by Kristen Tobias, M.A.
I was recently introduced to the term “injustice collecting.” This catchy locution refers to the act of creating and maintaining a mental list of wrongs committed by others. A preoccupation with fairness or rightness drives these cognitions. You did something that you should not have done. This view tends to be rather inflexible and simplifies occurrences by a moralistic dichotomy. Parodied in the movie Billy Madison (1995), Steve Buscemi maintains a hit list taped to his living room wall of all of the people who wronged him in school (spoiler alert: when Adam Sandler calls to apologize for his poor treatment of Buscemi’s character, his name is effectively crossed off of the list!).
People who engage in injustice collecting are preoccupied with the guilty party and the unfairness that was bestowed upon them. They spend time ruminating about the person, essentially maintaining an unrequited dynamic in that they are thinking about the person more than the person is thinking about them. Who has the power in this relationship? Buscemi obviously spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the individuals who had bullied him in school long after others had moved on (except in the atypical example of Adam Sandler at the point at which he embarked on a journey of self-improvement and reconciliation).
Injustice collecting typically engenders anger. Now, we have this mental list of wrongs in our head and we are walking around angry. We are blaming others for our unhappiness instead of deciding to be in control of our emotions. Moreover, we are not in our best mental state to navigate the situation at hand (think Buscemi’s solution was a hit list which if actualized, would lead to life in prison). Injustice collecting is not healthy anger that serves an adaptive purpose by promoting survival. Injustice collecting is wasted time spent ruminating in a bitter mood. This is usually accompanied by physiological arousal and isolative behavior. Injustice collectors may have a list of people that they’ve written off, as well as a running tally of injustices committed by friends, family, lovers, colleagues, or acquaintances.
To overcome the propensity to collect injustices, we might attack the problem in two ways. First, we can recognize that most things in life are complicated, a combination of positive and negative or good and bad. It is very difficult to be certain of someone’s intentions, such that we know that someone was acting out of malice (i.e., committing an injustice against us). In certain forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the intervention might consist of examining the evidence that someone purposely wronged us.
Next, people are sometimes motivated by malice. In REBT, we don’t first look for evidence, but rather assume that an injustice was committed (i.e., the person’s worst case scenario). How does adopting an air of moral superiority help us in life? Does the harboring of resentment lead to a meaningful life? Why do imperfect individuals demand that others act perfectly? When we spend time injustice collecting, we expend valuable mental energy that could otherwise be used to achieve our goals. If we acknowledge the reality that the world is full of imperfect individuals who do not always act in accordance with our values, we will waste less time collecting injustices.