"Humans are excellent liars. We don't like to think of ourselves as capable of lying; it hurts us too much to admit. So we lie about that, too"
(Warren, 2014c, pp. 4).
One of my favorite courses to teach is basic principles of psychotherapy. On the first day of class, students usually look at me quizzically when I state that my primary goal is to help them use psychological theories of human nature to understand themselves. The idea that a course is designed to promote self-understanding while providing foundational content is unfamiliar to many students. Although most are psychology majors, applying theories of human nature to their own personal lives in meaningful ways is a skill that requires practice. However, in addition to being the basis of psychotherapeutic practice, one reason that psychology is so important as a field is precisely because it can help us understand ourselves and promote life fulfillment. Based on the content of my latest book, Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Psychology of Self-Deception (Warren, 2014c), I wrote this article to help readers use theories of human nature to understand their own self-deception and choose to be more honest. When we use the best of psychology to understand ourselves, we have the opportunity to change and become more honest liars (Warren, 2014b).
As a clinical psychologist, I am consistently faced with the harsh reality that humans lie to themselves on a daily basis. We deceive ourselves about everything from tiny, seemingly insignificant aspects of our lives to our most influential life choices (Warren, 2014c). For example, we struggle to admit how much money we really spend on coffee each week and the real reason that we didn’t pay our credit card bill on time. We also lie to ourselves about why we select certain dating partners or pursue a given career path. Unfortunately for all of us who want to live in an eternally positive fantasy realm of romance and reality, we are attracted to people and occupations for many reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with love!
Although self-deception is a complicated construct, we lie to ourselves at the most basic level by not admitting something that is true or by believing something that is false (Deweese-Boyd, 2012; Paulhus, 1984). At our cores, we deceive ourselves because we lack the psychological strength to admit the truth and change once the truth is acknowledged (Warren, 2014c). As such, self-deception helps us avoid confronting painful life realities. In this way, self-deception is a good coping mechanism because it helps us twist, manipulate, and tweak the truth to be more consistent with what we can psychologically tolerate (Warren, 2014c). That said, self-deception can also cause us profound regret because lying to ourselves will thwart our ability to live the life that would be most fulfilling for each of us.
Theories of Human Nature and Self-Deception
Although few psychological theories of human nature overtly describe selfdeception, most can be used to help us understand how we lie to ourselves. Specifically, psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, existential, and sociocultural perspectives offer us insights into how we deceive ourselves.
Psychodynamic perspective. Sigmund Freud and other psychodynamic scholars first described self-deception through ego-defense mechanisms (Corey, 2009; Freud, 1960, 1995; McWilliams, 2011). These psychological strategies are designed to protect our ego—our core rational sense of self—from information that would hurt us. In true Freudian language, they are designed to help us maintain a big ego.
One of the most common ego-defense mechanisms is denial, which occurs any time you refuse to believe something that is true. Often, the more strongly you want to deny something, the more likely it is to be true. For example, you may emphatically state that you don’t have a problem with intimacy even though you emotionally keep others at arm’s length. You may claim to live a healthy lifestyle even though you smoke cigarettes and rarely exercise. Or, you may refuse to acknowledge how your childhood environment influenced your ability to express emotion effectively.
Another commonly used defense is rationalization, defined as creating a reason to excuse aspects of yourself that you find unacceptable. In essence, rationalization allows you to feel better about yourself by intellectually justifying your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. For example, you may justify cheating on your mate by stating that you were drinking, angry, or hurt because he or she hasn’t spent enough time with you. You may continue dating someone who is not healthy for you by telling yourself that you are in love, thereby justifying your decision to stay. In school, you may tell yourself that you didn’t study for your exam because a friend was in town, you needed a break, or you were too tired to look over your notes in an attempt to make yourself feel less guilty.
A third commonly used defense is projection, which involves taking an undesirable aspect of yourself and ascribing it to someone else. In other words, instead of admitting something that you don’t like about yourself, you see the same flaw in someone else. Often projection makes us look highly hypocritical. For example, you may accuse someone of being a gossip instead of admitting that you are the one gossiping. You may say that you would never drunk dial someone late at night, have a one-night-stand, or think something racist or sexist. However, you quickly point out these behaviors in another person to cover up the fact that you are uncomfortable with you own behavior.
Cognitive behavioral perspective. From a cognitive behavioral perspective, we can understand self-deception through the many illogical or irrational ways we think (Beck, 1975; Burns, 1980; Ellis & Harper, 1975). Prominent theorists like Aaron Beck and Alfred Ellis argued that humans like to think that their thoughts accurately reflect reality. In fact, most of us believe that we are right about everything because we think our thoughts are true. However, the truth is that our thoughts are not an accurate reflection of reality—they are often incredibly biased, skewed, and inaccurate in characteristic ways that harm our ability to be honest. Referred to as crooked thinking or cognitive distortions (Beck, 1975; Burns, 1980; Ellis & Harper, 1975), self-deception often emerges through distorted thinking patterns that reflect painful realities that we don’t want to admit (Warren, 2014c).
One common cognitive distortion is emotional reasoning, defined as thinking that your feelings accurately reflect current reality. For example, when you feel sad, you may think, "I am so depressed. Clearly something in my current life is causing my sadness,” instead of considering that perhaps your emotion is related to an unresolved issue from your past that is being triggered by a current life situation. When feeling angry with someone, you may think, "You made me feel angry,” instead of admitting that it is your interpretation of a current life event that fundamentally causes your emotional response.
Another common distortion is seeing a single negative life circumstance as a never-ending downward spiral, referred to as overgeneralization. For example, after going through a bad breakup, you may think, "I am never going to meet anyone. It isn’t even worth trying to date.” After getting in a fight with your best friend, you may think, "I am never going to get close to people ever again because I always get hurt in the end.”
A third common distortion is fortune telling, or believing that a prediction about the future is an already-established fact. When interviewing for a new job, you think, "This company is never going to hire me.” When entering into a new romantic relationship, you may think, "I am sure my new partner is cheating on me because my ex cheated.”
Existential perspective. From an existential perspective, self-deception can be understood as a desire to avoid the Givens of Life. Based in philosophy, the Givens are four basic realities of being human that we must face over the course of our lifetimes (Frankl, 1963; Yalom, 2000).
1. Death: we and everyone we love will die.
2. Ultimate aloneness: we are all born and will die as a single person housed in a solitary physical body.
3. Meaninglessness: our lives are inherently meaningless unless we give them meaning because none of us are that important, special, or unique in the grand scope of human history.
4. Freedom: we are responsible for every aspect of ourselves because we have the freedom of choice (Yalom, 2000).
To avoid admitting these realities, we frequently lie to ourselves (Warren, 2014c). For example, you may defer responsibility for your choices by blaming your past. You may say things like, "I am this way because my father was an alcoholic” or "I don’t trust people because I was abandoned as a child.” You may deny your mortality and the mortality of those you love by refusing to write a will, skipping your medical checkups, or avoiding discussions about the poor health of family and friends. You may have an incredibly busy social calendar to avoid being alone or for fear that you will miss out on something fantastic if you don’t show up to every party. You may believe that you would never be mugged, raped, or attacked because you are somehow uniquely protected from harm and special, making you immune from negative life events (Warren, 2014c).
Sociocultural perspective. Multicultural and feminist psychologists describe how cultural norms around race, sex, sexual orientation, and a host of other socially relevant topics affect our psychological health and well-being (American Psychological Association, 2003; Sue & Sue, 2013). Sociocultural theorists argue that we grow up trying to emulate whatever our culture deems to be most valuable because we all want to be desired, loved, and wanted. This generally occurs without our conscious awareness. Consequently, in terms of selfdeception, we often believe that what we were culturally conditioned to believe is true instead of determining if what we actually believe is true (Warren, 2014c).
The way we feel about our physical appearance is one obvious way that cultural messages affect us. In mainstream Western cultures, even a cursory glance in a children’s toy store clearly communicates that girls should be princesses dressed in pink tiaras and boys should be car-loving men of action dressed in military fatigues. Over time, we strive to emulate these ideals. Specifically, girls learn that attaining the ideal appearance is fundamental to her gender role and value: the ideal woman looks youthful with perfect skin and big eyes surrounded by long eyelashes, white teeth, and a very thin, yet feminine, figure (Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999; Warren, 2014a). For men, not only do you need to be muscular and fit, but you also need to make a lot of money, be educated, and be smart. Although you have slightly more flexibility than women around how to be culturally valuable—you can be valued for your money or brains instead of just your physical appearance—you are still evaluated and scrutinized on the basis of these culturally imposed characteristics.
Over time, we consciously and unconsciously internalize cultural norms, evaluating ourselves and others in comparison to them (Warren, 2014c). In this way, many of us lie to ourselves about what we really believe because we internalize cultural messages that compromise our happiness without actually considering whether we agree. For example, you may believe you need to look a certain way, be a certain weight, earn a certain income, get married, have children, and go to church because you learned that this is the way you should be to be valued in your cultural context.
Choosing Honesty and Becoming More Honest Liars
There is an inherent dilemma in choosing to confront your self-deception; you can’t ask yourself how you lie to yourself because that would require you to tell the truth. Given the unconscious nature of self-deception, becoming honest is incredibly challenging. However, confronting your self-deception is critical to long-term life fulfillment and happiness. Below are five specific suggestions to start the process of choosing to become more honest with yourself.
1. Self-awareness. Become an observer of your own life. Without evaluation or judgment, pause. Begin to notice and observe yourself (Warren, 2014c). As you are observing, use the theories of human nature described above to ask yourself questions that target self-deception. When do you most often lie to yourself? What psychological strategies do you use most often to lie to yourself? Do you use denial, rationalization, projection, or emotional reasoning? What existential Givens of Life do you try to avoid confronting to feel comfortable? What cognitive distortions do you use most often to manipulate the truth and feel better?
As you ask yourself these challenging questions, remember that becoming more self-aware and honest is a choice. It takes deliberate effort because admitting the truth will be uncomfortable in the shortterm because your self-deception serves a function—it protects you from painful life realities. That said, in the long-term, it is critical to honestly admit who you are so that you can change things that you do not like about yourself.
2. Notice your emotion. Generally, when we are emotionally reactive to something or someone it is because we are being reminded of something painful, raw, or unresolved in our lives (Warren, 2014c). In these areas, we struggle to admit the truth. For example, if you have trust issues in your romantic relationships, you may feel anxious, angry, or scared when falling in love with a new mate. As this occurs, you may find yourself reactive to your mate in ways that are not warranted based on who this person is. In fact, your reaction may be fundamentally based on who you are and unresolved issues from your past that you are bringing into your new relationship. Given this reality, when you have a strong emotional reaction to something or someone, pause. Ask yourself: What is my emotion a reaction to? Is my emotion really related to the present situation, or is the present situation triggering something in me that is unresolved baggage from my past?
3. Notice your behavior. We desperately want our behavior to be separate from our identity (Warren, 2014c). We don’t want to believe that the way we act reflects who we are. For example, you don’t want to admit that you are jealous even though you check your partners’ phone messages; you don’t want to have intimacy issues even though you sabotage your relationships by breaking up with people when they get too close. However, the truth is that our behavior is a reflection of who we are in some way. When your behavior isn’t consistent with who you claim to be or want to be, pause. Ask yourself: Why am I acting this way? What is motivating my behavior? What do I not want to admit to myself about my behavior? Why?
4. Notice your thoughts. We all want to believe that our thoughts are accurate reflections of reality. However, as outlined by our cognitive behavioral experts, our thoughts are often highly biased and inaccurate. The falsehoods in your thinking tell you something about what is painful for you to admit, which will lead you directly to the cause of your self-deceptive tendencies. Given this reality, when you notice your thinking is extreme or irrational, pause. Ask yourself: What words am I using to describe my life? Are my thoughts accurate? Am I using my past to justify my current thinking? How are my thoughts biased?
5. Challenge culturally conditioned messages. As noted by our sociocultural experts, your cultural context will strongly influence what you deem to be desirable and undesirable. As you become more aware of your surroundings and the cultural messages you learned, you must determine whether you aspire to be a certain way because you believe it is right or because you were culturally conditioned to believe it is right (Warren, 2014b). Ask yourself challenging questions about what messages you learned about your value from a cultural perspective. For example, how do you compromise yourself to meet cultural norms? Do you think you need to look a certain way? Be a certain weight? Earn a certain income? Be in a relationship? Be religious? Why do you believe this to be true? Is it because culture taught you that you should be a certain way or because you believe it is right for you to be that way?
Becoming more honest is a lifelong journey (Warren, 2014c). It takes daily practice and effort because most of the time we are completely unaware of the rampant lying going on in our own minds. However, we cannot be honest with others until we are first honest with ourselves. Although we can’t directly ask ourselves how we lie, we can learn about who we really are by consciously observing ourselves, paying particular attention to our emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and culturally internalized beliefs.
In addition to generally helping us live more fulfilling lives, knowing ourselves is one of the foundational principles of being an excellent therapist. In fact, many scholars argue that the most important instrument in any therapeutic relationship is the therapist (Corey, 2009). Really understanding who we are requires brutal honesty. As such, for anyone interested in working with clients or patients in a therapeutic setting, my strong recommendation is that you start working on your self-deception now. Find an excellent therapist and choose to confront your self-deception each day of your life (Warren, 2014c). As we learn about ourselves at a deeper level, we give ourselves the freedom to heal, change, and evolve.
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