She didn’t exactly whack the back of my head when she lifted the lid on the overhead compartment in the plane, but she did hit it.
“Watch your head,” she said matter-of-factly, after she hit me.
Since I was removing my jacket from the overhead compartment on my side of the aisle at the time, I hadn’t expected to be hit.
“I didn’t know I needed to watch,” I said.
“These things are so poorly design” she responded, and then gathered her belonging and hurried out of the aircraft.
Everyone on the plane seemed a bit tired of sitting knee-to-knee on a small regional jet, but I was a bit taken aback by her response to banging my head. Her behavior made me think of a book I finished recently, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson assert how little we know about how we are experienced by others and how difficult it is for us to learn.
For instance, I doubt that the woman in the plane would want to be perceived as rude or ill-mannered. My guess is that in her hurry to get off the plane she raised the compartment lid too quickly and unintentionally hit me in the process. Given her response, it’s likely she was embarrassed.
She might have apologized or inquired about my well-being, but that would have been an admission, of sorts, of her part in the head hitting. Instead, she issued a belated warning to me and then commented on the design flaw of the airplane. While I was a bit surprised, Tavris and Aronson suggest this tendency is very common and not all that surprising. If we dislike certain kinds of behavior and then find ourselves engaging in those same actions, we have to find a way to excuse what we’ve done. In social psychology circles, this is known as self-justification or the self-serving bias.
When someone engages in self-justification, it can sound as if they’re lying, but there is a difference. Tavris and Aronson (2007) suggest that self-justification is “more powerful and more dangerous” because “it allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done” (p.4) at the time. I wonder how many acts we see described in the nightly news would fall into the category of self-justification.
Tavris and Aronson describe cognitive dissonance as the “engine that drives self-justification” (p. 13). Cognitive dissonance occurs when we have two thoughts or perspectives that are psychologically inconsistent (e.g., “Punctuality is important;” and “I’m late again.”) When this happens, it is so uncomfortable we often seek to rationalize our behavior.
Instead of: “I’m sorry I was late. I should have left earlier,” we say, “That traffic was terrible. They really need to do something about the streets.
Instead of: “I over-reacted. I’m sorry I got so angry,” we say, “If you had just explained what you wanted with more detail, I would have been fine.”
Mistakes Were Made caused me to think about a lot of things. I wondered how often I really worked to understand a perspective other than my own. I pondered how others might experience what I see as my own perfectly logical behavior. I considered a very human tendency to give myself a pass on less than favorable behavior, while nailing the same flaw in others. It’s not comfortable thinking, but if I want to avoid the justification of foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts, I probably need to do more of it.
Mistakenly yours, more often than I would like to admit,
Jennifer L. Baker
Dr. Jennifer Baker
Dr. Jennifer Baker is the Founder and Executive Director of GOOD DADS. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Several years ago our son, who was then focusing on communication and the arts in his undergraduate degree, arrived home during a break from instruction and remarked, "You should have made me continue piano lessons." Apparently it was my fault he was not able to play with the skill of a virtuoso, or at least well enough to entertain his friends or accompany others with their vocal renditions.
I recalled those five, long, brutal years when I faithfully drove him to piano lessons early weekday mornings before school and then encouraged -- okay, some may say forced -- him to practice every afternoon or evening. It wasn't pleasant. He learned to play the piano, but we had a definite battle of the wills going on a significant amount of the time. Finally, when he reached high school and took up the trumpet as a band member, I allowed him to stop. He seemed relieved and I enjoyed a respite from a daily battles of the wills -- at least in my memory -- so it seemed very curious to me that I should be blamed four or five years later for allowing him to stop.
A similar thing also occurred from time to time with our daughter -- though she started much younger. For instance, on a road trip when she was about nine- or ten-years-old we stopped to get gas and visit the "necessary room."
I asked, "Do you need to use the restroom?"
"No," she insisted. "I do not."
"Are you sure?" I persisted.
She continued to insist she was fine, so back on the road we went. Thirty minutes later she suddenly exclaimed, "I've got to go. When can we stop?"
"I thought you said you didn't have to go," I argued.
"You should have made me go," she declared. And apparently, that was that.
Once again, apparently, it was my fault. My children were masters at assigning blame to their mother. Even when their father stepped out of line, at least from their perspective, it all came back to me.
"Don't look at me," I'd exclaim in the face of disappointing-dad-behavior. "This is all your father's doing."
"You should have made him do it," they'd retort.
"Really," I thought. "Do I control the universe? In what stratosphere is it possible for me to control my Main Man?" I just couldn't understand how I always ended up to be the one at fault . . . until recently.
Not long ago my Main Man (aka the father of our children) suggested I read the book Mistakes Were Made, (but Not by Me). I'll have to admit that the book is uncomfortably insightful at times about the lengths to which we will go to justify our own misbehavior. Apparently it's not so much a case of lying, in the sense that we don't actually set out to deceive. It's more that we can't live with the thought of ourselves as the kind of person who might do some of the things we do or fail to do.
According to Tavris and Aronson, authors of Mistakes Were Made, "Parent blaming is a popular and convenient form of self-justification because it allows people to live less uncomfortably with their regrets and imperfections. Mistakes were made, by them. Never mind that I raised hell about those lessons or stubbornly refused to take advantage of them. Memory thus minimizes our own responsibility and exaggerates theirs" (p. 76).
Apparently, we have to be careful about how much stock we put in our memories because they can and do delude us. I can see this so very clearly as a therapist. When people tell me their stories, they are almost always skewed to a perspective that puts them in the very best light and others . . . well, let's just say it's much less attractive. I can see it in them. It is much harder to recognize in myself.
To be fair, there are some not-so-good and even bad parents, but the majority did the very best they could for us with the resources they had available at the time. Part of being a grown-up, I think, is letting our parents be people. We need to let them off the hook for what they didn't or couldn't provide for us. We need to recognize their imperfect love for us and take responsibility for our own contribution to our difficulties then and now. When we do that, I think it is a lot easier to love them even if they failed us in some important ways. It's also enables us to be more effective in solving our problems.
I haven't finished the book yet, but I'm working on it. It seems I may have a lot more uncomfortable things to learn about myself, but I'm sure I'll be a better person for it. I wonder if I should recommend Mistakes Were Made to my children. After all, with offspring of their own, they're certain to experience a little blaming themselves.
As for me, for the moment I remain,
Dr. Jennifer Baker
Dr. Jennifer Baker
Dr. Jennifer Baker is the Founder and the Executive Director of GOOD DADS. She can be reached at email@example.com.