Josh Killam, LPC
Self-Deception: What Are You Thinking?
One thing I try to focus on personally and professionally is where I place my attention. We are excellent at not attending to things that bother us. We might allow ourselves to be burdened by them, for example, anxiety, resentment, or self-consciousness. Still, we do an outstanding job at ignoring what needs attention. We experience little things that bother us all of the time. For example, after spending too much time scrolling Instagram, you feel a bit disgusted with yourself yet choose to ignore the feeling and move on. You might give some thought to what is bothering you, but thinking about the problem does not often help, so you push the idea aside and move on.
Often but not always, thinking makes things worse. We are unbelievably good at deceiving ourselves with our thoughts. The beauty of self-deception is that we know it is happening, and yet we allow it. When we think, we keep things to ourselves. We place our thoughts into a narrative that keeps things the way we think we want them to stay. We often ignore things that we should change about ourselves because we don't want to take responsibility for what comes up if we approach that particular issue with a curiosity to understand. We are afraid to understand ourselves for a variety of reasons. It is mainly because we are scared and unsure what to do with what would come up. We are infinitely complex in so many ways that it could take years of psychotherapy for you to understand a single part of yourself fully. You are making it along in the world good enough. Why bother digging up something that need not be concerned? Because you deserve the opportunity to see what your life could be like if you were everything you could be.
One point I want to make is the difference between thinking and paying attention. I hear this in my clinical practice all the time "Yea, but I know what my problem is. I think about my problem all the time." Yes, you may think about all the areas in your life that need to change, but thinking is not helpful. Look, thinking is the first step in paying attention, but it is not enough. I am not discounting thought; I merely want to point out that we hold our "thinking" ability in too high a regard. What I am trying to uncover here is precisely that, a path of discovery. Paying attention to yourself is adopting a sense of curiosity and sitting back and observing what occurs, rather than being an active participant. You have all of these cognitive structures set up in your mind that keep your sense of self protected from knowing what is true. These are stories you tell yourself to continue to ignore whatever you do not want to uncover fully.
If you were to discover what is true, that truth would demand action. This demand for action is what is so scary for so many of us. If you uncover your truth, this truth will require that you put in the effort to change. This effort is what scares us. Many of us believe we are not worthy of the courage it would take to uncover these challenging truths. Again, this is why self-deception is effective; it is a security mechanism. If you observe, listen, and understand, you will uncover something that will demand a tireless effort for change. When you take an observer approach, you drop all predetermined judgments of yourself and see what is there. I recognize this is unbelievably hard to do, and I do not pretend not to include myself in this dilemma.
Psychotherapy/talk therapy is an effective defense to self-deception because it places a mirror in front of you. When we talk with ourselves (journaling) or with someone else, we involuntarily drop these unconscious defenses. This is similar to the feeling of getting caught off guard. Let's say you are engaged in a conversation, and you get caught off guard by saying something aloud that was unexpected, which leads to a feeling of recognition or understanding. When you say something aloud, it hits you differently. It becomes tangible through a felt sense that holds more weight and demands action. Almost as if you feel forced to attend to it. Whereas when you keep it in the thoughts of your mind, you are easily able to deny and dismiss it.
There are so many things to consider when trying to attend to self-deception that it can be overwhelming. However, the first thing to accept is that you can deceive yourself and probably take part in it daily in multiple areas of your life. If you start with that awareness, things will jump out at you from all over the place. That's the discovery idea I mentioned above. When we bring our attention to something, we can find what is there. Awareness does not mean that you will know what to do once you have uncovered it, but your journey starts with understanding that something is there. Not knowing what to do with parts of ourselves that we don't like or wish would be different is part of the reason we avoid them. It can be terrifying to recognize that we have a particular behavior that we are ashamed of or we have an internal belief that we are not good enough. Who the hell knows what to do with insecurities? If you feel overweight or unhealthy, then you should just exercise and eat healthy, right? (by the way, it is most often not this simple)
There are several reasons why someone might feel unhealthy or want to lose weight. I do not want to diminish the complexity of that. We will lie to ourselves to protect ourselves from emotional pain or potential struggle at the moment. Which inevitably leads to a more significant punishment in the future. Let's say that I set goals to lose weight and eat healthily. After some time, I find myself unable to follow through and maintain my goals. Instead of paying attention to why I am not successful and working to understand myself more deeply, I tell myself some platitude to help me feel better in the moment (self-deception), which immediately alleviates what I am feeling; at the same time, pushing the consequence into the future.
The problem is that whatever is hindering my progress is often more profound than a lack of willpower. Usually, the more depth something has, the more emotional struggle is attached. For example, if I have unconscious beliefs that I am not good enough, which leads to continual failure and shame, I am missing the crux of the problem by balming my lack of willpower or the "program" I am trying. What deserves my attention is this core belief, "I am not good enough." These types of implicit beliefs are worthy of your attention and could have a more meaningful effect on your life than simply judging yourself for lack of willpower and "trying harder."
I have compassion for those of us that use self-deception to cope. You have valid reasons to want to run and hide. Everyone has experienced some form of tragedy or hardship in their life that has given them a reason to want to be fearful of what they might uncover. This does not mean that you should. It feels safer at the moment to hide what you don't want to look at, but in the long run, it pays off to choose self-discovery. When you feel that life has mistreated you, take the opportunity to look and see if you can uncover how you were complicit. At a minimum, this practice can empower you to take responsibility, leading to a path to healing. You will be surprised how powerful it can be to work through blame and take responsibility for yourself. It gives you something to do. We inherently know that it is not helpful to sit in resentment and blame others! It does not get us anywhere but more bitterness and resentment.
Take note of yourself. Identify what you're hiding. Strengthen yourself; maybe that means learning to meditate, journal, or contacting a therapist. It could be as simple as talking with your romantic partner or close friend; we all need more interpersonal connection in our lives. You can be your greatest asset if you learn to work with yourself instead of in opposition. What's the worst that could happen? You learn something about yourself you didn't know? Either way, you deserve it.