The Truth about Self-Deception

Darkness QuoteAs a clinical psychologist, I am frequently confronted with the fact that we all lie. I am not talking about deliberate, bold-faced lying. No, this type of dishonesty is far harder to detect and admit. It is the kind of lying that comes from not being psychologically strong enough to be honest with ourselves. And I believe that it is our biggest obstacle to living a fulfilling life.

We fool ourselves into believing things that are false and we refuse to believe things that are true. In fact, we lie to ourselves about everything from seemingly insignificant facts to massive life-altering realities. For example:

  • We lie to ourselves about how much we really ate today and why we didn't list our actual height and weight on our driver’s license.
  • We lie to reflect our aspirational goals; although we tell ourselves that we are not going to drink tonight, when we arrive at the party and everyone else is drinking, we have at least 3 glasses of wine.
  • We lie to reflect our desire to maintain social appropriateness: upon running into an acquaintance at the grocery store, we say,  “You really look fantastic!” even though he or she has never looked so unhealthy. Yet, we tell ourselves that it is okay to lie because we don't want to seem rude.
  • We lie to reflect our social ideals: “I am always physically attracted to my spouse and I would never flirt with anyone else” because that wouldn't be acceptable to admit to myself or anyone else.
  • We lie about our most important life choices, such as why we married who we did or chose a given career path. Unfortunately for the romantics reading this, love is rarely the full motivation for those choices.
  • At the core, we deceive ourselves because we don't have enough psychological strength to admit the truth and deal with the consequences that will follow. Yet, understanding our self-deceptive nature is the most effective way to live a fulfilling life. For when we acknowledge who we really are, we have the opportunity to change.

Costs of Self-Deception

You may be asking yourself, “Why should I care about self-deception? What is the benefit to me?”

Although normative and commonplace, self-deception comes with profound costs because we live our truth whether we are honest about it or not. Self-deception is exemplified in our thinking patterns, beliefs, behaviors, emotional reactions, and relationships. Anytime our lives are driven by something outside of our awareness, is it dangerous to us and everyone around us.

One major cost of self-deception is that we hurt ourselves and those we love the most when we don't take full responsibility for who we are. We often use painful life experiences to justify being non-ideal versions of ourselves. Anytime we do that, we directly and indirectly hurt others—especially those we love the most.

Another primary cost of self-deception is that we can contribute to large-scale acts of cruelty by believing our lies and spreading them to others. Although most of us deny that we are capable of deliberately harming others, history and a great deal of social psychology research suggest that we are all capable of extreme acts of cruelty when put in the right environment. For example, if a group of people convinced you that they would kill you and everyone you loved, would you support their systematic extermination? History says that we would, but we want to deceive ourselves into thinking that we aren’t capable of it.

A third major cost of self-deception is that it can leave us with massive amounts of regret. We may have made choices with harmful consequences to avoid being honest. Or we may have chosen not to change after admitting the truth. Looking back at life with regret is one of the toughest to get over because you cannot change your choices in the past, only your choices in the present.




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