This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…
Therapy has always been interested in the myriad ways we can fool ourselves as human beings. We can all provide endless self-justifications for why we act the way we do, even when we’re acting badly. It’s completely normal, even desirable, as it leaves us feeling like we’re in control. It’s an important cornerstone of our sense of mental wellbeing.
It’s mostly untrue, which is why we fool ourselves.
We all behave inconsistently in ways that, when we stop to think about it – really think about it – can be incomprehensible even to ourselves.
Anger often gets the better of us. When we’re passionate about an idea simple disagreement can feel like a personal attack. In response we lash out, run the other person down, personally insult them, or just quietly belittle them in our mind.
All while continuing to think of ourselves as a kind and generous person (which we no doubt are, most of the time).
But this sort of inconsistency makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”: we can’t be both kind and mean, it doesn’t make sense. So, we stick with kind, and explain away the mean any way we can.
That’s where self-justification comes in:
Blame: it’s your fault, you started it
Minimise: I wasn’t that mean
Belittle: They’re an idiot, they deserve it
Deny: It wasn’t hurtful
Invalidate: They should just harden up, get over it
We all do it. In its most extreme and dangerous form we call it abuse. In its everyday form, we call it Twitter.
In case you were wondering why all those billboards are popping up everywhere all of a sudden, there’s an election in a couple of months. And politics increasingly seems to bring out the worst in all of us, even more so on social media.
It amazes me how quickly very nice, perhaps even kind, and clearly passionate people can launch into abuse at each other over politics.
Where it gets really uncomfortable of course is when we believe, with absolute certainty, that we are right. Righteousness is the trump card of self-justification. And it’s very difficult to resist playing that trump card when someone else is being unreasonable, and (from our point of view) is clearly wrong.
Politics, as they say, is a contest of ideas. But it doesn’t have to be a competition to be the cleverest at the expense of others. There is room for empathy, compassion and even kindness, even when we vehemently disagree.
I’m passionate about what I believe, and will be trying my hardest in the lead up to this election to promote the need for improvements in mental health services, and social justice more generally. But I also value kindness, pretty much above all else.
So, I’m going to keep trying (and probably failing at times) to be kind, even in disagreement. And even on Twitter. (Don’t @ me.)
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