If you don’t think you have a bad habit of lying to yourself and making bogus excuses to justify yourself, that’s a sure sign you have a problem with it.
- We attribute our brains, talent, and hard work to our accomplishments in life when it was mostly luck that got us there.
- We convince ourselves that being obese is perfectly natural and shame people for body shaming to throw a muumuu over the reality that we should be making healthier lifestyle choices.
- We blame favoritism or racism for not getting promoted rather than accepting the reality that we’re not as capable as we think.
- We convince ourselves we’re making our lives better by reading blog posts on not lying to ourselves and making excuses when we should probably be doing something productive instead.
And I could go on offending everybody in the world with more examples.
Because that’s what self-justification does: It makes you too easily offended. Statements with any hint of truth in them feel like slaps to the sunburnt skin of your coddled, super-sensitive little identity.
It’s not easy, especially if your identity’s as overprotected by your ego as most people’s these days. But here’s how to start.
The 4-Step Self-Justification Vortex
Before getting to preventative measures, here’s a quick run-through of How Self-Justification Messes With Your Everyday Life:
Step 1: Cognitive dissonance.
The second you experience or do something inconsistent with your identity’s coddled sense of reality, your identity quakes in fear.
Step 2: Lies and excuses.
Your overbearing mommy of an ego comes to the rescue, stepping in front of your quaking identity to resolve its cognitive dissonance with lies and excuses.
Step 3: Confirmation bias.
When lies and excuses aren’t enough, your ego continues to console your trembling, ever-delicate identity by seeking evidence in your favor, discarding incriminating evidence, and embellishing your memories.
Step 4: Warped reality.
Time passes, memories get muddled, and your identity forgets about your ego’s interventions. It’s as if the cognitive dissonance never happened.
Repeat: The vicious vortex continues to spin.
- The more you self-justify, the stronger your ego gets.
- The stronger your ego, the more it shields your identity from reality.
- The more shielded your identity, the more sensitive it becomes.
- The more your identity feels attacked, the harder your ego works to protect it.
This vicious vortex turns us into the increasingly deluded, oversensitive sissies most of us are today.
1. Admit you have a problem.
Yes, it’s hard to admit your well-meaning mommy of an ego’s lies and excuses are hurting you. And it’s hard to accept that your precious identity is a fragile pansy living in a warped reality.
But if you don’t, you’re doomed to descend further and further down the vicious vortex of self-justification.
And what if you can’t find evidence of blatant acts of self-justification?
Ask trusted demotivational speakers like your spouse, friends, family, or colleagues for help. They shouldn’t have any problem pointing out the lies and excuses your ego’s using to baby your identity.
Or try this quick self-assessment from the University of British Columbia’s Del Paulhus:1I found it in this Wall Street Journal article on self-justification
How self-deceptive are you?
Answer the following on a seven-point scale, with 1 being “not true,” 4 being “somewhat true,” and 7 being “very true”:
- My first impressions are always right.
- I don’t care to know what other people really think of me.
- Once I’ve made up my mind, other people can seldom change my opinion.
- I am fully in control of my own fate.
- I never regret my decisions.
- I am a completely rational person.
- I am very confident of my judgments.
For each question, give yourself one point for answering 6 or 7. The higher your score, the more self-deceptive you tend to be.
And if you still won’t admit you have a self-justification problem?
Consider reading Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It’s an entertaining read and one of my favorite “sledgehammer” books that changed my thinking. Maybe it’ll change your thinking, too.
2. Know when to be on high alert.
Here are a few common self-justifications that Mistakes Were Made‘s Aronson and Tavris warn us to watch out for in our everyday lives:
When you act in anger toward someone, it compels you to self-justify what you’ve done to reduce the dissonance between:
- “I’m a good person.”
- “The things I just said or did to that person were not good.”
The easiest way to resolve this dissonance is to find ways to blame the other person for inciting your anger. But if you do so, you’ll end up liking them even less and become an increasingly angry a-hole.
The harder, anti-self-justification approach is to find ways to give the other person the benefit of the doubt and take responsibility for reacting poorly. Not only will it make you less of a prick, but your goodwill toward the other person will get the self-justification cycle working in your favor.
When deciding which car to buy or which college to attend, stay away from testimonials. Anyone who gives testimonials will be highly motivated to convince you their choice was the right one to self-justify it. (Or, even worse, they’re bloggers like me who make affiliate commissions from the sale.)
Seek controlled experiments and cut-and-dry data instead.
As a quick aside, to avoid brand and price-based biases on food purchases, consider Kim and my favorite party game, blind taste tests.
“We think that self-justification is the prime suspect in the murder of a marriage,” write Aronson and Tavris.
They say so because when your partner does something to drive you crazy, it creates a dissonance between:
- “I love this person.”
- “This person is a pain in the butt.”
Relationships start swirling down the toilet when you explain away A with lies and excuses and reinforce B with confirmation bias. Keep them fresh by doing the opposite.
3. Let humility toughen you up.
Rather than cower behind your overprotective mommy of an ego’s excuses, lies, and confirmation biases, turn the other way to your no-nonsense daddy, humility.
Let humility tell you to suck up a shot of painful truth courtesy of three magical words:
“You were wrong.”
Admitting it hurts, especially given how feeble and coddled your identity probably is. But, like exercising, fasting, or saving, the more you swallow the discomfort, the easier it gets.
And here are two extra reasons to admit you’re wrong more often:
- Experts who admit to making mistakes and having uncertainty are found to be more persuasive than those who refuse to admit, “I was wrong.”
- It makes you more open-minded.
4. Live with inconsistency.
Sometimes life’s too complicated. And so is the madness in our minds. Rather than concoct crazy stories to make sense of it all, accept the inconsistencies and move on.
This is especially important when it comes to inconsistencies between your past actions and the person you aspire to become. As Tavris and Aronson write in Mistakes Were Made, “Our past selves need not be a blueprint for our future selves.”
For example, if you get caught in a lie, you may feel dissonance between:
- I’m an honest person.
- I just got caught playing fast and loose with the truth.
Your ego will try to push one of two options on you to dissolve this dissonance: 1. Believe BS justifications for your behavior, or 2. Accept the label of “liar.”
But you don’t have to do either.
Instead, accept the inconsistency: Your past self lied, and your current self is honest. This keeps you out of the self-justification vortex, which your future self will be thankful for.
Your ego won’t give up so easily, though. She’ll nag at you, calling you a hypocrite. Ignore her. As Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys said, “I’d rather be a hypocrite than the same person forever.”
5. Be actively disconfirmation biased.
No matter how much you try to listen to your humility, your ego will keep hovering around, shoveling lies, excuses, and confirmation biases onto your identity.
You can’t stop her, but you can counter her by actively seeking disconfirming evidence.
For example, if you identify as a “productive person” but realize you wasted the past hour dicking around on the internet:
- To counter your ego’s excuses that you deserved the mindless downtime and that lots of the world’s most productive people do it, too, you could ask yourself, “What better things could I have done, instead?”
- Or, to fight against your ego’s desire to distort your memory to make it seem you didn’t waste as much time as you did, you could try time logging. This gives you an unassailable record of how much time you’re pissing away with nothing to show for it.
6. Use self-justification to your advantage.
Just as self-justification can trigger a vicious spiral when you do something undesirable, it can start a virtuous cycle when you do something good.
For example, if you do a favor for someone you don’t like, this will trigger cognitive dissonance between:
- “I don’t like Biff.”
- “I just spent my hard-earned money on buying Biff a coffee.”
Then give your ego free rein to step in to justify your actions by saying, “You know what, Biff’s not so bad.”
Or do yourself a favor. For instance, go for an outdoor workout when it’s pissing rain. This creates dissonance between:
- “I’m an unmotivated, lazy softie.”
- “I just worked out in the rain like a badass David Goggins.”
Then let your ego dissolve the dissonance by saying, “You’re tougher than you think.” Even if it’s a lie, if your identity believes it, you’ll be more likely to keep acting that way in the future. (See the “grown-up” workout motivation strategy for more on this.)
Keep it real.
Not lying to yourself and making excuses comes down to choosing between the following:
- Do you want to be an easily offended wimp who lives in a bubble of delusion that’s protected by an overbearing ego?
- Do you want to toughen up your identity and play a part in living in a world that prioritizes the truth?
If you choose A, I gotta say I’m kind of impressed by your complacency.
Hopefully, you choose B, though. If so, here’s a recap of the anti-self-justification strategies to try at home:
Stop playing defense when you feel offended. Take reality on the chin by telling your overprotective ego to stand down and letting your humility teach you a lesson instead. Quit struggling with inconsistencies and be a hypocrite when you need to be.
It’s uncomfortable at first, but it makes for a more rewarding life in the long run.
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About the author
I'm Chris. Grinding for conventional super success was exhausting, so I zagged. Now, my life's getting better and better—and part of that involves pushing you to work toward the same.
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