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The Myths We Live By

by Dorothy Rowe - Deceased(more info)

listed in mind matters, originally published in issue 68 - September 2001

David was a deeply unhappy, angry man. He had always been conscientious and hard working and at forty he made a comfortable living as a barrister, but he was very resentful that he had never achieved the success that several of his contemporaries had achieved at the bar. A health-conscious sportsman, he was angry that, as he got older, his body no longer responded to his demands as it once did. His moodiness, irritability and outbursts of rage, which had increased enormously since he had turned forty, were alienating his colleagues, friends and family, but, if anyone complained, he would justify his behaviour by saying that he had many worries and that his bad temper was something that he had inherited from his father, a very bad-tempered man.

Scales of Behavior

Many people, while deploring David's bad temper, would agree with his views. They would say that it is not fair that when we work hard and fulfil our duties we do not get the rewards we deserve. It is not fair that, as much as we try to keep healthy, our body is still affected by the passing of time, just as it is not fair that we can inherit through our genes not just propensities to certain diseases but propensities to some kinds of undesirable behaviour.

These are very popular views, but underlying them are three very questionable assumptions.

Belief in a Just World

The first assumption concerns the way justice operates in the world.

The ideas of 'fair' and 'not fair' we learnt as small children trying to stand up for ourselves in a society that was often very unfair. We felt this unfairness keenly when other children got more sweets than we did, or our older brother was allowed to stay up at night while we had to go to bed. These experiences were concrete examples of justice operating or not operating in the world, but, while we were learning about this, most of us were being taught about another kind of justice, one that spanned everything that existed and took account of everything that everyone did. We were being taught that we lived in a Just World.

A Just World is a world where, ultimately, good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. All religions teach this, although they differ in how they define good and bad, and rewards and punishments. There are many people who would say that they are not at all religious, but if they did not believe that in the end the good are rewarded and the bad punished they would find life unendurable. Advertisers take advantage of our belief in a Just World, a belief that many people are not aware they hold, when they display some desirable commodity and urge us to buy it because "You deserve it".

There are advantages to believing in a Just World. It brings comfort and security because we can tell ourselves that if we are good nothing bad will happen to us or to those we love. When we see other people suffering we can protect ourselves from the pain of pity by telling ourselves that these people must have deserved what has happened to them. We can say, "If she hadn't been dressed like that she wouldn't have been raped" or "If he'd been positive in his outlook and looked after his health he wouldn't have developed cancer".

As children we know only too well that if we are bad we get punished and if we are good we get rewarded, even if the only reward is that nothing bad happens to us. Being good means becoming the person our parents want us to be, and in doing this we give up large parts of ourselves. Boys give up those parts of themselves that society defines as feminine, and girls find that they cannot be competitive, ambitious and assertive if they want to be accepted. We discover that, as we are, we are not acceptable and that we have to work hard to be good. To comfort ourselves for the sacrifices we have made we tell ourselves that when we grow up we shall get our rewards for being good. David had suffered at the hands of his father, but he had always told himself that if he worked hard his rewards would be that he would gain wealth and fame and his father would be amazed, confounded and proved wrong. Revenge can be seen as a great reward.

However, as time went by David began to realize that, even though he had done well, he was not going to be the world's greatest barrister. He looked at the success that some of his contemporaries enjoyed and thought, "Why should they succeed and I don't? I've worked hard. It's not fair!" He saw his lack of success as a great disaster. He asked himself the question we all ask when a disaster strikes – "Why has this happened?" – which means "Why in the whole scheme of things has this happened?"

Allocating Blame

This was the question that was asked by thousands of people when Princess Diana died. As much as we puzzle over this question, it allows only three possible answers: "It was my fault", "It was someone else's fault", or "It happened by chance". However, in the Just World nothing happens by chance. Everything that happens to a person is a result of that person's goodness or badness. If we believe in the Just World, when a disaster strikes we can ask only whether it was our fault or someone else's fault. Blaming ourselves for the disaster is what turns the sadness that appropriately follows loss into the prison of depression. When no one else is clearly the cause of the disaster we can choose some group or organization to blame. There is a common complaint: "I've worked hard and paid my taxes, and what's the council ever done for me? But those illegal migrants come here and the council gives them a new flat and everything they want." The belief in the Just World readily leads to racism and to paranoia. David fluctuated between being depressed and being paranoid, between telling himself that it was his fault he had failed and telling himself that members of the legal system conspired to do him down.

If we see that we live in a world where things happen by chance, we are in a better position to work out what is actually going on. By believing in a Just World, David prevented himself from seeing that in law, as in every profession, advancement and success are very much a matter of chance. You can be given a case that goes extremely well for you, or, through no fault of your own, a case can go badly because of the death or duplicity of a witness. Events that have nothing whatsoever to do with you can lead to your name going forward for preferment or to someone else's name going ahead of yours. Certainly if we work hard we are likely to improve our chances of doing well, but by no means does hard work lead to success as night follows day. No amount of goodness prevents disaster.

Defining Goodness

We each have our own way of defining goodness. Nowadays many people include in their definition of goodness having a positive attitude. If we believe that goodness can prevent disasters, we are believing that our thoughts – a positive attitude – can influence events. This is magical thinking, and people who use it are failing to think logically. They can also be inflicting unnecessary misery on those who are ill. Some years ago a friend of mine was dying of cancer. She had always used various forms of alternative medicine, and so various practitioners offered help. Some of the practitioners she consulted did what they could to ease her pain, but some others told her that if she released all her anger and resentment her cancer would be cured. This implied that she not only caused her cancer but that she was preventing herself from getting better. Her last days were made even more terrible by this advice.

Certainly stress and depression can affect our health, but this is not a matter of the painful thoughts that make up stress and depression acting directly on the body. These painful thoughts are very much concerned with fear, and being afraid releases adrenaline into the bloodstream and causes other physiological changes, and all these changes impede the efficient functioning of the immune system, thus making the person more vulnerable to a noxious environment and to latent weaknesses in the body. Positive attitudes – a lack of fear – can help maintain the efficient functioning of the immune system, but a positive attitude (goodness) alone cannot protect us from all the ills that can befall us.

Understanding that we have little control over events and that in this world things happen by chance can be scary, but it also means that when a disaster befalls us we do not condemn ourselves to guilt, resentment, depression and paranoia.

The Nature of Life

The second assumption concerns confusing those things that the nature of life prevents us from having with those things that we cannot have because of the way we have constructed certain ideas.

The nature of life means that as time passes we get older, that all living things die, that we cannot be in two places at once, that time spent on one activity cannot be spent again doing something else, that we cannot fly or breathe under water unaided, and so on. As if all these natural events were not constricting enough, we create ideas that we treat as absolute truths and thus imprison ourselves. Society's rules that boys must not cry and that girls must not be competitive are not absolute laws of the universe, though many people treat them as if they are, but simply ideas that people have constructed. David made himself miserable by treating the fact of life that as we get older our bodies alter as an idea that was unacceptable and that should be changed, and at the same time he treated as an absolute truth and a fact of nature his idea that after forty life was inevitably downhill all the way. No wonder he could not accept turning forty!

Inherited Traits

The third assumption concerns what exactly we can inherit from our parents.

When the human genome was being mapped, many of the scientists involved wanted funds and publicity, and so there was much talk about how the completion of the mapping would be a great scientific breakthrough and soon everything in our body and in our mind would be understood. Now the genome project is complete, these same scientists are pointing out that mapping our DNA is not enough.

In effect they are saying what the geneticist Steve Jones and the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield have been saying all along, that a gene cannot alone be responsible for a physical disorder or some piece of complex behaviour. All a gene does is express a little protein. There are thousands of proteins and they interact in extremely complex and constantly changing ways, very little of which is understood. As a result, even disorders that are clearly genetic, such as cystic fibrosis, are not understood, as the very limited success of gene therapy shows. A gene does not contain a blueprint for complex behaviour, so it is a nonsense to say that we can inherit a gene which will cause us to become depressed, or schizophrenic, or have a bad temper. We get a great deal from our parents, but most of what we get is what we learn from them. From a depressed mother we will gain many dysphoric, fearful ideas, and an ill-tempered father will fail to teach us effective methods of dealing with anger.

However, claiming that we have inherited our father's bad temper or our mother's propensity to become depressed does have one great advantage. It allows us to claim that we are not responsible for what we do. This is why genes, or the influence of the planets on our lives, are such popular explanations for our behaviour. David refused to take responsibility for what he did. This relieved him of the necessity to take account of the effect that his behaviour had on other people, but his refusal to acknowledge this and to change his behaviour diminished the affection people had for him, and their unloving, unfriendly reactions to him added to his misery.

Making Choices

We have little control over what happens to us but we always have a choice of how we interpret what happens to us. Our immediate interpretations of what happens to us derive from assumptions we have made about the world and about how we should live our lives. If we are miserable and we want to be happy we need to examine the assumptions on which our interpretations are based. David had learned about the Just World in his religious education at home and at school, but he had made it his unquestioned belief because it offered him a way of enduring with hope his unhappy childhood. Ideas that stand us in good stead at one time in our lives can become the source of our misery at another time. David's belief in the Just World led to his becoming bitter and resentful. He could change this by seeing that we live in a world where things happen by chance, and thus he would lose his bitterness and resentment. He could come to see that time passes whether we wish it to or not, and that it is wise to go with its flow. He could also see that believing that life inevitably gets worse after forty is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that it is possible to lead a most satisfactory life at whatever age we are. He could choose to take responsibility for his bad temper, but this should not be difficult because he would have already found that, in losing his resentment and fear, he was no longer angry. Indeed, he was a happy man.


Rowe Dorothy. Breaking the Bonds: Understanding Depression and Finding Freedom. HarperCollins. 1990.
Rowe Dorothy. Wanting Everything. HarperCollins. 1991.
Rowe Dorothy. Time on Our Side. HarperCollins. 1994.
Rowe Dorothy. Friends and Enemies. HarperCollins. 2000.


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About Dorothy Rowe - Deceased

Dorothy Rowe was a clinical psychologist, well known for her work on depression. She was the author of 12 books, each concerned with how we create meaning, and was a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, television and radio. She died in 25 March 2019. Her website is


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