Emotional F(x), Personal Growth, philosophy
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How to Live without Shame and Avoid Rationalizing

A few days ago I was discussing justification with a colleague. The previous two blog posts were about Justification (Parts 1 and 2). He suggested a third aspect of justification: excuse-making or rationalization.  This is distinct from the epistemic notions of justification.  A discussion of rationalization justification falls under the categories of pragmatism (human, goal-oriented reasoning) and psychology.


What is Rationalization Justification?

Rationalization is an excuse-making behavior we resort to if we commit an act that is deemed unacceptable to ourselves or others. After the conscious realization that the behavior was unacceptable, we begin to feel emotionally uncomfortable – guilty, shameful, inferior, unworthy, etc.  The response to those feelings is to “rationalize the situation”.

Rationalization is a type of excuse-making that retroactively justifies the behavior that we deemed unacceptable.  It “makes the situation OK”.  By providing justifying reasons for the unacceptable behavior, we are able to re-interpret our behavior to be acceptable.  Rationalization allows us to avoid painful emotions that we would otherwise have felt when looking back at the behavior.

I think there are two kinds of rationalization: Local and Global

Type I: Local Rationalization

In local rationalization, specifics of a situation are reinterpreted and justified.  Here are the steps.

  1. Carelessly, negligently, hastily or ignorantly perform an action; or, perform an act that is irrational and contrary to our best interests (or the best interests of someone to whom we owe a duty of care).  The act is done for “convenience”, rather than motivated by goodness of outcome.
  2. When damage occurs due to the careless (unworthy) action, begin to acknowledge that one could have done differently.  Infer that therefore, one should have differently.  (If only I had ___________!)
  3. Judge the action to have been “objectively” wrong and unworthy.  Painful feelings of guilt, shame, or fear of responsibility will arise because of the judgment.  Such feelings are a danger to our “sense of self”, our self-regard.
  4. Reflect on circumstances surrounding the action that could have made the action worthy (or skillful, thoughtful, careful, deliberate).  Instead of citing the actual reasons for having done the unworthy act (laziness, whim, convenience), cite the self-serving reasons as the motivating reasons.
  5. With newly-created rational reasons on side, the act is no longer judged to be unworthy, so the feelings of shame, guilt, or fear of responsibility dissipate.

In local rationalization, specific facts are re-interpreted in hindsight.  Local rationalization allows us to avoid responsibility for an act, i.e., it allows us to attribute responsibility to facts or events, rather than ourselves.  Here’s a common example:

  1. Have a stressful day and eat an entire bag of chips instead of working out.
  2. Bloated with salt and feeling sluggish, look yourself in the face and say, “What did you do? This feels awful.”
  3. Shame yourself for eating the chips and skipping the workout – start to feel guilty, perhaps attributing the act to a personal failing or character flaw.
  4. The guilt, shame, and disappointment that arise will feel awful.  You’d rather not feel those.  Find some reasons why it might have been reasonable to eat the chips and skip the gym: you had no choice, your partner made you upset, hormonal cravings, you worked out 5 days last week, been eaten clean for weeks, it was a full moon, etc.  The key is to draw on specific facts that allow you to distance yourself from the act.
  5. Try to believe that you acted out of those reasons alone in order to avoid shame.  That way, your self-regard stays intact.

Type II Global Rationalization

What I call global rationalization is a type of broad justification which can apply to any situation.  It doesn’t draw on facts about a specific situation, but offers general reassurances.  With global rationalization, we don’t avoid responsibility for the action, but make the action itself less of an “issue”, shifting blame onto the world or other people. We did the act, sure, but the problem is not us.

In global rationalization, we tell ourselves:

  1. The outcome wouldn’t have been different even if I acted for the right reasons (Lost-cause excuse).
  2. At least I’m not as bad as  “_________” – she would have done even worse (Ego-boosting/blame shifting).
  3. Convincing oneself that the other choice was a bad choice, too, so that you can feel good about the choice made (Better of two bad choices).

Justification as a Restorative & Defense Mechanism

Justification is important because it allows us to maintain positive self-regard. The act of justification is a restorative act.  It restores our faith in our own:

Reason – reassures us that our rational decision-making processes are functioning

Will – re-establishes our mind over matter (“failures” often have to do with base emotions or the physical body)

Relationships – meetings high expectations of self and society; reliability

Ego – self-regard as capable and competent

Problems that result of Justification: Cognitive Dissonance

One problem with excuse-making justification behavior is that it creates cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is discontent that arises when a person has two or more conflicting priorities, values and/or motivations for acting.  Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and confusing. In rationalization, we create cognitive dissonance by convincing ourselves that we acted for different reasons than we actually did.

Having inconsistent motivations is undermines self-trust.  It makes future decision-making difficult.  It covers up shame instead of dealing with it.

How to Avoid Rationalizing

Justification seems like a good thing in the moment.  If we’re fooling ourselves, then maybe others are fooled and won’t blame us.  If we feel guilty, we can hide it and avoid shame.

If only it worked like this!  Truth is, it doesn’t. Rationalization is something that we are  aware of doing.  We know that we’re being defensive and that it doesn’t sit quite right.  We know that others aren’t fooled. Even if we fool ourselves, somewhere deep down and sooner-or-later we’ll need to deal with self-doubt and self-loathing.

That said, I don’t want to leave you without tools to deal with situations in which you feel responsible for doing something “bad”.  I’d like to offer a pragmatic approach to dealing with responsibility.  This is where philosophy can help!

  1. Take causal responsibility for whatever it is you did.  Accept that you were the catalyst for the result that you don’t like.  Who ate all their partner’s chips?  You did.
  2. Accept that what’s done is done (and apologize, if it will repair a relationship).  I often say to myself – I don’t like the situation I’m in, but I am responsible for it.  If I had a time machine, I’d love to go back and change my choice, but I don’t have one.  The way things are is how they are, now.
  3. Accept that your motivations and emotions have no bearing on the current situation.  Whether your motivations were good or bad, they can’t fix things. (Yes, even if you promise God to go to church every Sunday.)  Feeling shame and professing guilt to nearby ears will not change the situation.  Avoiding shame and blaming the facts, the world, or others will also not change anything.  It only adds a layer of unnecessary confusion.
  4. Consider what you would want to do if the situation came up again (not what you think society wants you to do, or what you wouldn’t feel shame about).  How do the current results make you feel as a person?  How do they make you feel in relation to other people you care about?  Would it feel better or worse to change the plan for future actions?  Remember, you’re analyzing who you are – as a living, breathing, human –  not imagining an ideal image or arbitrary standard.
  5. If anyone asks, say “Next time, I’ll be more careful about my actions.”  This is a true statement because having done 4, you’ve looked carefully at a similar past decision and will act deliberately next time (whether you ultimately decide to do the same thing or change your behavior).  At the same time, the statement does not commit you to an unattainable standard of behavior and guilt.

Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. Have you ever rationalized/justified an action? Who, what, when, where, and why?
  2. If you regularly find yourself justifying your actions, do you usually use local justification or global justification?
  3. Do you think justification is useful, good, or helpful in the short-run?  Some people say it is.  What about over a lifetime?  What does a life of “excuses” look like?
  4. Is it possible to want to change something, but also not feel shame about it?  Imagine you only brush your teeth once per day, but find out that EVERYONE else brushes their teeth twice a day.  Would shame motivate you (pressure to abide by a social rule), or would finding out that healthy teeth mean less heart problems and less tooth pain (possibility of a more enjoyable life) motivate you?  Which motivation feels nicer?

Reflecting on Values

Think of a time that you justified or rationalized your actions.

  1. Would you actually do the same thing again?
  2. What social values did your act exhibit or lack?
  3. What benefit do you personally receive from doing the act, and do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks to yourself?
  4. Is the act one that you could you try doing it a little less often, or is it something that you need to do?
  5. Do you really think you made a mistake? Some people might call it a mistake, but would all human beings say that it’s a mistake?

Additional Resources:

An interesting flow chart for the Moral Philosophers among us.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: 2018’s Top Posts from Emily’s Everything – Emily's Everything

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