We have all had those moments. Somewhere in the depths of our consciousness, we know we have done something wrong. It is really uncomfortable to admit the wrongdoing, so we find logical reasons for the unacceptable behavior and we become really invested in believing these reasons.
Maybe you “forgot” to tell a longtime friend about an event she would have benefitted from, and you tell yourself, “She wouldn’t have been able to attend anyway.” Perhaps you have cheated on an exam, and you tell yourself “Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” In the days of COVID-19, this phenomenon is ubiquitous: An individual who has symptoms of COVID-19 gets tested and then goes to the supermarket, telling themself it’s probably just strep throat. Or as an individual dances, unmasked, at a crowded bar mitzvah, around a relative who nearly died of COVID-19 to the song “Thank You Hashem,” what logical reasons are running through their head?
The thought processes described here involve rationalization, a common defense mechanism that most of us engage in frequently. It is defined as the process of finding logical reasons for unacceptable behavior or thoughts.
Like all defense mechanisms, rationalization can be powerful and adaptive, or damaging and perilous. Rationalization is powerful in that it protects people from negative emotions and anxiety. If you can explain away your mistake, you no longer have to experience guilt and worry. Rationalization can be perilous in that it contributes to avoidance of your own weakness and emotional dishonesty. If you think that your mistakes are always justified, you deprive yourself of the opportunity for self improvement.
Rationalization, left unchecked, can be a real obstacle to teshuva (penitence). An exploration of aspects of the Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva, machshava related to teshuva, and Dovid Hamelech’s response to sin will shed light on this point.
Three aspects of teshuva are commonly gleaned from the Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva: charata (regret), azivat ha-chet (leaving the sin) and viduy (confession). Clearly, both regret and confession require real honesty with oneself. How can one regret without cutting through rationalization and acknowledging that there was indeed wrongdoing? Similarly, how can one confess if the wrongdoing has been rationalized and relegated to the recesses of one’s awareness? If rationalization conceals and buries wrongdoing, charata and viduy reveal and exhume our sins.
Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s chapter “The Power of Confession’’ in “On Repentance,” explains why the Torah makes viduy an obligatory part of the teshuva process. The Rav states that “repentance contemplated, and not verbalized, is valueless.” He explained that verbalizing sins through viduy is the antidote for repressing any wrongdoing. Clearly, rationalizing a sin would stand in the way of the honest and clear verbalization that viduy requires. The Rav eloquently emphasizes this point: “...confession compels man—in a state of terrible torment—to admit facts as they really are, to give clear expression to the truth…..to look inward at the truth, to look ourselves straight in the eye, to overcome our mechanism of self-defense, to smash asunder the artificial barriers, to go against our natural inclination to run and hide, to put into words what our hearts have already determined.” The obligation for viduy is an example of the Torah recognizing human nature. It is natural and common for humans to employ defense mechanisms so as to protect themselves from “owning” undesirable behavior. Viduy requires a black-and-white, clear-cut crystallization of one’s sin into words. There is no room for denial once viduy occurs. In order for an individual to have a complete viduy, rationalization must be recognized so that all regrettable actions can be brought to a head and be included in the viduy process.
Dovid Hamelech shows unusual strength of character in his ability to admit sinning. The story of Dovid Hamelech, Batsheva and Natan Hanavi’s masterful rebuke of Dovid teaches us about the impact that admitting one’s wrongdoing can have upon being forgiven. In Shmuel II Perek 11, Dovid Hamelech arranges to have Uriah, Batsheva’s husband, sent to the front lines of battle with the hope that Uriah would die at war, leaving Batsheva available to Dovid. Uriah does, in fact, die at war, and Dovid takes the coveted Batsheva as his wife. Hashem sends Natan Hanavi to present Dovid with a parable in which a rich man, who owned many sheep and cattle, takes a poor man’s only little lamb and feeds it to a guest passing through the town. Dovid is furious and tells Natan HaNavi that the rich man deserves to die. Natan Hanavi dramatically tells Dovid that he, Dovid Hamelech, is that man and tells Dovid of his punishment. Dovid immediately says to Natan Hanavi “I have sinned to Hashem.” His viduy is immediate, concise and honest. We do not see Dovid engaging in any rationalization. Dovid Hamelech’s prompt viduy is immediately rewarded, and Natan Hanavi tells Dovid that Hashem commuted his sin.
At this point, you may be wondering how a person recognizes when they are rationalizing, especially if rationalization can be an unconscious process. The first step is awareness of the prevalence of this defense mechanism. Once you are familiar with and motivated to recognize rationalization, you will be able to detect it more easily in your own behavior. One red flag that can often be a sign of rationalization is when you notice that a conversation begins with excuses (e.g. I would have gone grocery shopping for you but……). Another indicator is if an individual is over-explaining his/her behavior when an explanation hasn’t been requested. Feelings of guilt can be another clue to indicate that rationalizing may be occurring. Noticing that you are only trying to think of arguments to support a particular view can be a sign that rationalization will occur.
Once you recognize that you are rationalizing, be kind to yourself rather than harsh. We have all engaged in rationalization, but you have honestly confronted something you were trying to avoid. This brings you one step closer to dealing with the behavior or thought that you regret. In the time of COVID-19, being vigilant about your own rationalizations can have a far-reaching impact: It can protect yourself, your family and community from illness.
As we approach Yom Kippur, the day on which we stand before Hashem and recite the Viduy prayer numerous times, it is clear that recognizing the power and perils of our own rationalizations will allow for a more complete and sincere penitence process. It will also help us to be more honest with ourselves and in our relationships throughout the year. In the amazing lashon hakodesh, the word viduy shares a shoresh with the word hoda’ah (gratitude). May our sincere viduy this Yom Kippur lead to a sense of true gratitude as we approach our lives with greater openness toward ourselves and others.
Jessica Kornwasser, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice at ProPsych Associates of New Jersey in Englewood. She can be reached at [email protected]