Do you own a yahbut? No, this is not a new designer-dog breed. It is a common mutt. Self-justification is a common human tendency. Psychology refers to the “yahbut” as self-justification. Think: “Yeah, but _____.”

  • Self-justification is our instinctive need to defend ourselves or avoid taking responsibility for our action that hurt another, was sinful, or was just plain foolish.
  • Self-justification is not lying or excuse-making, although others may see it that way.
  • Self-justification allows us to convince ourselves that we were in the right, that our action was wise, that God (or another) knows how reasonable we are and should see that we are definitely right.

What is worse, we hold to our position even more strongly when we are confronted with evidence that clearly indicates that we were wrong. “Please, do not confuse me with the facts!” Self-justification is fueled by “cognitive dissonance” or the tension we feel when two values or beliefs we hold are incongruent. We land on self-justification to reduce the tension. Self-justification inhibits us from asking ourselves if we could be wrong, or could be making a mistake, or could change. It hampers our capacity to apologize and seek forgiveness for our wrong-doing. To quote the title of Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s work on self-justification, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me!).

Here are five things you can do to challenge your self-justification by Toddy Holeman, professor of Christian Counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary:

  1. Become aware when you feel tension. You feel tension when you hold two thoughts or beliefs that are inconsistent. Find a way to resolve them constructively or learn to accept the tension (e.g., I want a cat. However, cats make messes in your house and I want a mess free home. I happen to believe both of these things, having been a cat owner for 20 years with a litter box to clean on a daily basis!). Are you aware of your feelings of tension in conversations with others?
  2. Grow in self-responsibility. When you want to say “yes, but,” pause for a moment of self-reflection and ask yourself: “What was my contribution to this situation?” Are you willing to admit you are responsible for your part?
  3. Practice self-compassion. Extend grace to yourself rather than condemnation when you discover your own tendency for self-justification. God’s grace applies to you as much as to others. Are you prone to self-condemnation or can you accept God’s grace and forgiveness for you?
  4. Practice Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:24. Refrain from judging others and remove the log from your own eye so you can see more clearly. How can you become more aware of when you tend to judge someone? Have you considered where you might be blind to your own faults?
  5. Remain curious and open. When others offer a different viewpoint, perspective or memory, instead of challenging or correcting them, try to be curious about what they are saying. Be open to learning what their perspective is, rather than marshaling your own response as they are talking. Is your first response to be open and curious about another’s perspective? Or do you tend to put up a wall to what they have to say?

To learn more about self-justification, see the following resources:

Tavris, Carol & Aronson, Elliot. (2015). Chapter 8: “Letting Go and Owning Up” in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.

Read the blog: Letting Go of Self-Justification

Learn about self-justification from Dr. Carol Tarvis: Self-Justification in Everyday Life

Emotional contributor: Dr. Toddy Holeman, Chair, Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care at Asbury Theological Seminary

Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus

Curator of content: Dave Higle

This year marks 40 years in ministry for Wayne Schmidt, General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church. Follow along this summer as he reflects on the ministry lessons he’s learned along the way.