“Do you trust yourself?” the therapist asked me a few months back. I considered the question. “It depends,” I admitted after a long pause.
It seems axiomatic to me that good people do bad things, selfish things, stupid things, ignorant things. Some of what’s happened with the #metoo movement is proof positive of this, at least those cases that aren’t about rape, assault, or a gross abuse of power (and expectations of immunity).
So what happens when a good person does a bad thing?
One thing that happens is cognitive dissonance. The science of this is well understood these days, something all humans do at some level. For instance, most of us walk around every day acting as if we’ll live forever, or as Mitch Albom said in Tuesday’s with Morrie, “We all know we’re going to die, but no one believes it.” When we have an idea or moral that conflicts with our actions, cognitive dissonance results.
We might presume that Al Franken didn’t think an occasional boob grab was ‘that big of a deal,’ since he seems to have known it was wrong. The dissonance is there, in the excuse.
One way to disrupt cognitive dissonance is to disturb the rationalization. While this is very hard to do on one’s own, it is much easier to do if the power of the rationalization changes. If I smoke despite hearing of the risks, I might say things like, “I don’t smoke that much,” or “the health impact is overstated.” But if I get cancer my ability to rationalize will usually vanish — the cognitive dissonance can no longer be sustained.
That’s a big part of the adjustment being wrought be the #metoo movement — a remaking of how (normally decent) men rationalize boorish behavior. We’ve reached a watershed moment in American life, a time when the rationalizations of men doing sleazy things are no longer finding social support or, at a minimum, cultural indifference. And this is a good thing, a necessary thing, and ultimately will serve both men and women well.
So what happened when this good man did a bad thing? In my last major relationship that ended in early 2016, I had a long period of infidelity, of covering it up, and of terror at being discovered. I’ll save us the indignity of an attempt at rationalization. Yes, the relationship was toxic and unhealthy, but assigning blame to another is exactly what my cognitive dissonance would have me do. “It’s not my fault because ….”
When things broke into the open, and I could no longer rationalize my behavior, I experienced intense self-hatred, fear of discovery, and a retreat into the shadows of the psyche that highlighted the dissonance between my behavior and my self-image. A psychological war began, inside and out.
In dark moments I mumbled, “Fuck it. Fuck them. Fuck me.”
And so I got support, and nearly two years later have learned a great deal about myself. While I think I’m a good person and addressing the causes of this, I am also the person who lied, deceived, and created a wake of selfish devastation behind me that continues to bubble into my life and continues to impact people I love. It — still — creates the desire to run, to hide, to lash out, to let the circle close in on itself, and to put the blinders back on.
If I’m a good person how could I do something selfish and hurtful? Some of you have been on the receiving end of bad behaviors. Some of you have done them. Many of us have been both victim and perpetrator.
My choice to have affairs was entirely my own, and nothing my former partner did — or didn’t do — can change that sobering fact. I had a choice point before the affairs began when I could have left. But I stayed in and rationalized my bad behavior in a way that let me off the hook, let the relationship sputter along on a field of lies, and allowed me to keep doing what I was doing without having to look at the deeper pain and conflict.
It took a great deal of will to be able to turn into the impact of my behavior without collapse, without feeding the very things that drove the behavior in the first place. And it took a good deal of surrender to stay there, to experience it fully, to not want to rationalize away my actions. But feeling the impact of my behavior on others, without excusing it (fuck them), hating myself (fuck me), or being mad at the world (fuck it), created the conditions that allowed my behavior to be looked at honestly, compassionately, and ruthlessly.
I am lucky. I have the support, ten years running, of a powerful men’s group who have held me accountable but who have also loved me through my mistakes and my lying even to them. I have some older male mentors who demonstrate, with their lived grace, what is possible after the fall of infidelity. And most importantly, I have a new partner who has been able to meet me with her authentic curiosity about my behavior, not her judgment or her fear. It is these things that have allowed me to continue the journey towards healing, wholeness, and self-trust and understanding.
“Do you trust yourself?” the therapist asked me again recently. I considered. “More and more,” was my eventual response. Maintaining a healthy level of self-skepticism seems as important as self-forgiveness; after all, I know better than most the kinds of things I am capable of doing, of explaining away.
A hear a lot of men complaining in this new #metoo world that they, too, have received their fair share of bad behavior from otherwise good women, and goodness knows I am no exception. I’ve been assaulted, emotionally extorted, fired for refusing a sexual advance, and had my ‘no’s’ ignored and overridden by women, just to name a few things.
I mention this not in the spirit of tit-for-tat, but rather to point out that good and caring people can do bad and stupid things. For me, it has been love and understanding and accountability that have paved the path to healing. It seems that these things must move in two directions if they’re to move at all.
Read the essay over on The Good Men Project.