Self-delusion is the biggest mental block to our full and honest awareness. All of us delude ourselves about reality to some extent; it is nothing to be ashamed of. However, self-deception has many negative consequences for our growth as individuals, and we must identify what it is about our lives that we have chosen to blind ourselves to, in order to avoid ignoring opportunities to work on our flaws.
We know self-delusion is at play if we recognize defense mechanisms, which develop to protect our ego from uncomfortable truths. Nobody can tackle our defense mechanisms but us. There are many common mechanisms such as denial, repression, regression, projection, displacement, etc. Each can be identified through its own unique indicators, but the thing unifying them all is that they allow us to stay in a comfortable bubble where we can get away with not challenging ourselves enough to experience substantial growth.
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As you read through the previous chapters, you probably noticed something with many of the given examples. The starting step for any process of improvement always seems to be “gain conscious awareness,” and yet, this is much easier said than done.
Imagine a person who goes to therapy to get a handle on their depression and anxiety. Once there, the therapist helps explore the possible causes and triggers behind some of their client’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. But rather than honestly appraising issues like addiction, trauma, poor choices in the past, childhood experiences or bad health habits, the client simply decides that the real problem is that everyone is jealous of them.
The impulse to seek personal development is there (hence going to therapy), but something has gone wrong: self-deception. Maybe the person in our example does something else like claim that literally 100 percent of the problems in their life are because of their awful partner, or refuse to acknowledge a painful truth that would in the long run help them heal.
The weakness in many of the previous chapters’ examples is that they rely on us being honest with ourselves. Here, we see the same themes revisited—can we tolerate discomfort, “failure,” uncertainty, criticism? Can we claim responsibility for ourselves and take ownership of our lives, even if it’s a little scary or feels a lot like hard work? This is the difference between a passive, reactive and fixed mindset, and a conscious, deliberate and proactive one that sets you up to take charge of your life.
Now, there isn’t any value judgment in any of this. All of us can practice self-deception and be a little deluded at times. There’s a reason for it: doing so protects us from uncomfortable truths. Self-comforting can go too far, and we can find ourselves telling convenient little lies that ultimately limit us. It’s only human, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.
Overcoming this mental block requires a lot of courage—both to honestly identify where it’s happening in the first place, and also to willfully abandon any comfortable illusions in favor of a likely less comfortable truth. Living in a world of your own deceptions does have some perks! But as we’ll see in this chapter, the costs may actually be more than they’re worth, and it’s a real understanding of this fact that can allow you to gradually loosen self-deception and intentionally cultivate more resilience and honesty.
The trouble with self-delusion is obvious: it’s almost impossible to spot, by design.
It’s a tricky problem. How can you ever really know if you’re lying to yourself? What a rabbit hole to fall into: the question of what’s really the “truth” and what is an unacceptably inaccurate interpretation. After all, isn’t the claim in this book that our thoughts determine our experience? Aren’t we deliberately trying to cultivate, in a way, certain positive illusions in ourselves?
In fact, overcoming self-delusion is not nearly as complicated as all this. It all comes down, again, to the stories we tell ourselves, our value judgments, and our expectations. If we follow the emotion, we will soon arrive at any less-than-accurate white lies we are holding on to.
How to Identify Self-Delusion
1. Have self-compassion. Remember, self-delusion is there to serve a purpose—to shield you from painful truths. You can only peek at these painful truths if you’re genuinely willing to believe that “whatever truth I uncover about myself, I accept with kindness.” Try not to judge yourself or feel shame. Just become curious and remember, you’re not trying to attack yourself. Self-understanding is about loving yourself enough to change with kindness.
2. Next, zoom in on your defense mechanisms. You’ll know you’re employing a defense mechanism when you feel defensive, or suddenly and irrationally emotional about something. These “buttons” are a clue that there is hidden and unacknowledged material in your psyche. Proceed gently, instead of avoiding or denying. For example, if you’ve always been touchy about your weight (like the woman in our previous example) and one day feel criticized, stay with the angry feelings that may emerge. Could it be that the person “criticizing” you has said something a little close to home? Unravel this thread to find where you may be telling yourself little white lies.
3. Look out for absolute language, i.e. words like “always,” “never,” “completely.” Watch for black-and-white thinking, i.e. something is all one thing or all another, without any gray area in between. This signals an inability to tolerate nuance, i.e. reality! Look at the stories you tell. The self-deluded ones may be overly simplistic, primarily emotional in content and have an absolute quality about them (for example, it’s the difference between “I can’t help it, I have fat genes, I’ll always be a fat ass” and “Man, losing weight is hard!”)
4. Self-delusion often goes along with a failure to take responsibility. Psychologists talk about your locus of control, i.e. where you see agency arising from. Grounded, realistic thinking acknowledges external factors but largely works from an internal locus of control—that is, it takes personal responsibility and ownership of what happens in life. Self-delusion in contrast may have the flavor of blame, passivity, and victimhood.
5. Sometimes, a self-delusional mental story is one that is convoluted. Have you noticed how people telling a lie will often go on and on, adding countless unnecessary details, i.e. “protesting too much”? When we lie to ourselves, we sometimes do the same. The truth doesn’t need lengthy excuses and justifications; it can often be stated quickly. If you find yourself getting carried away in what you think is a reason, pause and ask if it’s actually an excuse.
As you can see, this isn’t easy work, and it’s not something you do in an afternoon and tick off the list forever. Combating self-delusion is hard, because we are the only ones who will ever really hold ourselves accountable. We can lie effectively to others, and to ourselves, and never be challenged to be better. We have to ask more of ourselves.
Is it really true that you could have completed an MBA, only you chose not to because you thought it would be too easy? Is it really true that the only reason you’re single is because you’re too nice? Is it really true that you drink so much because your job requires it?
Sometimes, we delude ourselves with a story of what we think should be the case. It can be helpful to look more closely at this “should” narrative and ask where it came from, whether it’s true, and if you really like the way it makes you feel, think and behave.
Overly high expectations can cause us to believe we need to be perfect, need to be happy all the time, need to be in complete control (are you seeing echoes of the fixed mindset here?). We may have succumbed to external ideas of what we need to be—smart, wealthy, attractive, happy etc.—and constructed little white lies to cover the difference between those lofty ideals and how we really feel.
But, with a growth mindset, an attitude of deliberate and conscious intention, and bucketloads of self-compassion, we see that it’s not the end of the world to be what we are. Even if we’re sometimes confused, broke, sad, or unappealing to others. In fact, if we hope to change reality, we need to be able to look at it honestly first, without any distortions.
It may not always feel like it, but integrity and resilience are actually the more valuable traits to develop. We don’t dwell on our flaws because we’re masochistic or hate ourselves—we do it because we value growth.
We value ourselves and our experience. Yes, it may be tempting, for example, to always be the victim and blame someone else for our problems. But the more conscious view sees that this position isn’t all that satisfying, because it never empowers you to make meaningful changes, never encourages you to own your own agency. Isn’t there more to life than comfort?