How Do I Know When I Am Lying to Myself?

mirrorHumans are masters of self-deception. We fool ourselves into believing things that are false—and—we refuse to believe things that are true (TEDx Honest Liars: The Psychology of Self-Deception). In fact, we lie to ourselves about everything from why we like wearing designer clothing instead of non-name brand fashion to how our childhood influenced our choice of romantic partners. And, most of the time, we are completely unaware of the rampant lying going on in our own minds.

The Dilemma of Self-Deception
Given the unconscious nature of self-deception, becoming honest presents us with a serious dilemma: How do we know when we are lying to ourselves? As articulated in a question recently posed to Dr. Neel Burton in his blog, Hide and Seek, many people are left wondering how to detect self-deception. How can you tell when you are lying to yourself? Clearly, you can’t directly ask yourself whether you are lying because that would require you to tell the truth! So, how do you know when you are deceiving yourself?In addition to the many questions posed by Dr. Burton to help you on your journey towards self-honesty, I offer some specific suggestions taken from my new book, Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Psychology of Self-Deception. I use self-deception in the context of romantic relationships as an example because it is rampant and has profoundly destructive consequences.

Detecting Your Self-Deception 
The most important way to determine whether you are lying or not is to observe yourself, without judgment or evaluation. Just notice and start asking questions that can reveal your internal motivations. As you do this, focus on three areas:

1. Notice Your Emotion. Generally, if we are emotionally reactive to something or someone, it is because we are being reminded of something painful, raw, or unresolved in our lives. In these areas, we are going to struggle to admit the truth. For example, if you struggle with trust issues in your romantic relationships, you may feel anxious, angry, or scared when falling in love with a new mate. As this occurs, you may find yourself reactive to your mate in ways that are not warranted based on who this person is! In fact, your reaction is fundamentally based on who you are and unresolved issues from your past that you are bringing into your new relationship.

Given this reality, when you have a strong emotional reaction to something or someone, pause. Ask yourself:  What is this emotion? What is my emotion in reaction to? Is my emotion really related to the present situation or is the present situation triggering something in me that is unresolved baggage from my past?

2. Notice Your Thoughts. We all want to believe that our thoughts are accurate reflections of reality. In fact, most of us believe that we are right about everything: we think our thoughts are true. Unfortunately, our thoughts are incredibly inaccurate in characteristic ways. Often, our inaccurate thinking reflects painful realities that we don’t want to admit. When entering into a new romantic relationship, for example, people often think things that are incredibly irrational. These thoughts can be very negative, such as “I am sure my new partner is cheating on me because my ex cheated” and “I am scared to fall in love because I am going to get hurt.” Or they can be overly positive, like “This is the most amazing person in the world.”

Given this reality, when you notice your thinking is extreme or irrational, pause. Ask yourself: What words am I using to describe my partner? Are my thoughts accurate? Am I using my past to justify my current thinking? How are my thoughts biased?

3. Notice Your Behavior. We desperately want our behavior to be separate from our identity. We don’t want to believe that the way we act reflects who we are. For example, you don’t want to admit that you are jealous even though you check your partners’ phone messages; you don’t want to have intimacy issues even though you sabotage your relationships by breaking up with people when they get too close. Yet, the truth is that our behavior is a reflection of who we are in some way.

When your behavior isn’t consistent with who you want to be or claim to be, pause. As yourself: Why am I acting this way? What is motivating my behavior? What do I not want to admit to myself about my behavior? Why?

Choosing Honesty
We cannot be honest with others until we are first honest with ourselves. When we deceive ourselves, we often burden and damage our romantic relationships. Being honest requires deliberate effort on a daily basis and tolerating some painful realizations. Yet, by observing our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, we can learn about who we really are and give ourselves the opportunity to change.

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D.

This post is a response to “Can You Tell When You’re Fooling Yourself?” by Neel Burton, M.D.

Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

Exposed to a diversity of cultures and lifestyles from an early age, Dr. Cortney was intrigued by the ways cultural and environmental conditions affected the psychological well-being of individuals, groups, and even whole societies.


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