The Fallacy of "Belief in a Just World"

Sometimes I feel that instagram is the devil. I see things that I would rather not see. But then again, the things that hurt only do because they oppose the view of what I thought was real. That dissonance can be overwhelmingly uncomfortable and my brain processes the discomfort as pain. 

On Monday, I was lured into the not great side of instagram and found out some information that shook my me. It is incredibly painful to find out that what I thought was true was actually a lie. It hurts to know that some people will take advantage of my naivety, my belief that the world is generally a good place, and use their knowledge of the deepest parts of me to their advantage to lie for months. It makes me incredibly sad to know that the people who were part of this betrayal, to this day, have not had the courage to admit it to me, and maybe to themselves, that their actions and behaviors lack integrity. Instead, I’ve spent the last eight months believing that it was my fault. That, if I did something differently, if I was a better person, if I was kinder or more generous or less assertive or less challenging, things would have played out differently. I continued to play back every moment hoping that somewhere I would find the answer to how I was not enough. I devoted half of my journal this past year to a section called “moments that mean it was real” because the way things unfolded made me feel as if I was crazy. I was, at the time, taking a psychopathology course and truly thought I had borderline personality disorder because of the way that my thoughts and feeling and behaviors manifested in the wake of this blatant and cruel manipulation. When I found out the truth, I realized I wasn’t. The truth, though painful, offered me some incredible clarity that ushers me to finally move forward.

Though Monday and this whole week has been hard, I’m incredibly grateful for it. They say that relationships with other people allow us to hold a mirror up to ourselves so that we see who we truly are. The final mirror that was held up to me in this relationship was that I function in a fallacy called “belief in a just world”. With that knowledge, I can now begin to dismantle this idea.

What exactly is “belief in a just world”? When I was first introduced to this concept in a social psychology class, I immediately understood it as the way that my culture and the religion I was raised in taught me to perceive the world. You deserve what you get. If something bad happens to you, it is because you are a bad person. If something good happens to you, it is because you are a good person. This isn’t how the world works. Bad things happen to good people. Bad people receive many wonderful experiences. Take a glance back up at the way I internalized my hurtful experience. I initially processed this situation, the months of lying and purposeful hiding and denying, as my fault. If this soul-crushing experience happened to me, then I must be a bad person. While I am far from perfect and there are many ways in which I can be a better partner, a more compassionate individual, perhaps a softer communicator, a more graceful person, those areas in evolution do not mean I deserve to be hurt in such a deeply destructive way. However, when I look at the world from the vantage point of “belief in a just world”, my mind rationalizes the opposite: I deserve to be hurt in this way because something about me is so despicable that only the deepest betrayal of trust can match it. 

How do we dismantle “belief in a just world”? That is one way I can choose to see myself and the world, but it’s pretty depressing. When I find myself spiraling, I use this belief fallacy to keep me sinking under the weight of hurt. Here’s the truth: we do not control the actions, thoughts, behaviors, motivations, choices, of other people. There is a certain amount of randomness in the universe that we can’t totally account for. If I notice myself functioning from “belief in a just world”, usually a few of my own behaviors become prominent: I stop journaling, I don’t want to practice, and I ruminate. Oh how I’ve engaged in these patterns this week! When these patterns appear, the path to move beyond them and into more positive behaviors is to first recognize they are happening. Ignoring them will not make them go away. Thankfully, I’ve built a circle of mindful friends who understand the need to fully acknowledge the hurt. They understand that the consequences of finding out the truth after months of lies means a rollercoaster of ups and downs, anger and grief, elation and despair. Then, engage with these thoughts, feelings, and belief systems in a productive manner. I avoid journaling and my practice in these moments because I am attempting to avoid engaging with myself and the hurt. The masochistic part of me finds a pleasure in the ability to feeling something, anything. But I know how I work and if I let myself, I will be consumed by the hurt and sadness. The best tool I have to reframe and restructure is journaling. I write out the story of what this incident looks like when I function inside “belief in a just world”. Then, I write out the story of what the incident and its consequences look like if that wasn’t the case. Though it can be hard to do the ladder, putting language around the experience from multiple vantage points allows my brain and my heart to process this experience in a way that services my healing. By offering an alternative story to “belief in the just world” it becomes possible to see that perhaps this person’s actions have little to do with my worth or value and more to do with their own psychosis and integrity.

Recognize and Reframe. These two key concepts with help to combat any mindset or worldview that feels limiting or maladaptive. Healing takes times. Monumental breaches of trust or earth-shattering loss will not happen overnight. Any time you notice the fallacy of belief in a just world entering your consciousness, engage with it so that you can reframe it. I believe in you.