Several years ago a good friend confided in me that she was having an affair with a coworker. Obviously we spent time talking through this, agreeing that it was a bad idea and that it should stop.
And it did, eventually. But one conversation in particular stands out to me now; it was one that began with me watching Love Actually (aka one of the greatest romcom’s of all time). It was the part where the husband has an affair with his secretary (or at least they allude to it – does anyone know if they ever really did anything?), and I texted my friend to tell her, disappointedly, that it reminded me of her.
“It’s different,” she said. And then continued to explain why her situation wasn’t like the one in the movie, why it wasn’t that morally black and white.
“It’s really not different,” I disagreed. But somehow, she had justified her actions in her head. She thought, in short, that she was special; an exception, somehow, to what she knew to be right and best for her and for her relationships.
But she’s not special. And neither are you.
Now, I know you’re not cheating on your partner (right?), but how often do you use the same argument to justify your actions – actions that you know are not representative of the person you want to be in this world, but, it’s just that, you know, in this case…. it’s different.
You know better. You want to be better. You set intentions. You think, tomorrow, next week, no but really, later this year… there’s always some reason you can’t do it now - some reason your situation is different. You want to make more time for your friends, but you’re just soooo busy (join the club). You want to sleep more, but your job really is more demanding than most (really though??). You don’t want to always be ten minutes late, or constantly attached to your phone, but just this time you’ve got to do this thing real quick… (and you’re totally becoming that person).
You might have picked up on this theme in last week’s post, and that’s because recognizing your self-justifications is key to making intentional change. For me, it’s a hot-button topic, meaning, it’s a huge pet peeve. So, when my prof and I uncovered some of my own self-justifications, I knew I needed to make some changes this week.
It’s a perfectly human and common thing to justify your actions; it’s what makes you feel okay with yourself. In many contexts, self-justification is good and necessary because otherwise we’d be lying awake analyzing everything we do. However, I think most of us are on the other end of the spectrum, over-rationalizing and therefore not taking responsibility for ourselves. We justify our actions to avoid a feeling known as cognitive dissonance, thus bringing up another topic I talked about a lot last week: VALUES. Cognitive dissonance is that icky feeling you get when you act out of alignment with your values. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it, but something doesn’t sit right.
A friend recently came to me with a sticky work situation (not an affair), where someone mistook her good intentions for malice. She explained (justified) to me over and over why she acted the way she did, and wanted the feeling of disapproval from others to be resolved. Without a doubt that she meant well, I asked her this question - would you feel comfortable with your coworkers overhearing the conversation you had?
No. Not really.
She did mean well, but didn't handle it the way the person she wants to be would have handled it. She was out of sync with her values, and even her own justifications weren’t convincing. That's why she felt so unsettled about it - not because of the perception of others, but because she wasn't fully satisfied with herself. Cognitive dissonance.
Less dissonance (i.e. closing the gap between our values and our actions) equals increased pleasure and satisfaction. So, we justify.
On a large scale – if much of your life is out of alignment with your values – you might feel downright unhappy and unsatisfied with life, but find all the many reasons why it’s not your fault and you can’t change it. The farther you fall into self-justification the harder it is to see that you are even in it and that you're actually the one in control. Similarly, the more time or energy you invest into something – or the more you sacrifice – the more you need to believe that it’s the right choice.
On the smaller scale, you do a little something that you wouldn’t “normally” do, and you justify “just this once,” or begin to shift your values to accommodate your behavior. You start to see the other side, to think it's no big deal, in order to feel okay about what you’ve done; in order to avoid admitting that you just. might. be… wrong.
As with most things, awareness is key. In talking with my prof last week, I heard myself telling him how I was having trouble focusing because I wasn't getting enough sleep. Why aren't you sleeping? Because I’m stressed. Why? I'm probably not taking care of myself in the ways I know I should.
Hmmmm… Even though self-care is one of my top values, and I know how important it is, and I literally coach others to do this for themselves, I felt that somehow, my current circumstances were special. Because in my case, well, I just have more stuff to do. You know, it’s different.
Do you ever notice how you choose to call certain friends for certain situations? We tend to go to the friend that will agree with us most, who will help us to justify. When I want to make a big purchase, I’m not gonna call my most financially stingy friend to amp me up. It’s easy to surround yourself with people who think just like you and continue down the rabbit hole of self-justification.
But where’s the growth and perspective in that?
One of the most important tools for growth we have is in people who disagree with us. It is these people that will call us out on our justifications, or at least force us to think about them on our own. And by acknowledging the dissonance, or the gap between our values and our actions, instead of trying to minimize it with justifications, we can actually begin to change. We can take responsibility, and learn from our mistakes, or, since I don’t like the word “mistakes,” misalignments.
As for me, my prof helped me call my bullshit. This week I finally made it to a yin yoga class I've been saying I want to go to for months, got back to my morning self-care routine, and started sleeping like a normal person again. In turn I’m less stressed, more focused, more the person I want to be.
What I found from my own experience is that if something feels off, just keep asking why. Why are you unfocused? Why aren’t you sleeping? Why are you stressed? Why are you working so much? And you’ll find the source, the thing that YOU have the power to shift. The problem is that we tend to stop digging when we hit something we easily accept as immovable - see if you can challenge your justifications, or get someone who will call you out.
So why do you think you're special?