As a group of concerned passengers assisted a young man off the floor of the local rapid transit train, he began to bark obscenities, condemning the well-meaning citizens for their interference. Soaked in urine, and stained from vomit, he lifted his head off the floor, “Stupid people,” he cussed, “you think I can’t get up by myself.” He continued his ruthless slander, verbally attacking those making eye contact. The once helpful passengers, moved away, leaving the mean-spirited drunk to his own ruins. When I asked him about his life and how he ended up homeless and alone, he blamed his parents, teachers, and the government. He was well versed in the art of self deception.
Amazingly, even with a drug induced high, he spoke with articulate explanations and respectable intelligence. He was smart; but far from wise. Sophisticated in words; but foolish in action. His intelligence manipulated words, infused them with deceptive meaning. Self deception is a nasty foe that protects the present and sacrifices the future.
With his interpretations, he disavowed responsibility for his current state. He blamed his development on parents who didn’t love him, teachers who ignored him and authorities who didn’t understand. His reliance on external causes prevented any opportunity for notable change. Certainly, all these notable models have a developmental impact that demands that we work to reach those burdened from systemic failures. However, this young man skirted his responsibility, discounting the human ingenuity to create our own future, escaping the nasty trajectories early life subjects on us.
Taking Responsibility for the Work of Change
We know experience impacts our lives, rotten parents, unskilled professionals, and abusive officials interfere with development, damaging the tender souls relying on their direction. But we must live with the results; not them. Blaming the past doesn’t correct the present. When we don’t like what we see in the present, instead of excuses, we would do better by attending to solutions, inviting cures rather than blaming damning causes from the past.
Intelligent Self Deception
Intelligence can work to our advantage, thoughtfully integrating experience into helpful lessons for improvement. But when we use intelligence to formulate justifications and blame, skilled excuses are powerfully destructive; we convince ourselves of victimhood. How does these deceptions serve us?
The most fundamental deception that destroys our life is the faulty proclamation that we are immune to self deceptions. The intelligent believe themselves above such a silly practice and thus subject themselves to the worst decepetion of all.
See Fooling Ourselves for more on this topic.
Self Protecting Deceptions
The mind’s power to twist experience into logical excuses protects the ego. This practice is hurtful when carried out to the extent in prevents helpful changes. The further we drift from normalcy, the more distorted the excuses. Though his bank account is empty, his relationships are in ashes, and his employment on the edge of termination, the drug addict insists he is not out of control, pointing to others that are in worse condition then their selves.
We want to feel good about ourselves while wanting to know the truth. these two primary factors collide in creating a cognitive dissonance that we must resolve.
Roy F. Baumeister, Todd F. Heatherton, Dianne M. Tice explain that “with self-deception, there are two competing processes. On the one hand, the person wants to believe some particular thing. On the other, the person wants to know the truth; after all, it is no good simply to believe something pleasant if it is false. The search for truth and the search for a particular answer thus operate against each other, and whichever overrides the other will emerge as the winner” (1994)
This dull grasp on reality conceals opportunity for escape, inviting continued languishing and accumulating defeats. An imaginary claim to innocent victimhood may temporarily ease the psychological burden of failure; but until explanations lead to corrective action, the explanations only frustrate progression.
Self Deception is a Normal Practice
Self deception is a normal practice. We protect ourselves from over critical examinations by manipulating the data, making it kinder. How we use facts to judge ourselves is much different than how we use facts to judge others. In psychology, we refer to this as the fundamental attribution error.
“Most people have ‘positive illusions’ by which they maintain a better view of themselves than would be supported by reality. We see ourselves as better than others, in more control of our lives than is true, and have optimistic views of our capabilities to weather adversity including physical disease” (Ford, 2004). Ford continues, “characteristics of self-deception are so prevalent, and have been confirmed so repetitively by various investigators, that we must regard them as normal.”
These protective deceptions impact all of us, not just those whose lives are in ashes. Self deceptions limit our relationships, exercise programs, job promotions and budgets. While the facts are clear—we are failing, we continue to justify errant courses. We keep giving subpar effort and blame the disappointing results on someone or something outside of our control. “
Nothing is more usual than for a man to impute his actions to honorable motives when it is nearly demonstrable that they flowed from some corrupt and contemptible force.”~William Godwin
Exposing Our Self Deceptions
Successfully exposing self deceptions requires a continual search for concrete facts when soothing explanations interfere with personal development.
The young man lying face down on the floor of a dirty transit bus because of drunkenness suffered from the debilitating disease of alcoholism. His alcoholism is a fact he must face before change can begin. Our failure to be promoted may be because our failure to properly present ourselves to management. Our failing relationships may be because we ignore our partner’s needs.
The causes for dissatisfying results are many. Life is complex. Each consequences has multiple causes. We must find the elements within our realm of control. When we narrow our assessments, eliminating fruitless finger pointing, we learn what actually can be done to redirect our lives.
To escape the distortions of self deception, we need objective measurements—feedback immune to self-protecting manipulations. These measures may include professional help, journals, and goals that are broken down into actions rather than vague hopes. Finances are measured with net-worth statements; health is measured by the scale, blood tests and blood pressure readings; relationship success can be measured by number of dates, time together, number of heated disagreements.
Obviously, we can still massage objective measures to continue self protecting deceptions. For example, couples can go on more dates and still emotionally disconnect. However, improving objective measures often leads to improving the less easily measured areas of our lives. More dates, more time together, typically create more closeness. To avoid self deception and gaining deeper self insights, we must implement objective measures.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
We live one-day-at-a-time, but those single days accumulate, pointing towards a life we desire or decaying into something we dread. We must drag ourselves off the floor, honestly look circumstances in the eyes, take the hit to our ego and scrap the self deceptive practices so we can begin the wonderful work of change.
Baumeister, Roy F.; Heatherton, Todd F.; Tice, Dianne M. (1994). Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation. Academic Press; 1st edition.
Ford, Charles V. (2004). Lying and Self-Deception in Health and Disease. In Emotional Expression and Health: Advances in Theory, Assessment and Clinical Applications; editors Ivan Nyklícek, Lydia Temoshok, Ad Vingerhoets. Routledge; 1st edition.