Lying is difficult because we have to overcome our fear of getting caught. Thus, a majority of us are afraid to tell poker-faced lies to others. But when it comes to deceiving ourselves — we have somehow mastered the craft.
Humans are susceptible to self-deception because they have emotional attachments to their beliefs. They start identifying themselves with their set of beliefs. One deceives oneself to trust something that is not true as to better convince others of that truth. When a person convinces himself of this untrue thing, they are far better placed to mask all the visible signs of deception.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman
For someone like me whose job and passion revolves around lots of reading, both text and data, I am not totally immune to falling prey to self-deception.
However, I’ve recently developed a few tools that have helped me fool myself less. Today, I’d like to show you what they are, so you can do the same.
According to psychology, self-deception is one of the popular escapement methods that people use to prevent themselves from feeling guilty. But at the same time allowing themselves to escape from something that they don’t want to face. Of course, people don’t deceive themselves on intention but it’s their subconscious minds that come up with such tricks in order to protect their psychological well being.
The busy man syndrome is one of the most common examples of self-deception.
The person who fails to succeed in a certain area might decide to escape from it by keeping himself busy.
Some workaholics became that way because they failed to face social life and so decided to isolate themselves using that brilliant self-deception method.
We have to be extra observant to notice this pathological behavior of ours. Right from sharing the personal information about the kind of diet we prefer to the kind of exercise routine that we follow and even factual detail about our own actual height and weight is something we lie about.
In fact, Self-deception is something that is more powerful than coercion because we’re more inclined to believe the stories we tell ourselves (both true and untrue) than the convictions of others. What we like to believe — is often accepted as truth. And before we are even aware, we end up creating a nice narrative around those beliefs — and in the process deceive ourselves.
An Escape Route…
There are times when people develop a habit of self-deception as a way of coping with problems and challenges.
Traveling could be an example of this sort of self-deception. We all like to travel but some people decide to travel when things go wrong in their personal or professional life.
Those people might have failed to succeed or might have failed to develop good relationships with the people around them and that’s why they decide to escape.
However, because escapement feels bad self-deception comes to save the day. The person might lie to himself by claiming that he loves to travel while in fact, he loves to escape.
Many people have a way of “fooling their inner eye” to believe they are more successful or attractive than they really are. Even though I may like to think otherwise, but I am not an exception here.
Probably it can explain why nowadays we witness so many users for photo filtering apps. People have absolutely no reservations in deceiving the world about their looks, income, passion or vacations.
University of Michigan social psychologist David Dunning, famous for Dunning-Kruger effect is of the opinion that
“Gullibility to oneself is not a modern phenomenon. But the effects are exacerbated in the age of social media when false information spreads rapidly. We’re living in a world in which we’re awash with information and misinformation.”
A phenomenon unique in a post-truth world.
…To Avoid Confronting Difficult Situations
There are people who deceive themselves to avoid confronting difficult situations. Dodging a chronic problem by telling yourself you’ll solve it in the future is — a widely prevalent disease of procrastination.
For some people, self-deception becomes a habit, spinning out of control and providing a basis for more lies. Because the best way to convince others that we believe something is to actually believe it.
Faced with the translucency of our own minds, self-deception is often the most robust way to mislead others. It’s not technically a lie (because it’s not conscious or deliberate), but it has a similar effect.
Wear a mask long enough and it becomes your face.
Play a role long enough and it becomes who you are.
Spend enough time pretending something is true and you might as well believe it.
Default Psychological Responses
At the very core, we lie to ourselves because we are not strong enough to admit we are insecure and vulnerable. We try our best to avoid confronting the uncomfortable realities of life. We are simply not yet ready to face them.
When I started my journey of establishing myself as a writer who plays at the intersection of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy, I was full of doubts. I wasn’t ready to take criticisms in the right spirit. It was difficult for me to appreciate the significance of feedback. As a result, it was difficult to ride those initial phases of complete obscurity.
The default psychological responses that protect our sense of self from challenging information that could hurt us are:
“I don’t eat too much, even though I am overweight.”
“I am not addicted to cigarettes, even though my daily consumption exceeds double digit.”
“I am not an alcoholic, even though I drink daily.”
If you notice all these statements are nothing but a desperate attempt to deceive oneself by denial of reality. Our evolutionary defense mechanism makes sure that we see these deceptive messages as “part of me”, which makes it difficult to find fault with those messages.
“Only if he would have kept his promise, I wouldn’t have got mad at him.”
“Only if I had a more sensitive and emotionally stable partner, I would have had a more fulfilling relationship.”
“Only if I had more time, I would have pursued my passion for writing.”
Once you start rationalizing your lack of action with myriad thinking errors, it often leads to destructive behaviors. The problem with this approach is that your choices are being made on the basis of your deceptive brain messages rather than your rational and true self.
“You are never listening to me, you don’t care about this relationship anymore.”
“You are too ambitious to have a family of your own.”
“You are too invested in your friends to value other relationships.”
Projection is how your brain is making you believe the alternative reality. It will keep searching for an opportunity to blame others.
But, as soon as we admit the problem lies with us, not with others, we become brave enough to face who we really are and present ourselves an opportunity to bring an internal transformation.
In my case, once I stopped blaming limitation of my immediate environment — long hours of commuting, five-year-old cute but talkative kid, work pressure, relationship commitments etc — I was no longer resisting them. I was no more looking for excuses. I simply opted myself out of the blame game. The race to prove my worth was not bothering me anymore. I was at peace with myself.
How To Counter Self Deception
I know discovering you’re deceiving yourself might not be the most pleasant thing. Here’s how I dealt with it when I first found out and what I have learned since.
As soon as I started to branch out from being a writer to a speaker, I suddenly found myself swimming in a completely unfamiliar territory. And the territory proved to be too intimidating for a complete novice like me. My audience was mostly school students and their helicopter parents. One is notorious for attention deficit and the other is infamous for having apprehensions that are indefinite. I had my task cut out and went to it.
After delivering one such talk, I requested the principal of that school to share her unbiased inputs on my sincere attempt. It annoyed me to no end when she took more than a week to reply back. She said,
“Everything from the content to delivery was OK, however, if you wish to take this craft to next level, you need to start treating this as an opportunity to create an emotional connect with your audience. And this is possible only if you can mold your script in accordance with the needs of your audience.”
Though I assured that her inputs were invaluable to me, deep down I wasn’t brave enough to even accept them.
First, there was this sense of denial. Primarily because of the hard work that had gone into preparing myself to deliver the talk was something she wasn’t aware. Then came the rationalization. Maybe this lot of students were not mature enough to appreciate the finer nuances of my content. Maybe parents were not bold enough to entertain challenging thoughts. And at times, even principals too can be way off the mark in their assessment because of their prejudices.
But while going through my routine of journal writing, it didn’t take me long to realize my fault. It was nothing but my evolutionary defense mechanism conditioned to protect my side of the story at any cost. Now it was up to me whether to identify them as authentic or unreliable inner voice. Once I started bringing some objectivity in analyzing those default voices, I prevented myself from falling into the trap of self-deception.
These three steps helped me bring more clarity:
Pause → Self-examine → Face my fears.
Here’s how I use them and how you can do the same.
As soon as an emotion — love, shame, vengeance or guilt — gets manifested through your physiological expressions: just pause. When you are over generalizing things: just pause. As soon as you notice any incongruity between your values and actions: just pause.
Take a deep breath and interrupt the thought pattern.
If you have a strong reaction to certain situations, use the pause to ask:
“What is this reaction of mine trying to tell me?”
As soon as we admit our limitations and insecurities we become aware of choices which in turn makes us more responsible for consequences of our own actions.
3. Face Your Fears
If you were escaping from something or if you were afraid to test your real worth, then it’s time to become brave and face the things you were escaping from. What do you need to take head on? Once you know what it is, face it.
You will become much more confident in yourself.
The Magic Of Acceptance
At the very core is your readiness to accept things as they are, not as what you wish them to be. But accepting reality is easy when you like what you see, but you’ve got to accept it even when you don’t — especially when you don’t. And please stop trying to make the world conform to your will.
For example, if you are a storyteller and your stories are consistently failing to attract the eyeballs, then it makes sense to accept the underlying hypothesis that they are indeed not good enough to connect with readers.
You may not be a storyteller yourself, but I’m sure you can come up with examples from your own life.
Perhaps you have no talent for negotiation? Not a natural leader or athlete? You should have the courage to take these truths into your strides and brace yourself for the consequences.
Often we see other people far more clearly than we see ourselves (which is why we’re so frequently disappointed by others but rarely by ourselves), so your best option is to find a friend or a partner you can rely on to give you the bitter but honest truth.
Even then, your brain will do its best to soft-pedal the facts it doesn’t like. With time, however, you’ll learn to take seriously the judgments of others.
So accept reality and accept it radically. Especially the bits you don’t like. It might be painful at the moment, but it’s got to be done. It’ll be worth it later on.
You might have to deal with your fair share of failure, and it’s okay to put a wrong foot now and then. The key is to discover why it happened and tackle the issue at its root. Because unlike wines, problems don’t improve with age.