I recently received this question from a reader of this blog:
I've gotten a bit confused about your posts on self-deception. Are ordinary things like seeing the bright side, a silver lining, or an opportunity in misfortune just feeble rationalizations to help us live in a comfy illusion?
Your example about 'sweet lemons,' a rejected love interest explained away as a blessing in disguise doesn't feel to me as an illusory or self-deceptive belief. If a cancer patient is glad that they can respect life more fully after getting sick, surely they're not just dwelling in self-deception and rationalizing away things, clinging to some mistaken belief.
Could you clear things up a little about the murky world of self-deception? It's true that someone rejected for a job opening might say that they're "keeping doors open," that they got "life experience" or that setbacks are a part of life, and this would allow them to feel better, but I've never considered this to be some sort of self-deception.
That's a very good question. How do we know when we are deceiving ourselves, rather than learning or growing from our experiences? It is in the nature of self-deception that it is very hard to distinguish from the truth—whether our internal, emotional truth or the external truth.
One has to develop and trust one's instinct: What does it feel like to react in the way that I am reacting? Does it feel calm, considered, nuanced, and mature, or does it rather feel shallow and knee-jerk? Does it take the welfare of others into account, or is it all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or does it instead make me feel small, angry or anxious?
Self-deception does not "add up" in the grand scheme of things, and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw puzzle, though, try to look at the bigger picture of your life and see how the thought or reaction fits in. Did you react from a position of vulnerability or a position of strength? What would the person you respect most think? Talk to other people and garner their opinions. If they disagree with you, does that make you feel angry, upset or more defensive? The degree of coherence in your reaction can in itself be a clue as to its real nature.
Finally, truth is adaptive, while lies are destructive. So how useful is a self-deceptive thought or reaction going to be for you? Are you just covering up an irrational fear you have always been unable to face, or helping to create a solid foundation upon which to build a secure and reliable future? Is it going to help you fulfill your highest potential, or deprive you of opportunities for personal growth and cause even more problems down the line? Is the cycle going to repeat itself, or will you escape the circle?
With best wishes,
Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.
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