Vindication: Why We Feel the Need and What We Can Do About it

I was recently having lunch with a friend and the topic turned to a recent dating situation she was in. The guy she had been dating stopped calling her and dropped off the face of the earth. Now this wasn't a new or unheard of situation for a single woman in her 20's but it was confusing and slightly maddening. "You know, the funny thing is, I didn't even really like him that much, so I don't know why it bothers me", my friend said to me thoughtfully as she stared ahead trying to make sense of it all. She then continued to say with a devilish grin: "Actually, I know what would make me feel better...if I ran into him in a hot outfit with a hot guy on my arm!" I had to laugh because I personally knew that feeling and have heard something similar many times throughout the years from both men and women. My friend would feel better about the situation if only she could be vindicated and not left in the dust without having a chance to prove that she was better off without this guy.

Vindication is defined as an "excuse" or "justification." As I thought more about vindication in my own life and how I see it play out in others lives, I realized that it is a common theme in being an antidote to feeling better about something that has bothered us. Feeling taken advantage of or disrespected has the tendency to potentially leave us feeling devalued. Feeling devalued threatens how we feel about ourselves. Our internal moral compasses of what is right and wrong give us a sense of fairness and an inherent sense of worth. We also feel if we are good people who do the right things, we should be treated with respect and dignity. On the other side of it, if we feel people do not play fairly in society or act cruel, they should not be able to get away with it. I can imagine many of us want to feel a sense of fairness in our society and to feel worthy and valued. In the article "Peacemaking, The Six Needs of Conflict,"Douglas E. Noll, Esq. says that, " Vindication is simply the need to feel right. At an extreme, vindication translates to 'I win; you lose.' This is an identity-based need and relates to face-saving. Because threats to identity and loss of face evoke a powerful pre-conscious neuropsychological response in the human brain, being proven right can be a consuming drive."

Vindication also often breeds feelings of anger. When we feel angry, it is often from feeling that something was unfair, that there was no justice, and that someone could get away with doing something without consequences. We see this need for fairness and vindication play out in our court system. As a society, the general consensus is that people need to pay for their crimes. Many families of murder victims do not necessarily feel better when a perpetrator is convicted and punished for a crime, as the punishment does not erase the crime or bring the loved one back. However, it makes them feel a little relief. In a homicide case highlighted in 2003 in The Baltimore Sun, a man named Fred Romano went through the terrible tragedy of his sister being brutally murdered. He wanted the death penalty for the person who murdered his sister and 2 other women. In the article Romano goes on to say: "'It won't bring closure...Dawn will never be back. I'm not looking for closure. That's a bad misconception on the part of some people. I want Oken to die for the murder of Dawn, Patricia Hurt and Lori Ward. It's justice, it's not revenge.'"

The above situations I described are different extremes when vindication comes into play. The need for it in small ways in our daily lives (relationships, friends, work, even minor traffic violations) can be all consuming. At a more serious level, murder and crime are some of the examples that give people some of the strongest need for vindication. If vindication is so prevalent in our lives, how do we stop obsessing about it and letting it take over our lives until proven right? A discussion with a friend many years ago has always stayed with me about this topic. She said to me, "sometimes you have to be able to move forward without closure, vindication or answers." I hated hearing that! It felt so unfair to not have closure, answers, or vindication for so many things. Her mother is an oncologist and would constantly tell her, "life isn't fair." Just like that, plain and simple: Life isn't fair.

After personally working in oncology for years, I can certainly confirm the statements of the oncologist. Life sure isn't fair. Answers, closure and vindication don't always come to us. That means we have to somehow find it within ourselves to move past where we feel stuck and find some way to let go. This takes a tremendous amount of inner strength. However, there are also those who believe in "karma" and that alone is enough to make them feel better. They believe that surely, what goes around comes around. There are many instances where things eventually catch up to people. People can only get away with bad behavior for so long before people start figuring them out. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen all the time and sometimes we aren't even around to see justice being done. So, ultimately it comes down to (1) the acceptance that we won't always feel vindicated or have closure in life, (2) a bit of trust that there are often consequences for bad behavior, and (3) that if we are good people with good intentions then we are doing the right thing and that is what's most important in the end.

** This article was originally published in Pamela's Punch