Life Health & Wellbeing

Friday 15 November 2019

Living a lie: Our capacity for self-deception is staggering


Procrastinating is one of the most pervasive forms of self-deception
Procrastinating is one of the most pervasive forms of self-deception
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

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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