Or, if neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran is right, our brains have a mechanism to decouple stark truths—such as the inevitability of death—from their emotional impact. Otherwise, we might be forever paralyzed with fear and do nothing at all with our lives. His conclusions are drawn from studies of people with anosognosia, a condition that makes them deny that they have paralysis or some other disability and even offer wildly inventive explanations for why their body isn’t functioning. We have a deep incentive to keep troubling truths from our conscious minds.
A little bit of self-deceit can be good for you. But when it comes to the core challenges of adult life—career, money, sexual identity and marriage—fooling yourself can have devastating consequences.
In each of these domains—think of them as the four horsemen of self-deception—we face situations that require us to make difficult decisions in the face of doubt and uncertainty. The result is anxiety and a strong temptation to hide from the truth. “People keep secrets from themselves because to acknowledge the information would be extremely anxiety-producing,” says New York City psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Gail Saltz. Self-deception and worry reinforce each other, making it harder and harder to face the facts.
There is no particular personality type that is more vulnerable to self-deception. We are all equally susceptible, especially when anxiety gets the better of us. In general, accepting our flaws alongside our strengths provides a bulwark against excessive self-deception; so does coming to peace with our own internal contradictions and learning to withstand difficult feelings, such as doubt and fear.
What follows are the stories of four people who each triumphed over one such horseman of self-deception.
THE LIE /// “I’m good at my job; it must be my destiny to do it.”
David Wertime worked as a corporate lawyer in Hong Kong. The job was demanding, but it was also prestigious, well-paid, and extremely difficult to get. And he was good at it. It seemed like the obvious best use of his skills and his time. But within a few years, he began to realize that while everyone else might want his job, he did not.
He was fascinated, instead, by technology and by the news emerging from China, where he had previously lived. But how could he abandon a career that everyone else valued—and that he was so good at? So he stuck with it. “It seemed like the reasonable, smart thing to do,” he says.
Being bright, self-disciplined, and hardworking should guarantee career success. But those great qualities can also trap you in a desirable, competitive position that you don’t really enjoy, especially if you expect work to be a major source of meaning in life. You may secretly hate your job, but you do all in your power to make yourself love it.
A grand and particularly insidious self-deception is that you are making the best use of your abilities. The problem, which can be hard to recognize, is that while you feel lost and confused, everyone else regards you as a fabulous success.
Paradoxical as it may seem, conscientious, hardworking people like Wertime can have an especially difficult time leaving a good position, suggests Rob Archer, a U.K.-based career psychologist. Because they’re good at pushing themselves, they can keep going through sheer willpower, even without any deep passion for the job.
A HIGH PAYING JOB in an exotic locale that others coveted was not enough to keep David Wertime on the beaten path.
After four years, Wertime finally realized he was never going to be a truly great corporate lawyer, because he just didn’t care deeply enough about it. He didn’t know what he would do instead, but after a long night walking the streets of Hong Kong and mulling over his future, he realized he needed to confront his uncertainty. The next day, he steeled his resolve and quit.
One of the firm’s partners told him he was crazy, that he was jumping out of a plane without a parachute. But Wertime saw it as a totally reasonable decision. “It’s illogical to ignore your own deepest impulses,” he says,
In late 2011, Wertime launched Tea Leaf Nation, a news website dedicated to “making sense of China through social media.” In its first year, the site broke a story about a small uprising, and the online source has been cited by big media from The Wall Street Journal to Radio Sweden. He is now partnering with The Atlantic magazine’s website.
Archer says that one of the reasons people stay stuck in an ill-fitting career is that they believe they need to feel a sense of certainty and confidence before making a change. Wertime didn’t wait. He knew he was going to have to fumble through the transition without knowing whether or not he was doing the right thing. He simply gritted his teeth and tolerated the doubt and anxiety. “There’s no Hollywood sound track,” he says. You figure it out as you do it.
Wertime is now passionate about what he’s doing, and although he’s not making much money, he’s no longer living someone else’s idea of a wonderful life. “If you have the luxury of being able to choose a career,” he says, “you owe it to yourself to do so.”
THE LIE /// “Being a success means having nice stuff.”
In her 20s, Anna Newell Jones knew what success was supposed to look like: a big house, attractively furnished. So she shopped, and she bought. Stylish handmade items from the website Etsy. A $1,200 couch. Fancy hair products. Every month, she spent $200 to $300 more than she made and avoided thinking about the consequences. “I wanted to look as if I had my life put together so that others would think I did,” Jones says now. She wanted to see herself that way, too.
Self-deception finds a grand welcome in the arena of money, especially in the age of massive credit card debt. Money, after all, is a common yardstick of our value and our ability to control our life. Looking as if you’re doing well can seem like a shortcut to actually making it.
Your life may look the way it is supposed to, and everyone may think you’ve made it, but that is not enough to put you on track to develop competence and self-confidence, those handmaidens of success. “I wasn’t there yet, but I didn’t want to let other people know that,” explains Jones. In the tension that often exists between our social self and our internal self, it’s tempting to privilege the social self.
A HUGE DEBT LOAD created the look of the good life but forced Anna Newell Jones to impose a spending fast that freed her to live the way she wanted.
Financial denial, as psychologist Brad Klontz calls it, is woefully common. One recent study found that 36 percent of adults avoid thinking about their own money. “Financial denial is attempting to cope with anxiety or feelings of incompetence by not thinking about money and not dealing with it,” says Klontz, director of research for H&R Block Dollars and Sense. But it can easily feed into what he calls the Big Lie—the conviction that your money problems are caused by a major flaw in your character, such as laziness or stupidity. The Big Lie only reinforces your feelings of incompetence and prevents you from taking action.
By the end of 2009, Jones could no longer hide from the truth. She was $23,605.10 in the red, with no idea how to pay it back on her modest salary as a government employee.
She decided to get brutally real with herself. On January 1, 2010, she committed to a yearlong spending “fast” of buying only bare essentials: food, bus fare, car payments, rent, doctor visits. No dinners out, movies, new clothes, or cute knickknacks. To make it impossible to deceive herself, she announced her decision by starting a blog, “And Then We Saved.” She publicly documented her new penny-pinching techniques. In 15 months, Jones was debt-free.
Now she’s proud of being a cheapskate. Becca Schlegel, a psychologist at Texas A &M, says this is a common paradox: Most of us secretly prefer our true selves, warts and all, even though our public persona has more socially desirable characteristics.
To Jones’s delight, as her balance sheet improved, she was liberated. Debt-free, she can now afford to work part-time and focus on her true passion, photography. “I have the freedom to live the life I want,” she says. Defeating financial anxiety got her something that money can’t buy: autonomy and self-reliance.
THE LIE /// “I can transform myself into the person everyone expects me to be.”
By the time Alex Shafer was a teenager, he was pretty sure he was gay. He never daydreamed about girls. He had crushes on other guys. He had never kissed another boy, but his feelings were strong and clear. Shafer was also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—a Mormon. His community, his church, and his family do not approve of homosexuality, and these were the people he loved and looked up to.
So he vowed to become the person everyone else wanted him to be. His parents and his church leaders urged him to try reparative therapy, a form of psychotherapy intended to teach people how to be heterosexual. The premise, largely discredited by psychological research, is that homosexual urges result from a disturbed father-son relationship, and a young man who develops better relationships with his father and other male role models will begin to desire women.
For years, Shafer tried as hard as he could not to be gay. He was not sexually active. He saw three different therapists. He went to Evergreen International, a Mormon program designed to help men become straight. He spent more time with his father. He truly believed that if he only worked at it enough and prayed enough, he could change. Toward the end of college he met a wonderful woman, and they married.
He loved his wife, but he eventually had to admit to himself that his attraction to men was not fading. Shafer felt that he’d failed. “There’s this sense that you’re broken and you need to be fixed,” he says. “That’s what you internalize.” He slid into depression. At times he even thought of suicide.
The depth of his despair reflected a self-deception that went to the very heart of his identity: What kind of person was he? A heterosexual, married Mormon, supported and loved by his community? Or a gay man, an outsider?
The belief that anyone can transform core features of the self with enough effort often plays out in the domain of sexual identity. This existential conflict is “far more common still than you realize,” says Loren Olson, a psychotherapist in rural Indiana who himself came out at age 40, after being married for years. He counsels many men in conservative communities who are faced with the same dilemma: Risk alienating friends and family or continue to live a lie.
For Shafer the self-deception was supported by misinformation. He knew few gay people and had been led to believe that gay men just had sleazy one-night stands. Only when attending graduate school did he meet gay men who were in committed relationships. The gay experience, he realized, did not have to be promiscuous and empty.
He told his wife he could not turn himself straight, and they agreed to divorce. As the divorce was being finalized, his depression got so severe that he was hospitalized for a week. “After that, I could no longer be this person everybody wanted me to be,” he says. “I thought: I’m going to come out, and people can just deal with it.”
While many friends supported him, the more traditional members of his family still did not approve. Shafer craved the warmth and support of his Mormon community, but felt that he no longer fit in.
ACKNOWLEDGING his homosexuality came with a cost—it alienated Alex Shafer's Mormon family and community.
Both Olson and Shafer agree that not every gay person must be completely public in order to find an authentic life. The really important step is admitting to yourself who you truly are. Shafer has some gay Mormon friends who prefer to remain celibate. He doesn’t tell them what to do, but he advises them to accept their real nature, whether they decide to act upon it or not. “You need to come to terms with who you are,” he says. “You have to push through the fear.”
Shafer has paid a steep price to put self-deception behind him, but he has also regained his sanity. “Being inauthentic has huge costs in terms of mental health,” he says. He’s now in a satisfying relationship and aspires to one day be a “gay married family man,” in his words. Acknowledging his true self was “scary,” he says. “There’s no getting over that. But the reward is a lot bigger than you might expect.”
THE LIE /// “If I leave my marriage, I’m a failure.”
Victoria Kristoph* was just 20 when she fell madly in love. She ran away from a strict and sometimes abusive family to marry her sweetheart. Her husband was troubled, but he was also loving at times. And they saw each other through terrible crises. Within their first year together, his father killed himself and his mother became seriously ill.
They never talked much about these events, and her husband coped with the stress by drinking too much. Although the couple was becoming emotionally distant, Kristoph convinced herself the marriage would survive because she truly loved her husband.
But as Kristoph neared 30, she grew increasingly miserable. She was determined not to abandon her husband, and she was afraid to be on her own. Yet, after a few glasses of wine, she’d wind up sobbing, unable to name the feelings that tormented her. “I didn’t face why I was unhappy,” she says now.
Finally, one night, she happened to catch the movie An Unmarried Woman, about a wife whose husband leaves her. It hit her right there in the theater: It was over. “We all have a survival instinct,” she says. At that moment, hers kicked in. “I felt that I was going down, and I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
Years after her divorce, it dawned on her that her husband had been cheating on her much of the time they were married. Once, she’d found someone else’s bra in their bed. He’d offered a flimsy excuse, and she’d accepted it. Another time, he’d taken a long vacation without her, never explaining why. How could she have been so blind? “I really was living a lie in order to protect myself,” she recalls.
The sudden realization that your marriage has fallen apart is a gut-churning moment. It’s not just the end of a love affair. It means dismantling a whole life. Everything changes—your home, your children, your routine, how you describe yourself, even how you do your taxes.
That might be enough to make anyone avoid the truth. But if you also suspect that your spouse is having an affair, self-deception can blossom into full-blown long-term denial. Fears about an uncertain future kept Kristoph married long after the relationship was beyond repair.
That’s actually quite common, says Gail Saltz, author of the 2004 book Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back. Evidence that your spouse is cheating on you creates an enormous crisis that is frequently likened to trauma. “It’s not unusual for someone to be in a bit of denial for some period of time” in such a situation, she observes.
Over time, though, you must begin to acknowledge the truth or risk getting caught in a spiral of loneliness and self-deception. The pretense that the relationship is just fine builds a wall between you and your spouse that makes it difficult to talk about even small problems.
It can distance you from others, too; if you can’t admit to yourself that your marriage is faltering, you won’t be able to tell anyone else either, even though you are scared and miserable. That, in turn, exacerbates feelings of isolation and fear. “Many people find it difficult to be intimate with anyone when they are not really sure who they are,” says Saltz. “When you feel like a fake, it’s pretty hard to be close to somebody.”
Kristoph is now happily partnered with another man, in a good marriage that has lasted decades. But until just a few years ago, she often found herself thinking about her first husband with a lingering sense of failure—the hangover of her time spent living a lie.