Every parent has heard it: You ask your 9-year old son why he cheated on his test in school. His answer, “Well what about Johnny? He cheats all the time.” What about…? This desperate attempt to avoid accepting accountability is hardly limited to children. Few politicians can complete their tenure in office without pleading, “You criticize me for this action, when it was shown again and again by my predecessor. What about her?”
Whataboutism is a close cousin of rationalization. You got caught and you can’t accept responsibility for your action. You screwed up big time but to admit it would be a serious blow to your fragile ego. So, you shout out, “I only did what everyone else does!”
When it comes to coping, whataboutism is just another one of those exercises in denial. How can you be to blame when everyone else does it? Your denial protects your ego, but it is damaged, weaker than before, and vulnerable to severe consequences next time. Eventually, you will fall into whirlpool of increasing anxiety, helplessness, and depression.
When you make a mistake, and the fault is yours, face up to it. Accept it and take responsibility. But most importantly, develop of correction plan to make sure the mistake is not likely to occur again. That’s what we mean by effective coping – not attacking and trying to subdue your anxiety or other negative emotions that result from your mistakes, but charting a new course of action that makes your mistakes less likely in the future.
Remember, we’re talking behavior patterns here. Defense mechanisms like Rationalism are chronic, not now-and-then actions. Making excuses is a sign of personality dysfunction only when you do it all the time.
Imagine a student who received an uncharacteristically low grade on a test. She tells her roommate, “Something’s wrong here. I know it’s not my fault I got that low grade.”
Her roomie says, “Oh, cut the crap and stop rationalizing. You’re not perfect so face up to it and dump the excuses.”
The student, however, persists and discovers that the test covered text chapters 6-12, when in fact, according to the course syllabus, it was supposed to cover 6-10. “I never read chapters 11 and 12 because they weren’t supposed to be covered. The prof screwed up big time and that’s why I got the low grade.”
The student went to the professor, pointed out the problem, and he adjusted the test scores with questions from chapters 11 and 12 eliminated.
Here’s the coping lesson. When you fail, it is totally appropriate to examine why. Carefully and objectively collect evidence to determine if you, or someone else, is at fault. If it’s you, accept it, take responsibility, and take corrective action. If it’s someone else, confront them or an appropriate third party to make sure the blame is correctly placed. In this case you are not being ego-defensive; you are coping well.