Our Common Human Failing—Self-Deception
Recently, I visited an elderly family friend, who was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She decided to have surgery, despite her advanced age, in the hopes that she might gain more time to finish some of her projects. Her family was distraught. They could not fathom her positive attitude in the face of her diagnosis. To some degree, she simply didn’t want to know about her disease. She just wanted to hear that she might live several years longer.
Mary talked to me about a relationship with her new boyfriend. She described his lack of communication, his rigidity, and his irritability. She had many excuses for his behavior. “But I love him” she said.
Joe, an older teen, smokes pot several times a day. He notices that he didn’t seem to get much done, but he feels that marijuana helps him relax. He doesn’t think that his use of pot might be causing him any problems.
Sarah thought she was an excellent employee. Yes, she was often late to work, but she always had good reasons for her tardiness. She felt that her boss was being overly critical of her chronic lateness and should focus on her positive contributions to her company.
All of these individuals share a common human trait—self-deception.
We are all capable of large doses of telling ourselves a story and then believing it. We want to believe something to be true and then, voila, it is! How does this happen? How can we fool ourselves so easily?
For one, it is very difficult to see ourselves clearly. Unfortunately, our self-image often obscures our understanding of how other people view us. Do you really know how your spouse, friend, relatives, or co-workers see you? We may have a sense of the broad outlines of their perspective—but we cannot see the important details. Often, it is very difficult to perceive the impact of our behavior on others. Some of us are like elephants in a china shop—knocking over plates and glasses as we lumber along. Others see plainly where to step.
Self-awareness varies from person to person too. Some people are very self-aware. They have a good sense of their inner motives, reactions, and feelings. But others are clueless! They have very little awareness into themselves.
And then all too often, our desires and needs interfere with our vision. The longing for approval, love, material goods, or money overrides our understanding of what we are doing. These yearnings are like a thick fog—we cannot see one foot in front of us!
Self-deception is further enhanced by rationalization. Lets face it, a thief doesn’t say to himself—I am a thief and a bad person. Rather, he tells himself that the victim doesn’t really need all that money.
So, how do we minimize our innate ability to fool ourselves?
- Perform a regular reality check. Ask yourself—I am really being honest with myself? Sometimes asking yourself that question will bring forward a deeper inquiry into your motivation.
- Talk to a good friend. My wife is an excellent source of information about me! After 39 years she knows me better than I know myself. She is a great reality check for me and is usually right—even though I hate to admit it!
- Cultivate self-awareness. Start with the premise that you can become more aware of yourself. Reflect on your behavior, try to assess its impact on others, and ask for feedback from others. Carefully consider what others tell you.
- Ask yourself—What is the “right” thing to do? We all know what the right thing to do is, even if we don’t do it. Contrast your desires (emotions) with this knowledge (your head)—you will minimize your self-deception. Remember our creator gave us a brain to use, not just to fill the space between our ears!
What do you use as a reality check to keep you honest?