Let’s break the ice: we are all living in self-deception.
Yep. I said it. And yes, I’m for reals.
I don’t kick off with this fact to be a downer. I’m letting everyone know that we’re all lying to ourselves because acknowledging our human tendency towards self-deceit is the first and most important step in undoing self-deception. So, you’re welcome.
What is self-deceit?
I’m glad you asked! I love the definition Gregg A. Ten Elshof offers in his book I Told Me So: “It’s about the amazing human capacity to break free from the constraints of rationality when truth ceases to be the primary goal of inquiry” (p. xiii). We deceive ourselves when we are primarily motivated by something other than the desire for truth when we hold onto a certain belief, opinion, “fact,” or piece of information.
The problem arises when we are unable to acknowledge our true motives for holding onto a belief, telling ourselves that our primary drive is a search for accurate truth.
…But what about all the other motivators swirling around in our hearts and minds? Sometimes these motivators are also referred to as core beliefs. Maybe some of the following motives resonate with you:
I perform above average in my work, school, or church circle.
I am above average at caring for and loving my spouse. (Marriage stats about dissatisfaction/divorce don’t or won’t apply to me).
I am a better parent than average.
I get more stuff done than the average person.
I am a harder worker than the average person.
I have higher intellect than the average person.
I am more “together” than the average person.
I am a more upright Christian than the average person of faith.
Chances are you don’t buy into all of these statements, but if you’re like most people at least some of these are beliefs that you hold about yourself. If you find that none of these statements reflect how you see yourself, you may have a more self-deprecating way of seeing yourself that may be a sign of unhealth. More on that later.
Many times the perception of ourselves as above average or infallible in various arenas intercepts the way we filter evidence that may be contrary to those beliefs. This is where self-deception is born: at the intersection of perfectionism and contrary evidence. There is an opportunity to lie to ourselves when our motives are called into question by contrary evidence, allowing us to preserve our core beliefs and avoid cognitive dissonance.
Here’s what these self-deceptive lies can sound like in our minds:
I’m not a bad mom, so my child’s behavior issues are her teacher’s fault.
I’m not a bad spouse, so the conflict in my marriage is my partner’s fault.
I’m not a bad employee, so the fact that someone else got the promotion I deserved must be politically motivated.
Hopefully you get the idea. It is possible that sometimes when these kinds of beliefs live in our heads we are accurately perceiving reality – maybe there are some serious issues going on with your child’s teacher that are contributing to her behavioral problems, for example. The problem arises when we’re unwilling to take in all evidence and possibilities.
In order to undo self-deception, we first need to accept that we will never be capable of undoing all self-deception. If your goal is to rise above all self-deceit, it can become another perfectionistic motivator on your list of core beliefs, making it impossible to perceive self-deceit when it arises.
So operating under the assumption that we are fallible humans who will never turn over every self-deceptive lie we’re living in, we can have an internal dialogue open to all the evidence. In the above example of the child experiencing some behavioral problems it might sound like this:
My child is having some behavioral problems. I think I’m a good mom, so I wonder if there’s something going on at school with her teacher that’s causing the issue. That’s one possibility. I also know I must not be perfect all the time as a mom either. I wonder if there could be anything I might be contributing to the issue as well?
You see here that in order to push against self-deception, we must be comfortable with the fact that we’re not perfect. Therefore, humility is the primary antidote to self-deception.
…Just don’t be tempted to go down the path of thinking you’re a super humble person and therefore assuming you’re awesome at uncovering all your internal lies about yourself. Then you’re just setting yourself up for more self-deceit.
Humility is hard! It goes against our nature and our cultural values to admit that we could be wrong. Take your time and see this process as a practice or a discipline rather than a task to get right or wrong.
If you’re interested in learning more, I really love Gregg A. Ten Elsof’s book I Told Me So. It is written from a Christian slant, but it’s based on established research on the topic. For a non-faith-based alternative, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute is also a great book.
If after reading some examples of core beliefs you found that you didn’t resonate with any of them, it may be possible that you carry some core beliefs that lean more negative or or that are self-deprecating. There are an array of reasons that this may be true of you, but in this case you may still be experiencing self-deception but in a manner that confirms your negative core beliefs about yourself. The process of change is similar, except you may need to focus more on accepting your strengths rather than on being humble.
As always, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.
Best wishes to you in your journey,