“It All Just Amounts to What You Tell Yourself”


Great literature transports you into the lives of others to inform you about your own. Take The Grapes of Wrath. I’ll offer you a single scene to illustrate how we rationalize our actions. Tom Joad, the story’s hero, reframes cowardice into practicality, moves from fight to flight, and converts hesitation into wisdom; all with the help of a man who has already rationalized his own diminished life. We rationalize because we must — in order to live comfortably with our motives and our choices.

John Steinbeck’s novel is set in the Dust Bowl era of 1930s Oklahoma. Newly available machines allowed rapid and widespread plowing and cultivation of the native grass: an act of misguided surgery. The grass was essential to bind the earth to the land. When drought came, not only were conditions insufferable, but crops died for lack of moisture. The ground became unmoored and simply blew away. In some areas this “worst hard time” persisted for eight years. Dust storms blackened the sky. The fine dark particles invaded farm houses, killed animals, and impaired breathing. Visibility might be reduced to a few feet on a given day. The dust-occluded air produced occasional darkness as far away as New York City.

Tom Joad is a young man just released on parole after four years in McAlester prison. He killed a neighbor who attacked him in a bar fight. Tom and two acquaintances are on the land once occupied by his family. The Joads were evicted in a bank foreclosure. The men notice a police car coming to investigate.

Muley, one of the acquaintances, is an older man who experienced the merciless attitude of the bankers, their agents, and the law enforcement officers in evicting most everyone in the area while Tom was in prison. He and Tom talk about the vehicle heading in their direction:

TOM: We ain’t doin’ no harm. We’ll jus’ set here. We ain’t doin, nothin’.

MULEY: We’re doin’ somepin jus’ bein’ here. We’re tresspassin’. We can’t stay. They been tryin’ to catch me for two months. Now you look. If that’s a car comin’ we go out in the cotton an’ lay down.

TOM: What’s come over you, Muley. You was’nt never no run-an’-hide fella. You was mean.

Muley agrees with Tom that he is not the same man he was. Changing conditions changed him. He knows Tom’s nature is to fight, especially on the land Tom grew up on. Muley also reminds Tom of his parole. Any “trouble” and he will be sent back to prison.

TOM: You’re talkin’ sense. Ever’ word you say is sense. But, Jesus, I hate to get pushed around! I lots rather take a sock at Willy.

MULEY: He got a gun. … He’ll use it cause he’s a deputy. Then he either got to kill you or you got to get his gun away an’ kill him. Come on Tommy. You can easy tell yourself you’re foolin’ them lyin’ out (in the cotton) like that. An’ it all just amounts to what you tell yourself.”


Indeed. Tom follows Muley’s advice to hide from the police rather than confront anyone.

As with other (mostly unconscious) life strategies, the way we explain our behavior to ourselves can help or harm. Some of us automatically rationalize so many choices we lose touch with who we are and how we hurt ourselves and our fellow man. Others reflexively come to unnecessary and unflattering conclusions about their deeds. They blame themselves and interpret events in a self-deprecating fashion. In effect, each of us has our own internal “make-up” artist. He is the part of us who tries to put a “good face” on the reasons we do what we do, the better to look at ourselves in a friendly mirror: one not too revealing of uncomfortable defects.

Think of a situation in which you fail to achieve your goal. Many explanations are available:

  • I’m a loser. (Here you’ve taken a single disappointment and indicted your entire being and character).
  • It was his fault. He was unfair. (In this example, right or not, someone else is blamed).
  • This is a temporary set-back.
  • Perhaps I need to approach situations like this in a different way. (Possible adaptation and learning enters the picture with this explanation).
  • I did the best I could. (Defeat is acknowledged, but there is also a self-comforting understanding of the event).
  • “Every knock is a boost.” (This was one of my dad’s expressions. He re-interpreted his defeats as exercises in strengthening his character).

Many other examples might be offered. Cognitive-behavior therapists try to help patients reframe their beliefs and assumptions about themselves and the world. They hope to free clients from self-damaging “self-talk.” CBT counselors encourage a reality-based, but adaptive way of approaching the task of thinking about and explaining our behavior to ourselves.

You and I are left with the question implied by Muley in his conversation with Tom: what do we tell ourselves?

I hope you give it some thought.

The top photo is called, Dust Bowl, Oklahoma. It shows a “father and sons walking in the face of a Dust Bowl storm in Cimarron County, OK,” April 1936. The picture was taken by Arthur Rothstein. The second image is Dust Storm Near Beaver, Oklahoma; July, 14, 1935. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. If the Dust Bowl is of interest, you might want to watch The Grapes of Wrath, the 1940 movie adaptation of the Steinbeck novel. Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad. The film is widely considered one of the 100 greatest American films. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl is a terrific oral history of the period written by Timothy Egan. Finally, don’t miss Ken Burns’s documentary, The Dust Bowl.

15 thoughts on ““It All Just Amounts to What You Tell Yourself”

  1. “We rationalize because we must — in order to live comfortably with our motives and our choices.”
    ~ Thanks for your thought-provoking article, Dr. Stein.


  2. Thank you, Rosaliene.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dr G that dust bowl is picture perfect as to what happens inside my head when I’m overwhelmed and my magical unreality thinking saddles up the unicorn and charges off ready to do battle on a battlefield that doesn’t really exist in a place that is distorted with my emotional triggers and memories and un-filed issues – I am blinded by what I think is happening, the sandstorm obliterating any signposts or landmarks that could bring me back to reality
    So I act on what I perceive through the dust and what I interpret the shapes I see through the dark and I try and build sandcastles for shelter but the vicious winds just erase them, grind them to dust and this usually gets me into deep trouble emotionally, physically and spiritually as all that I am doing is assuming what I am seeing is reality – and what I tell myself is twisted and mishapen and harms me and harms those around me when I lash out in blind unreality
    Then a teacher, a nurturer, a grower comes along and shows me how to re-plant the dust bowl so that the sand triggers and memories are held fast by the deep roots of the plants and my tears water the garden and I watch the plants and the trees grow and instead of being blasted and ripped apart in a sandstorm of emotions I am able to wander through my garden and pick memory fruit and taste and wonder and interpret in the safety of a Willow tree’s shade
    No longer am I wandering hopelessly lost and abandoned in the dust bowl of the past
    Thank you Dr G for being one of my teachers, nurturers, growers – I know I totally misinterpreted your article but it gifted me with the knowledge that with time even the biggest dust bowl can at least, at it’s worst, sustain the life of a single daisy

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m touched to be one of your teachers, Rosie. These essays are freely given. If anything in them is helpful, even if I didn’t specifically intend it, then I’m happy.


  4. Hey Gerald,
    I’ve been thinking about this post because everybody tells themselves something to make sense of their environment. And so much does depend on perception and interpretation with oneself. What you tell yourself has to be dealt with so delicately even (well especially) if you’ve been deceiving yourself to survive recognising and changing what you say to yourself can absolutely rip your heart out. The is also the reality of a scripture that says ‘ and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’. Free doesn’t always mean ‘pain free’.


    • You are right about the balancing act we must perform with respect to seeing ourselves as we are. We all walk the “self-awareness-tightrope.” It is possible to fall from too much, too little, or poorly timed and conveyed self-awareness. Perhaps the most brutal portrayal I can remember of an act of painful self-awareness is in the movie “The Pawnbroker” starring Rod Steiger from around 1966 or ’67. It is, however, so psychologically disturbing that, much as I thought it was a great film, I never watched it again.


  5. “In effect, each of us has our own internal “make-up” artist.” I love this statement. It’s a good way of looking at it. This was the perfect post to read for my current state of mind. Thank you.


  6. Yes, that self talk has a huge power over people (including me!). What I have discovered is that it is tough to change the voices in your head when they have been harping on you for many many years. It has been pointed out to me in the past that I demand a lot of myself (of course I do) and that I am often unforgiving of myself for transgressions. I am rarely satisfied with the daily choices I make, frequently being annoyed with myself for not being productive and useful. At least I am hearing the distinct voices and I have started to question their authority over me! Remember the bumper sticker from the 1960’s – Question Authority. Yup, I am questioning the know it all voices in my head. Sometimes I can actually note a change b/c I question.


  7. Good for you, JT! If you keep questioning, I’ll bet you free yourself more and more. But I have one question for you which you needn’t answer to me: where do the questions come from? Put differently, whose voice was the originator of this mindset?


    • I actually have pondered that. My parents had really high standards and they served me well but I think they crippled me in some ways as well. I also know I grew up embedded in the Catholic Church (this was, for the most part, pre-Vatican2). I attended rigorous and unforgiving Catholic schools, the life of the immediate as well as extended family centered around the Catholic traditions, my only social contacts were with other Catholic kids and families. Catholicism, as I knew it, was a harsh master. But, as Bruce Springsteen said in his recent (well written, I might add) biography: “…as I grew older, there were certain things about the way I thought, reacted, behaved. I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you are a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. So I stopped kidding myself. I don’t often participate in my religion but I know somewhere, deep inside, I’m still on the team.”

      I don’t think of myself as “on the team” except that I continue to seek social justice for all. I continue to hold kindness for others as the greatest value yet not knowing how to be kind to myself but I am pretty harsh at what I expect of myself. There is a piece of me that appreciates the mysterious nature of Catholicism but the judgmental, dogmatic parts hugely dominate my Catholic experience. I think it’s useful to aspire to know where the voices come from but that doesn’t make the commands go away.


      • Thanks for this, JT. What makes the commands “go away” (or at least become quieter) is not only intellectual insight (of which you seem to have plenty), but a grieving process that might include profound sadness and rage at remembered costs and continuing pain. No easy challenge, but it is possible. It might violate your sense of what it means “to be a man” if you were to open this up rather than just pushing through the rest of life. Still, the road is open should you choose to travel this path.


  8. There’s a lot of wisdom here.


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