could’ve left me a sticky note. It may be true that your spouse shouldn’t leave their shit everywhere or that your boss was harsh or that your friend should’ve done this or that your client can’t expect that.
But so long as we allow our minds to fixate on those things, however accurate they may or may not be (hint: they are usually not so accurate), we will never begin the difficult but important work of standing in front of the mirror and starting with ourselves.
Of course, knowing all of this is a great first step, but it’s only a first step. What’s a recovering rationalizer to do, if he or she wants to stop justifying and start owning his or her mistakes?
Here’s what helps me. The moment you catch yourself justifying yourself to yourself or anyone else:
- First and foremost, don’t fight the icky feelings. Try not to resist; become mindful. Simply observe these conflicting thoughts as they bubble and froth inside of you. Try to accept these responses for what they are, right now, in this moment; they won’t last, there’s no need to expel them. If you don’t “need” to purge your mind of these unpleasant feelings, then you won’t “need” to rush quickly into explaining yourself.
- Take five deep breaths. Or ten, or fifty, if you have to. But just breathe deeply. Feeling inspires action, but action also inspires feeling. Mindfully and repeatedly taking slow, deep breaths will help to slowly dissolve the tension in your body and brain. So long as there is inner tension, everything you say or do is likely to be distorted through the lens of self-justification.
- Leave the room, if you have to. If an argument is becoming heated (i.e., full of self-justification) and you need to take a few minutes to gather and recompose, it’s much better to do that than to continue throwing fuel on the fire.
- Once you’re calm, figure out where you went wrong and how you will do better next time. Learning often involves failure and that’s okay. But if you don’t get specific about where and how you went wrong and identify exactly how you will improve, then you are doomed to make the same mistakes again.
Sometimes, it really is someone else’s fault.
But if you’re willing to start with the man or the woman in the mirror, you may be surprised to see how far that confession takes you.
** Yes, you do it too.