Editor’s note: The Anatomy of Peace, an important new book by the writers of Leadership and Self-Deception, shows us the cause of human conflict so that we can learn to live in peace. Look for the continuation next Monday.
“Justification has some telltale signs,” Yusuf began. “I’ve already mentioned a few – how we begin horribilizing others, for example. In fact, that sign is a subset of a whole category of signs that you might think of as exaggerations.
“When our hearts are at war, we tend to exaggerate others’ faults; that’s what we call horribilizing. We also tend to exaggerate the differences between ourselves and those we are blaming. We see little in common with them, when the reality is that we are similar in many if not most respects. We also exaggerate the importance of anything that will justify us.
“If I had had an appointment around the time Mordechai spilled his coins, for example, it would have suddenly seemed critical that I get to it. If I had happened to be carrying a book with me, I might have suddenly felt the need to bury my nose in it and start reading. Whenever we need to be justified, anything that will give us justification will immediately take on exaggerated importance in our life. Self-betrayal corrupts everything – even the value we place on things.
“And consider,” he continued, “when in the Mordechai story did I start to devote my energy to blaming others? Before I betrayed myself or after?”
The group looked at the board. “After,” Pettis answered first.
“And when in the story did I start feeling like a victim?”
“After you betrayed yourself,” Ria said.
“And when in the story did I become consumed with the question of who’s right and who’s wrong? After I betrayed myself or before?”
“Are you noticing a pattern?” Yusuf asked. “I betrayed myself, and my whole world changed. It changed because I had chosen a different way of being in the world – a way that needed justification. Because I needed justification, I began to see everything in a self-justifying way. Others, myself, the world, my past, my present, my future, my hardships, my responsibilities – my view of everything became transformed – transformed for the purpose of feeling justified.
“As we betray ourselves over time, we develop characteristic styles of self-justification. One person, for example, might find justification in seeing himself as being better than others. If I think I am superior, I can excuse a lot of sins. Another might find justification in feeling he is entitled to things he isn’t getting. After all, if others aren’t giving me what they should, it isn’t my fault if I blame them or treat them poorly. And so on.
“There are countless ways to feel justified, but I would like to introduce four common styles of justification. These are justification styles that all of us carry to one degree or another, but we might find that some of them are bigger for us than others. My hope is that pointing out these styles will help us to see ourselves a little more clearly and to discover some ways in which our own hearts are warring.
“The first of these is a style you’ll immediately recognize from the Mordechai story. It’s what we call the better-than style of justification, which is illustrated by the better-than box. This style of justification does not allow us to see others as people because we must see them prejudicially, as less than we are – less skilled perhaps, or less important, less knowledgeable, less righteous, and so on; but always less, and therefore always objects.”
At that, Yusuf drew the following:
“I have a question,” Pettis said, as Yusuf completed the quadrants of the box.
“Sure, go ahead.”
“What if someone really is less talented at something, for example, and that I really am better in that area? Are you suggesting it’s a self-justification simply to note that?”
“Not necessarily,” Yusuf responded. “I can notice people’s relative strengths and weaknesses when I’m seeing them as people. What’s different when I’m in this box, however, is that I feel superior to or better than others because of these strengths or weaknesses. I use them to keep score of my and others’ relative worth. So when I’m in this box, I’m doing more than simply noticing differences; I’m making judgments about peoples’ worth based on those differences.
“Let me illustrate with a story. A few years ago, my wife, Lina, and I went out to a rather nice Mexican restaurant to celebrate Valentines Day. When the attendant seated us, I immediately caught a whiff of the most repugnant smell of body odor imaginable. And it was coming from the next table! As I looked in that direction, I noticed the unkempt, slovenly person who was obviously the source. I was repulsed. How dare he come out in public this way! I raged within. And on Valentines Day of all days! He’s going to ruin our evening! In no time, this guy was an inconsiderate, filthy scumbag in my book.”
“What a considerate man you were as well,” Elizabeth murmured, a sly smile stealing across her face.
“I was just noticing another’s deficiencies,” Yusuf deadpanned.
“Quite,” Elizabeth said, with knowing in her voice.
“Speaking of deficiencies,” Yusuf continued, “Lina didn’t seem too bothered by the smell. I’m not sure what bothered me more – the smell, or Lina not being bothered by it. I began badgering her and complaining so much that Lina finally asked the waiter to seat us elsewhere. Thankfully, from our new location in the next section of the restaurant I could only faintly smell the man’s stench.
“When our food came, however, the body odor stench came with it! Did the waiter stink too? I wondered. He looked clean enough, so I looked around to see if the smelly man had just walked near us. But he was still seated across the way at his table. Then I noticed that the stench was coming from my plate of food! It turns out that this restaurant’s black beans had a peculiar smell to them – a smell I had mistaken as body odor.”
“Who would have thought – scumbag beans,” Elizabeth joked.
“Right,” Yusuf laughed.
“That’s a nice story, turning out as it did,” Gwyn said. “But what if the man really did stink? What if you weren’t mistaken?”
“That’s exactly the question I want to ask as well, Gwyn,” Yusuf agreed. “What about that?” he asked the group. “What if I was right?”
“I have a thought about that,” Elizabeth spoke up, “as I’ve been in this kind of box ever since we began this morning.
“Really,” Yusuf said. “How so?”
“I have been upset at my sister for not making the effort to be here for her boy. Someone had to come, so I came for her. That’s a dangerous combination of facts for someone who is prone to feeling superior, isn’t it?” she said, blowing her hair out of her eyes in mock exasperation. “I’ve been sitting here thinking about this while you’ve been talking, and here’s what’s occurred to me: I still think she should have made the effort to come. I think I am right about that. But I haven’t been able to stop at simply noticing the problem. I’ve come to obsess over it. I’m wallowing in unproductive thoughts and feelings as much as you, Yusuf, were wallowing in smelly vapors.”
“Yes,” Yusuf chuckled. “You’re suggesting that even if I am right about something, my emotional experience will be entirely different in the box than it would be if I were out.”
“Well, yes, I’m wondering,” she said. “Just like you’ve written there in the feelings area of the box, I’ve been impatient about being here, and I’m filled with disdain for my sister and her husband for not earning more, not making this the financial priority they should. I’m filled with how they are a problem family, how my sister has always made poor choices in my eyes, how they fail their children, and so on.”
Elizabeth paused, her mind many miles away with her family. “I think I have made myself into an insufferable know-it-all,” she muttered, while looking vacantly across the room.
“If so,” Yusuf said, “you’ll have that in common with a lot of us. I certainly justified myself in this way toward Mordechai, for example, didn’t I?”
Most in the room nodded, but Elizabeth was still lost in thought.
“Let’s consider a second common style of justification, shall we?” he said, as he walked to the board. “It’s a style we call the I-deserve box.”
“By the way,” he added, as he began to write, “people who go around feeling better-than generally feel entitled to a lot of things, so these two styles of justification often come together.”
As he finished writing, he said, “When I’m in this kind of box, I typically feel mistreated, victimized, entitled, deprived, resentful, and so on. Did I have any of these thoughts and feelings in the Mordechai story?”
“Yes,” the group answered.
“I believe you’re right,” Yusuf agreed. “If I had been alive to how such thoughts and feelings are designed to give me justification, I might have been able to recognize that something was crooked in how I was being. I might have been able to find my way back to seeing Mordechai merely as he was, as a person.
“But I didn’t recognize my crookedness, of course, and I went on viewing Mordechai more or less as an object for many years. And most of the other Mordechais I met as well,” he added. “Which is to say that I was feeling justified in both the better-than and I-deserve ways in the Mordechai story, and probably in the black beans story too. When I’m seeing others crookedly, what I need in that moment is justification, and I’ll find it any way I can get it – whether by seeing myself as better, as entitled, both, and so on.
“Before we leave the black beans story,” Yusuf continued, “I want to address two additional points. First of all, notice how my better-than and I-deserve boxes set me up to be mistaken about this man. When would I be more likely to mistake the source of the offensive odor – when I look disdainfully and resentfully at others or when I simply see people?”
“When you look disdainfully and resentfully at them, no question,” Pettis answered.
“So notice,” Yusuf continued, “the more sure I am that I’m right, the more likely I will actually be mistaken. My need to be right makes it more likely that I will be wrong! Likewise, the more sure I am that I am mistreated, the more likely I am to miss ways that I am mistreating others myself. My need for justification obscures the truth.”
“Interesting,” Pettis said, while turning the ideas over in his mind. The others appeared to be working hard on them as well.
“Yes,” Yusuf agreed. “One more point about the story before we move on. In order to make it, I’m going to change the scenario slightly. Let’s say this story happened at home or in the workplace. Let’s also assume, as Gwyn raised earlier, that this person really did have a body odor problem. In that case, which version of me – the better-than, the I-deserve, or the seeing person version – do you suppose would be more likely to be able to help him overcome his problem?”
“Oh, I’d imagine that the seeing person version would be more helpful,” Pettis answered.
“Well,” Pettis hesitated, “if you went to him when you were thinking he was a filthy lowlife or when you felt he owed you something, you’d probably invite him to resist you.”
“Does everyone agree with that?” Yusuf asked.
“I’m not sure that I do,” Lou said. “I’m worried that if you just saw him as a person, you might not talk to him at all. You might just let it slide.”
Yusuf smiled. “You’re still worried that seeing others as people means you have to be soft, aren’t you, Lou?”
“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not,” Lou smiled coyly. “It just seems like you might let this kind of thing slide rather than hurt someone’s feelings. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Would I be likely to just let it slide if I really cared about the man?” Yusuf responded. “Would I just let him stink and therefore let everyone think poorly of him? Is that what someone who really cares about another is likely to do?”
“Well, no, I suppose not,” Lou allowed.
“In fact,” Yusuf continued, “when I let people go on hurting themselves and others without making the effort to help them to change, it is rarely because I am seeing them as a person. Usually it’s because I am being motivated by yet another kind of self-justification, a justification that very often causes people to go soft and to feel justified by their softness.”
“That is something I would be interested in hearing about,” Lou said.
“I thought you might,” Yusuf smiled.
Copyright 2006 by The Arbinger Institute
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