Self-deception is a natural behaviour. It has many apparent practical advantages. When we deceive ourselves, we are making a deal with life. We are agreeing to sacrifice our mental accuracy and clarity. In return, life troubles us less.
TWO EXAMPLES OF SELF-DECEPTION
Melissa is an example of self-deception. She arranges life so that she always appears to be the victim. When something goes wrong, she works hard to come up with a story of the other person as a careless, thoughtless aggressor. Often this is not true. It’s a distortion. The advantage for Melissa is that she doesn’t have to hold herself to account for her problems.
Gareth is another example. He gets annoyed at other people all the time. His nature is like a barking dog. To hide his nature from himself, he tells stories of how other people are being aggressive towards him. Often these are very peaceful people. But by classifying them as aggressive, he avoids having to think of himself as aggressive.
TELLING THE ENDLESS STORY
Melissa and Gareth talk about little else than their preferred stories. Melissa bores her friends with endless tales of her victimhood at the hands of thoughtless aggressors. And Gareth corners whomever will listen, and goes on and on about the latest way others are attacking him and invading his privacy. The story is repeated endlessly because it is a defence.
TRYING TO AVOID SUFFERING
In this way, we can see self-deception as an attempted shortcut to avoiding suffering. We experience discomfort, and we come up with a story which gets us off the hook, as though we were in court, at risk of going to jail if we are held responsible.
THE ROOTS OF SELF-DECEPTION IN CHILDHOOD
It is often childhood that trains us this way. Imagine that a child has a parent who gets aggressive when the child upsets them. To avoid the parent’s aggression, the child learns, when life gets difficult, always to have an excuse ready to avoid the blame. The child grows up as someone who always has a story about how they are not at fault.
THE DESPERATION OF ADULT STORY-TELLERS
For this reason, we can understand that, for many adults, having a good story, however false, is a matter of survival. For them, it’s a good deal to sacrifice the truth, when so much is at stake. We need to have compassion for such behaviour in others. People are only trying to defend themselves.
HANDLING SELF-DECEPTION IN OURSELVES
When we see this behaviour in ourselves, it is a sign that we are afraid of something. We can ask ourselves, ‘what is it that I fear losing?’ We might realise we fear being seen as less than perfect, or as stupid, or as inadequate, in the eyes of others.
Unlike our original parents, we can be understanding towards ourselves. We can accept our behaviour as imperfect, ill-informed or ill-advised. This is self-compassion. We can then set about correcting the situation without the need for a false story.
HANDLING SELF-DECEPTION IN OTHERS
Similarly, when we see this behaviour in others, we can be compassionate, accepting their behaviour as imperfect, ill-informed or ill-advised.
We need to be careful not to criticise them – this is likely to make them more, not less, defensive. Instead, we can set a good example.
There may be occasions when we need to curb other people’s behaviour (for instance, when it is causing significant harm to others). In such cases, we can try reasonable discussion first. If that doesn’t work, we may have to establish limits on their behaviour, with consequences, to limit the damage.
Self-deception is the tendency to make up stories, usually blaming others, to avoid suffering. Sometimes this habit is learned in childhood.
Because self-deception comes from fear, we should have compassion for ourselves and others. We should avoid being critical, and set a good example.
Where self-deception is destructive, we can try reasonable discussion. If that doesn’t work, we may have to establish boundaries.