Self-justification leads us down a destructive path. It keep us from growing and improving. It’s terrible energy, and can lead to harmful behaviors. Simply put, it sucks.
Self-justification is easy to define (it’s literally when we justify our actions). But it’s not so easy to spot. So to stop this nasty habit, we need to have a good grasp of what it is.
Here I use an episode of the Netflix series “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” to show the self-justification process and how it hurts us and keeps us from establishing our goals. You don’t have to watch the episode to follow along, but there will be spoilers.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina S:2 E:2
“Chapter Thirteen: “The Passion of Sabrina Spellman”
Under protest, Sabrina signs a book of the Dark Lord. This means that when the DL asks for something, she must obey. Sabrina says she will not do anything against her will.
The DL comes to collect his devotion from Sabrina. First, she says she won’t do it. Then she asks what he wants her to do. He asks her to steal a pack of gum. She looks surprised by the request.
After her refusal Sabrina chokes on an apple. She suspects it’s the DL. Sabrina says she’s resisting because if she says, “yes to this one thing, it’ll be harder to say no to the next.” The next day Sabrina discovers she has large gashes representing the DL’s claw on her back.
Sabrina goes to Lilith and says that stealing a pack of gum isn’t a big deal. Lilith replies: “Every avalanche begins with a snowflake. Trust me, the path to consummate evils is cumulative, not singular. Today it’s gum tomorrow he’ll be asking you to poison Greendale’s reservoir.”
Sabrina then finds her cat’s ill. The DL appears and asks for a greater devotion. To save her cat Sabrina agrees. Right before she is about to burn down her school, the DL appears. He stops her and says she has proved her devotion for now.
The episode ends a few days later with Sabrina stealing a pack of gum on her own volition.
Toxic Self-Justification Starts with A Snowflake
Sabrina went from refusing to steal a pack of gum, to then saying it’s not a big deal, to then about to burn down her school, to then stealing a pack of gum without being asked.
Have you ever looked back and wondered how you could have done something? Like stay at a horrible job too long or stay in a toxic relationship, giving a toxic person several chances? It could be a buildup of self-justifications.
Extreme positions and extreme action rarely start out extreme. A toxic relationship doesn’t start off as being toxic. And I’m sure with companies like Enron, fraud and conspiracy didn’t start off as fraud and conspiracy. It probably started with a “hey, just change that one number.”
Like Lilith said in the episode, “every avalanche begins with a snowflake.”
I’m sure that cult leaders don’t go up and ask people to join their cult. They position their ideologies in a way that seems appealing and worthwhile. Then after you’re already signed up and excited, you hear the extreme views and crazy theories. Next think you know you’re drinking Kool-Aid.
It happens slowly. We built a rapport on certain expectations. You go into a circumstance with the preconceived thoughts and expectations. When something minor challenges the expectation, you don’t want to believe you were wrong, so you self-justify.
Self-Justification in Everyday Life
Self justification happens during something as simple as a trip to the store. We go into the store with a list. But we are shopping and see other things we “need”. We go to the store because it has things on our list that we do need.
When we see things not on the list we self-justify. We think, “well, it’s here so I must need it!” Next think you know you spent $400 on what was supposed to be a simple shopping trip.
The “end of the world” people don’t admit they were wrong and that it’s not the end of the world. They just keep pushing back the end date.
Same thing with up-sells. If someone tries a diet program that doesn’t work, you would assume they wouldn’t try again. But they already committed time and money to the original diet program. In order to self-justify they purchase more of the product and try the program again.
Avoiding Cognitive Dissonance
In the episode, the Dark Lord is a representation of the cognitive dissonance associated with self-justification. Like choking on an apple and the devil’s claw, cognitive dissonance can make us uncomfortable and force us to self-justify in order to avoid the discomfort.
Simply put, cognitive dissonance is when a current belief we have is challenged. We like to be right, because it makes us feel vulnerable to be wrong. Eek, we would have to admit we don’t know all. So that feeling of being challenged is uncomfortable. We double down on the original belief, even though it’s likely wrong. We dig the hole deeper.
We self-justify largely to avoid cognitive dissonance.
An example would be the person on the diet program. If they didn’t lose weight, they would need to acknowledge that the diet program they trusted was a scam. They would have to admit they were scammed and that they wasted time and money.
But that would be uncomfortable and would bring forth uncomfortable thoughts. They get defensive and think “I’m not a person who gets scammed!!” So, they continue to pay for comfort a.k.a. willingly scam themselves and live in denial.
We saw this in the Sabrina episode. First, she said that she can’t steal the gum because it if she says yes to this it will be harder to say no to the next. Then she has the Devil’s claw on her back (the claw representing cognitive dissonance) and within a day her position has changed. She confides in Lilith and says that stealing a pack of gum is no big deal—sure, sis, NBD.
Self-Justification Upon Self-Justification
At the end of the episode Sabrina confides in her classmate Nick. She doesn’t know how she should be feeling. He replies: “If you had done what He asked, all it would’ve meant is that you’re further down the Path of Night like the rest of us. Would that be so bad? “
Sabrina’s self-justification is encouraged by her environment. This is an example of her peers using her as a self-justification tool to avoid their own cognitive dissonance. When her classmate Nick said that Sabrina is like them now and that’s not so bad, he’s self-justifying.
This is why I’m always skeptical of people who intently insist on me believing something or doing something.
From Nick’s perspective, he could regret his devotion to the dark Lord and all of the acts he has committed to prove his devotion. But if he gets other people to do the same thing and to commit acts to prove their devotion than he’s not alone. He has a group now, and he can avoid any cognitive dissonance by justifying the numbers.
Self-Justification Will Catch Up with You
This is as far as I’ve gotten in the series. I foresee that Sabrina will turn darker and darker and the evil acts will escalate until she turns completely away from who she truly is.
This dismissal of true self will make her uncomfortable. And only when it becomes too uncomfortable to bear, when it hurts worse than cognitive dissonance will she face, is when she will stop going down the wrong path.
The same is true for us in our own lives. Back to the dieter. If they keep buying diet products that don’t work or if they are taking a diet supplement that’s making them sick, they’ll eventually be so sick or broke it forces them to stop.
If we turn away from our true selves or if we continue dangerous actions to self-justify, we will eventually have to face the truth. And we might be in a huge hole when we get there.