When Does A Lie Hurt Me the Worst? When I’m Lying to Myself
In our time, we’re deeply concerned with truth and lies. Often there are fiercely different, competing versions of the truth. Yet the greatest danger occurs, not when others lie to me, but when I’m lying to myself.
Many people might find this last observation to be very puzzling. “We live in a world full of horrible deception!” they protest. “Look at the level of lying that is perpetrated by our highest political leaders, or by those in positions of power in giant corporations. Or consider the lies that nations tell about their intentions and about what’s really going on in the world? How could you possibly say that our capacity for “lying to myself” is more damaging or more immoral that that?“
Yet I believe that what I claim is true. Lying to ourselves can be more dangerous and damaging than all of the above. The lies that we tell ourselves can end up disconnecting us from reality in ways that are incredibly dangerous and painful. Also, often, the “big lies” that are told by governments, totalitarian political parties or manipulative corporations are so destructive because they build on lies that we have told ourselves, where we find it too painful to face what is really the truth
What’s Going On When I’m Lying to Myself?
The expression “lying to ourselves” or lying to myself gets used fairly frequently, but what do we actually mean when we say it? As Harvard Prof. Michael I. Norton notes, it is “one of the most puzzling things humans do.” Empirical psychology provides a great deal of evidence that lying to ourselves, which psychology refers to as self-deception is a very, very frequent type of human behaviour. Here are a few examples of self-deception or lying to myself:
- Willful Ignorance. One way to deceive myself is to simply avoid learning the facts. E.g., if I don’t want to face the fact that my brother-in-law earns more money than me, I can simply avoid looking at what houses cost in the area he lives in.
- Denial. In the face of facts that are very hard to confront or bear, people can tell themselves, “It isn’t really happening”
- False Self-Image. We can all hold on to a lot of illusions about our attributes and abilities, in an effort to boost our self-esteem.
- Cherry Picking Facts. When we want to convince ourselves of something, it can be easy to focus on the facts that support it, and ignore the facts that tend to refute it.
These are only a few of the many ways in which we can engage in self-deception. Now, we don’t tend to think of them as “ways I’m lying to myself”. But doesn’t mean that they aren’t.
The Hidden Hazards of Self-Deception
Some commentators emphasize that there can be situations where there is genuine benefit in lying to myself. For instance, the person who is in denial about a traumatic state of affairs may need that denial, for a time, to keep from being completely undone by the situation. Nonetheless, self-deception can lead to a great many painful and dangerous situations.
Self deception, “lying to myself” is often a big component in addictive behaviours. An individual may tell themselves that they aren’t addicted or that they “can’t help it”, or any of a number of other lies that just keep the addiction going. Similarly, we may all tell ourselves lies when the alternative is accepting a truth that is altogether too threatening or painful.
For instance, Jungian analyst Murray Stein describes how, as can often occur, a person faces a very difficult and defeating situation in the middle years of their life. Rather than accepting what has happened and starting to chart a new course for themselves as a part of a healthy midlife transition, the individual tells him- or herself that nothing has changed:
Who has not known a [person] whose climb to the top was to everyone but [him- or herself] decisively halted, yet who kept dressing up to go to work and forcing [herself] to believe that this was only a pause in the ascent, as [she] continued pursuing the same goal, all the while being profoundly uncommitted to it…? ~Murray Stein, In Midlife
As we can see, in midlife, or in any major life transition, self deception can be a powerful disruptor of our individuation process, the vital journey to becoming and expressing who we really are at the most fundamental level.
Self-Compassion and the Truth
The truth can be hard, yet compassion for oneself is rooted in what Jungian analyst John Beebe describes as a sense of “integrity in depth”. It’s only when we’re committed to the journey of being truthful to ourselves that we are truly embarked on the journey to wholeness. Jungian /a-midlife-transition is fundamentally about this commitment to being truthful with oneself, to moving beyond lying to oneself, and to cultivating compassion—without apology—for who we really are.
Wishing you every good thing on your journey to wholeness,