From innocent white lies to big fat porkies, there are many forms of being untruthful. There are the well-intended fibs you tell to save another’s feelings (“I love your new hairdo”), the tall tales you tell to protect yourself (“Nooo, I definitely wasn’t speeding, officer”) and then there are the gigantic whoppers that can, well, put you in the doghouse (“I swear I had no idea my golf game with the lads was arranged the same day as your mother was visiting …”).
The truth is, people lie. They exaggerate; they distort the truth and blur the lines between fact and fiction. Some lie often, while others just mix fantasy and reality on occasion, embellishing the good bits of a story to leave listeners hanging on to every word: “That fish I caught was this big …”
Then, of course, there are the lies we tell ourselves: “No way, it wasn’t my fault we didn’t reach last month’s sales target.” Or, “Of course I can afford this new dress. I must have misread that last zero on my credit card statement.”
If you find yourself shaking your head in mock horror — No way have I ever told a porkie, you cry — you’ve probably just confessed to a little lie right there. According to the experts, self-deception is a universal human tendency.
To fib or not to fib?
Some psychologists argue that self-deception is harmless in small doses and can at times be an innocuous way to boost our self-esteem. You might try that little bit harder to reach your goals if your perception of your aptitude or skill exceeds your actual ability.
But it can also be debilitating because self-deception places self-imposed limitations. You might tell yourself you are inferior to others, that you “can’t” do any number of things that you actually could, if only you believed in yourself a little bit more.
So, if a little fib on occasion is OK, when do you cross the line? According to Dr Rob Tiller, couples counsellor and relationship educator at Relationships Australia, if lying becomes part of the pattern or fabric of your internal dialogue that’s when alarm bells should be ringing.
“It can be a coping strategy that becomes a crutch, then it becomes a habit and it can seriously impact on our ability to relate to ourselves and others,” he says.
There is also something else to think about. The frequency of self-deception is one thing; then there are the implications associated with your self-deception. “There’s a big difference between pumping up our own tyres versus inflating our heads beyond proportion,” he says. “It’s one thing to be your own cheerleader in order to boost your morale enough to take on a challenging task, but it’s another thing when your heart monitor is registering 220 beats per minute and you’re going to run a marathon next month.”
Tricking our brains
To complicate matters more, over time, the fibs you tell yourself can become very real to you. This is because of the process that changes conscious lies into your reality through the elasticity of the human brain.
Dr Tiller says if you rewrite your past often enough, the lines between fact and fiction become blurred. “Over time, the way we talk to ourselves and the kind of things we say to ourselves become ingrained, deeply rooted, unconscious habits,” he says. It’s all to do with the neurological pathways in the brain and the ways habits are formed. The more you do something (or, in this case, believe something), the more the brain becomes hardwired to accept this as the truth or your reality.
Owning your authentic self
So why do people lie to themselves? An opportunity to rewrite your life story can be seductive. After all, who wouldn’t want to be cleverer, thinner, sexier, happier or more generous than their true self? Sure, you can fib to yourself about your past and present, but your experiences and qualities are part of the fabric of who you truly are. It is your reality, and owning your true self is liberating.
And if you do lie to yourself, there can be consequences. Susan Mathew, transformational life coach from The Refined Mind, says one of the real issues with self-deception is that it hinders personal growth. “If we aren’t being authentic we are denying ourselves the opportunity to face the reality of the situation,” says Mathew. “Embellishing an aspect of yourself denies you the opportunity for self-improvement.
“It can also be draining, fabricating a reality that you have to live up to,” she adds. “Are you prepared for the response you may get when others uncover the real you?”
Wishful thinking or avoidance strategy?
There is the theory that, in some cases, self-deception is really just wishful thinking. According to psychologist Dori Wisniewski, though, there are dissimilarities. The difference between self-deception and wishful thinking is that self-deception usually involves an element of bragging, she says, “… whereas wishful thinking is about hope (it may or may not involve putting some effort into reaching the goal). We are all guilty of wishful thinking when we buy a lotto ticket,” she says.
Sometimes, lying to ourselves is a way to avoid making difficult or challenging decisions and acknowledging the truth. Perhaps you might talk yourself out of trying to lose weight, blaming your kilo creep on shrinking clothing sizes. Or you might deceive yourself that your work contract wasn’t renewed because the boss personally favoured another worker. Or perhaps you’re a smoker and believe it’s a harmless habit despite all the evidence.
Wisniewski says this cognitive dissonance (where a person’s beliefs don’t match up to reality) inhibits change. “These people are not likely to change until the cost of standing still exceeds the cost of changing,” she says.
If someone in denial does finally agree to change, they are quite likely to give a reason that allows them to save face. For example, they say they had to quit smoking because the mortgage has gone up, Wisniewski says.
A self-esteem boost
Feeling insecure about yourself can also feed into self-deception. If your self-esteem needs a boost, work to identify what situations or aspects of your life you might need to challenge and look at your thoughts about them. It may seem hard to do at first, but confronting negative thought patterns helps you to overcome them. Do you always feel you are to blame, that it’s your fault? Do you put yourself down? Look for the positives in situations (and in yourself). Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself for any mistakes you have made in the past.
Uncovering the empowering truth
Embracing the truth and facing up to honesty helps us to become unstuck; it challenges undesirable thoughts and it energises us. Mathew says being honest with yourself is empowering. “It means you can either learn to change what you don’t like or you can learn to love what you can’t change — it gives you the power of choice,” she says.
Tapping into your authentic self helps you to uncover these empowering inner truths. Seek a quiet space and practise gentle meditation so you can bring your unconscious thoughts into your awareness. Meditation allows you to observe without distraction, to reflect and to look within. Breathe deeply and with purpose as you give yourself permission to be truly honest with yourself.
By embracing who you are, you can reclaim your inner honesty, boost your self-esteem and reduce your stress levels. Accept your individuality. Own your strengths and unique talents (you might not know how to play the banjo — but you can juggle oranges with style!). Knowing yourself is the first step to reclaiming your inner honesty, so celebrate who you are. After all, there’s no one else on this planet who is you.
Some self-deception mantras we often tell ourselves can impact on our relationships with those who are important to us, and the relationship with our authentic self. Do you find yourself subscribing to any of these?
I’d be happy if …/If only …
Psychologist Dr Timothy Sharp from The Happiness Institute says believing that your happiness is linked to life events or external factors is, in fact, a recipe for unhappiness.
“This is very similar to what I’ve come to call ‘the tyranny of when …’,” says Dr Sharp. “We’re all guilty of this at times, as it’s encouraged very much by the powers-that-be in marketing and advertising, but the reality is that all it leads to is dissatisfaction and unhappiness.”
A solution is to focus more on creating a happy and meaningful life first and foremost, by focusing less on change and more on acceptance and gratitude. Really happy people focus more on what they have and less on what they don’t have, he says.
I can change him or her
According to Dr Sharp, this is a classic example of “unhelpful” and “unrealistic” thoughts. “In general, these [thoughts] are considered unhelpful because they contribute to excessive levels of distress and dysfunction; neither of which is, obviously, well for us!” he says. “The more helpful alternative is to be realistic and acknowledge that the only person we can ever really change is ourselves.”
It’s definitely not my fault
Stepping into a no-fault realm is not helpful. Instead, life coach Susan Mathew suggests you start looking at the possibility of being more compassionate towards yourself. “We live in a high-pressure, success-obsessed, materialistic culture,” she says. “If it’s not my fault it must be someone else’s. Getting caught in the blame cycle can be disempowering.”
Instead, take the word “fault” out of the equation and think about collaborative ways to overcome the problem.
I don’t have time
Most people are time poor and, with only 24 hours in each day, how you spend them is up to you. Do you ever find yourself trotting out the age-old excuse you don’t have time when you want to sidestep something you don’t want to do? Of course, while we don’t have time in our day to do everything we might want to do, we do have time for those things that are important to us or that we have prioritised. Psychologist Dori Wisniewski says it’s important to be honest with yourself — and if you don’t want to do something, say so. “Don’t use lack of time as an excuse when a simple no will do,” she says.
How honest are you with yourself?
Del Paulhus, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has devised a seven-point scale to determine how self-deceptive you might be.
When answering, be honest! A 1 indicates the statement is “not true”, 4 means it’s “somewhat true” and 7 means it’s “very true”.
1. My first impressions are always right.
2. I don’t care to know what other people really think of me.
3. Once I’ve made up my mind, other people can seldom change my opinion.
4. I am fully in control of my own fate.
5. I never regret my decisions.
6. I am a completely rational person.
7. I am very confident of my judgments.
For each question you have answered, give yourself one point for answering 6 or 7. The higher your score, the more self-deceptive you are.
So what do you need to change?
“Our lives improve only when we take chances — and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” ~ Walter Anderson
From little white lies …
Did you know that lying to ourselves also makes it a whole lot easier to pull the wool over other people’s eyes? In fact, Robert Trivers, evolutionary psychologist and author of Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others, writes that deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin. “Self-deception evolves because it improves our ability to deceive others,” he says.
Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist who writes for lifestyle and health magazines across Australia.