Friday, December 16, 2011

Bad Things Happen to Good People

I think we like to believe we have control over our lives. I've been reading the book Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by Allan Mallinger and Jeannette DeWyze It is about the negative effects of trying too hard to be perfect, and to remain in control, and what people can do to learn a little more flexibility and comfort with not being in control.

One concept the authors talk about is that people often (subconsciously) believe there is a "cosmic scorekeeper" which is based on the concept that life is fair. If you do enough good things, life will be good to you. If you do something bad, life will be bad to you. I doesn't actually work that way, but it is a way people often find security in an unpredictable world. Sometimes this way of thinking is encouraged by religion, but it is often there even without religious influence.

What I have been thinking about is the flipside of that - if you use those standards to judge other people, and not just yourself. If you follow the same logic, when you see good things happen to other people, they must deserve it. When you see bad things happen to other people, they must have done something to deserve it as well. This is a very comfortable way of thinking, because whatever bad thing happened to another person clearly could not happen to you.

I have seen several examples of this way of thinking over the years. As a teen and much of my adult life, I have struggled with acne. Especially as a teen (when it was at its worst), I received so many insensitive comments from others who thought they knew the answer, "If you just did not wear makeup..." "If you just washed your face with Ivory soap like I do..." "If you didn't touch your face..." Like I hadn't tried those things. These people needed to believe that their own clear skin was due to the good things they were doing. If I had acne, it must have been due to something I was or was not doing, and not due to chance.

I have also seen this way of thinking about my clients with mental illnesses. It pushes people's level of comfort to believe that mental illness can happen to anyone at anytime. It is much more comfortable for others (including family members) to believe that my clients must have done something to deserve a mental illness. "If you only..." When you pass a homeless person talking to himself, it is way too uncomfortable to think about how that could easily be you or someone you love. I think one of the most hurtful things clients have told me that family members have said is, "You just need to pull up your socks!" Like they hadn't tried that.

I also see this way of thinking when parenting a child who does not easily fit into the activities that other kids so effortlessly enjoy. When my child is melting down, it is so easy for others to believe that I must have done something to cause the meltdown. If he has anxiety, it must mean that he has learned that anxiety from me. It is too uncomfortable to believe that your child could have similar experiences.

Maybe the reasons some of these comments are so hurtful is that we all secretly, deep down, believe in the "cosmic scorekeeper". Maybe it is because we second-guess why bad things happen to us as well. Was is something I did?

It is helpful to me to realize that others are not meaning to be insensitive when they say some of the comments I have heard - they are merely trying to find a safe place in a world that is ultimately not safe.

Here is the link for the book:


  1. Excellent explanation of the ways and reasons people think, Linda.

    My thoughts fall on the side of 'natural consequences' - which I do not perceive as judgmental. Even acne can be a natural consequence - of a genetic predisposition.

    And 'control' - I'm leaning toward that being a developmental concept. Some move past the idea of their own control (mature to some other philosophy) and some literally go crazy trying to gain it or live without it.


  2. Thanks Barbara. I think you are right - some people learn to let go of control, and others become more obsessed with it as the get older. Personally, I'm trying to move past it (hence reading the book!).

  3. Hey Linda,
    I've read over "Too Perfect..." a few times and still pick it up every once in a while and read a chapter or two at random. There's some good stuff to be had however I do have some issue with the authors concept of fairness as well as his concept of the "Cosmic Scorekeeper".

    He tells the story about the woman who's husband cheated on her and eventually leaves her. He described the woman as feeling as if she was being treated unfairly. He then describes how she takes action and eventually the husband shows interest as a byproduct. The woman feels unfairly treated yet the author(s) describe it as if she was unfairly treated without clearly identify what would constitute fairness. I know, it's being picky and missing the forest for the trees however they tie it to a really big picture concept of the "Scorekeeper" so the concept of fairness should be addressed.
    The assumption is that fairness is a one sided experience, as if it takes place in a vacuum. I also feel as if it is presented as a zero sum game. Either the individual would be treated fairly or the individual would be treated unfairly. Also the author seems to conclude that the fairness must be had within a set timeframe. Maybe there is unfairness at that moment or for 6months or a year, etc. but what happens in 2 years or 5 years. Didn't the woman in some way reap a benefit from the difficult situation. For it to be truly labeled as unfair she should never receive any benefit. The theory just feels myopic or short sighted. And if she did receive a benefit then isn't it possible that there was something keeping score and she was rewarded. He also doesn't mention anything about the husbands life. Was having a mistress a win?
    Was getting a divorce a win? Was he happy? Was he even happy at the moment of the affair? The author assumes that the man benefited and the woman didn't. I would almost say that in some way he sees the males position as a win. For that matter, we have no background on the wife. It takes two to tango doesn't it. Was she really the innocent bystandard she claimed to be. Did she just see her good efforts and not her issues?

    To dismiss the concept of fairness is a really bold move. That's like saying atoms don't exist. If you dismiss a scorekeeper in the sky then you might as well dismiss a scorekeeper on earth. Why would she even bother getting a lawyer if she wasn't seeking fairness. If she truly dismissed the concept of fairness then she wouldn't have a need for a lawyer right. Maybe she was still relying on a "Scorekeeper", maybe just not so etherial one. I don't really see a huge difference.

    D Taylor



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