(THE BOOK) Chapter 36: Just the world

I never really wanted those grapes

anyway.  I am sure they are sour.  

~ Aesop


Rationalization means explaining something in a way that is comforting but dishonest.

Control addicts use rationalization all the time.  They actually have to, in order to convince themselves that control is essential and possible.

Sometimes it appears as stinking thinking, the form described in chapter 34 (If I just try a little harder, a little longer…).

And sometimes it manifests as mistaking the desirable for the possible, a type of thinking I call the shoulds.

He should take better care of me emotionally.  He should know what I feel and give me what I need.  He should know when I need a hug, or to be listened to, or to be left alone.  He should know what I want in bed.  When I’m upset he should know what to say to make me feel better.  If he really loved me he’d just know.

The shoulds can transform a reasonable desire (I want X) into an unrealistic expectation (I should have X), and ultimately to an emotional problem (I’m angry that I don’t). 

Control addicts regularly apply this kind of wishful thinking to other people, places, things, and themselves.   

The control addicts we call perfectionists should on themselves constantly.

I should be thinner, richer, smarter.  I should be further along in my career.  I should be nicer to my mother.  I should be a better parent.  I shouldn’t get so angry.  I shouldn’t have made that mistake.  I shouldn’t make any mistakes.  I can’t stand mistakes.     

A third form of rationalization is rooted in the following belief:

Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad.

This is called The Just World Hypothesis, and most people believe in it whether they realize it or not.

It explains why we tend to feel guilty when bad things happen to us, and why we torture ourselves with second-guessing (If only I hadn’t…).  It’s common among religious people, raised on the idea of sin.  But belief in God is no prerequisite to belief in a Just World.  I once worked with an atheist who argued endlessly against the existence of God but never doubted, when confronting personal misfortune, that he himself  had somehow caused it.

Why do we cling to this bias?  It provides the illusion of control.

If bad things can happen to good people, that means everyone’s at risk. But if the good are rewarded and the guilty punished, maybe I can avoid punishment by being good, and maybe the world makes some sort of sense.

Belief in a Just World also leads to even more pernicious misinterpretations, like blaming the victim.

She was kidnapped at knife-point from a restaurant parking lot by a drifter who raped her twice. But the jury showed little sympathy, and the rapist was acquitted.  “We all feel she asked for it by the way she was dressed,” said the foreman. 

The type of victim-blaming I hear most often in therapy is self-blame, where clients impede their own recovery by taking unrealistic responsibility for bad things that happen to them.  It’s common among abuse survivors, and people who grew up in families prone to unpredictability and emotional turmoil, where kids often got blamed for things that weren’t their fault.  They were left feeling vulnerable, vaguely guilty, and too quick to blame themselves.

Sure, imagining cause-and-effect relationships where they don’t exist can be comforting.

But ours isn’t a just world, or the world we want.

Maybe not even the world we deserve.

Just the world we have.




4 responses to “(THE BOOK) Chapter 36: Just the world

  • Lisa

    Great chapter. Just forwarded it to a co-worker whose abusive father just died and she is feeling such conflicted emotions. This hit home for so much of the turmoil she is experiencing right now, and for the same type of situation that I am anticipating going through in the near future. Thanks for the great insights and your wonderful way of explaining sometimes complex psychological processes in an easy to understand, common sense, kind of way.

  • Al

    Another great post Steve.
    Thank you…
    It is weird how someone can hurt you, even accept they do yet still do it!!
    It’s like sticking a knife in you while telling you they can’t help it cos they are stressed!! And also because by saying this it is now your responsibility, like a hot potato thrown at you…I am working on throwing it back!
    Control is the goal…and yet real love runs away from control, it cannot really exist in same situation?
    Control to feel powerful..again power over what?
    It’s madness and yet, I’m right in the middle of it.
    Your post is great help.
    Al 😃

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