Living a lie

Our ca­pac­ity for self-de­cep­tion is stag­ger­ing

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - WELLBEING -

WE are of­ten told that there are two types of de­cep­tion: white lies, which are small, tri­fling and some­times nec­es­sary; and black lies, which are so­phis­ti­cated, com­plex and some­times dev­as­tat­ing. We are less in­clined, how­ever, to draw a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the lies we tell oth­ers and the lies we tell our­selves. Our ca­pac­ity for self-de­cep­tion is stag­ger­ing, yet we rarely take the time to con­sider the wool we are pulling over our own eyes.

Self-de­cep­tion is one of clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Dr Jor­dan Peter­son’s Master­mind sub­jects. He ex­plores the topic reg­u­larly in his ex­cel­lent on­line lec­tures, point­ing out that “we wouldn’t need psy­chol­ogy and so­ci­ol­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy, or any of those things, if we were trans­par­ent to our­selves”.

“We’re ma­chines, so to speak, that are far more in­tel­li­gent and wise than the ma­chines them­selves can un­der­stand,” he adds. “And we re­veal our­selves to our­selves in our ac­tions or sym­bolic ges­tures con­stantly.”

No­body likes liars and cheaters but it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that no­body will de­ceive you any more than you de­ceive your­self.

Here are just a few of the lies that we con­stantly tell our­selves:


Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and the do­ing-it-to­mor­row delu­sion, is one of the most per­va­sive forms of self-de­cep­tion. To­mor­row is a land of hope and prom­ise to the pro­cras­ti­na­tor, who fools him­self into believ­ing that he can change the habit of a life­time, and the course of his life, just as soon as he wakes up in the morn­ing. Pro­cras­ti­na­tors of­ten try to over­come their habit with elab­o­rate to-do lists when they re­ally ought to be en­gag­ing in rig­or­ous self-en­quiry. Per­haps it’s time to ac­cept that you’re not go­ing to change the life­long habit of pro­cras­ti­na­tion to­mor­row, or the next day, or the day af­ter that, un­less you face up to this al­most rit­u­al­is­tic form of self-de­cep­tion.


True bliss, we tell our­selves on a daily ba­sis, is only around the cor­ner. We’ll fi­nally be happy once we get paid/pro­moted/mar­ried/preg­nant, or just as soon as we own a cof­fee ma­chine/car/ house. The he­do­nic tread­mill, as it is known, is a vi­cious cir­cle, es­pe­cially when we don’t take the time to ex­am­ine the end­less pur­suit of more, or ac­cept that the last achieve­ment or ac­qui­si­tion didn’t bring us the con­tent­ment we thought it could. The idea that hap­pi­ness is cir­cum­stan­tial is just an­other form of self-de­cep­tion, which Mar­i­anne Wil­liamson ex­plains best: “Ego says, ‘Once every­thing falls into place, I’ll feel peace’,” she writes. “Spirit says, ‘Find your peace, and then every­thing will fall into place.’”


It’s com­mon to hear peo­ple who have just ex­pe­ri­enced a loss say that they “need clo­sure”. If they could just meet their ex-boyfriend and talk eye-to-eye, then maybe they could fi­nally get over the break-up. If they could just move through the five stages of grief, then maybe they could fi­nally get over the loss of a loved one. The truth is that there’s no such thing as clo­sure: it’s a sit­u­a­tional con­struct we build when we can’t cope with the sheer breadth and depth of loss. Heal­ing takes time and the idea that we can con­trol the process, with the pre­ci­sion of a cur­tain com­ing down at the end of the last act, is self-de­cep­tion, plain and sim­ple.


If I had more time I would go to the gym/ learn a lan­guage/write a book… We all have a long list of things we would achieve if only we had the time. Yet, if we’re com­pletely hon­est, we also tend to have plenty of time-wast­ing bad habits which we pri­ori­tise over the goals that are sup­pos­edly elud­ing our grasp. It’s self-de­cep­tion to think that we will sud­denly find time. We make time, by pri­ori­tis­ing what’s im­por­tant. Or, as Stephen Covey, puts it: “The key is not to pri­ori­tise what’s on your sched­ule but to sched­ule your pri­or­i­ties.”


There’s a trait that most peo­ple who in­sist they are “ter­ri­ble with names” tend to have in com­mon, and it’s not poor re­call, or to give it a more spe­cific name, ‘nom­i­nal apha­sia’. Ac­tu­ally, in most cases, the memory blip has less to do with cog­ni­tion and more to do with com­pla­cency. To put it more sim­ply: the peo­ple who re­call names with ease make an ef­fort to re­mem­ber them. They re­peat the name back to the per­son; they make a con­nec­tion — “I have a niece called Jane!” or they do any one of dozens of men­tal hacks that aid re­call. It’s self-de­cep­tion to say that you can’t re­mem­ber names if you haven’t even tried to com­mit them to memory.


We all go through stages of feel­ing mis­un­der­stood, even by those who are sup­posed to know us best. Delve a lit­tle deeper, how­ever, and you’ ll no­tice that we tend to feel like this dur­ing the times when we least un­der­stand our­selves. In­deed, when we truly re­alise our ca­pac­ity for self-de­cep­tion, we be­gin to un­der­stand that we don’t, to re­it­er­ate Dr Peter­son’s point, un­der­stand our­selves very much at all.

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