Nietzsche expressed the idea that people need their illusions, and that when all is considered, they live in a lie. He couldn’t have been more correct. Besides the defense mechanisms employed with frightening regularity, we have grown into a culture that, despite proclaiming a desire for the truth, would actually prefer to be lied to (see “Are You Overusing Your Psychological Tools”, “Is Psychology Helping or Hindering Your Enlightenment”, “The Truth Will Not Set You Free” for further elaboration on just how these defense mechanisms work).
This post grew out of two conversations I had recently. The first was in a class discussing defense mechanisms. A student said she received a license plate, (not a vanity plate) in which the numbers and letters seemed to spell “Big Lie”. I commented I’d love that plate, because I believe most are caught up in a lie they believe to be reality.
The second was when I had a conversation with Abilio Rodriguez, a peer, about the topic of people wanting to be lied to. He confirmed what Nietzsche said; often people prefer illusion to the truth. The truth hurts, and as a species that avoids pain and seeks pleasure, the preference is a lie. Even when people hear the truth, their defenses kick in and protect the ego against it. This keeps the illusion, which is viewed as more pleasant, alive.
So the problem is two-fold: first, as a culture we’ve come to expect to be spared our feelings at the cost of the truth, to be lied to. Second, defense mechanisms and other aspects of perception work to keep the individual in an illusion which is intended to be better than reality.
If you doubt the former, I challenge you to look at the “white lies” you tell to make someone feel better. How often do you hold back the truth to protect someone’s feelings? Many think they are being nice, or have accepted you simply just don’t say those things when they’ll hurt someone else’s feelings. In her Psychology Today Blog, Donna Flagg claims this is so common it is leading to a cowardly workplace (2011). She also points out the cost; there is no forward movement when the truth is withheld. If you are honest with yourself, you’ll likely admit that there are a good number of times you lie to protect others’ feelings.
There are so many defenses working for (or against) the individual. As I proclaimed in “The Truth Will Not Set You Free”, we cannot trust our thinking as a result of the defense mechanisms at work. Our vision of reality is skewed. As Anaïs Nin said, “We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are”. There is much evidence to support this view.
In “Buddha’s Brain”, Rick Hanson points out that even what we believe we see with our own eyes is made up from memory. When referring to blind spots in our vision that we do not notice, he says, “much of what you see ‘out there’ is actually manufactured ‘in here’ by your brain, painted in like computer-generated graphics in a movie”. So what you believe you see is created by the brain. This type of activity goes on consistently. In previous posts I have discussed how memory isn’t accurate, and is also subject to creation. In a TED Talk, “The Fiction of Memory”, Elizabeth Loftus discusses her studies on memory, and how inaccurate and malleable it is. In posts such as “I’m Full Of It, And So Are You” I discuss the defense mechanism projection, which leads individuals to see what actually lies in their own psyche.
Malleable memory, the brain filling in gaps in vision, and the biggest culprit, defense mechanisms, as well as the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain leading to an implicit preference toward a lie, should at least contribute to one realizing thinking cannot be trusted. The knowledge is out there; most just choose to ignore it. Even if they cognitively understand and accept it, they choose to put it in the back of their mind and continue to function in the same ways they always have. The lie is preferred to the truth. A great metaphor for this is the pivotal moment in “The Matrix”, where he is offered the blue pill or the red pill. The illusion of life is much prettier than the reality. One has to make the choice: live in an illusion or face the harsher reality of life. Unlike in the movie, the illusion is chosen.
The illusion is simply easier to accept. Everyone else is accepting it. It makes functioning in reality easier. It is often more pleasant than reality. However, it has its drawbacks. Abraham Maslow, when discussing aspects that lead to self-actualization, discussed how people often hold back their true thoughts of greatness, and actually unconsciously defend against them, for fear of being seen as arrogant (Feist, pg275). Buying into the illusions of the mind keeps one from awakening, from moving toward self-actualization, from fully realizing the self.
It isn’t necessary to buy into the big lie all of the time. You can step back from thinking. As Eckhart Tolle says, “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” Question from where your thinking arises. How do these thoughts or feelings relate to your history; what is this event taping into? What is the root of this feeling? In what ways am I lying to myself? These are questions that can begin the process of seeing reality more clearly. In my next post, I hope to build on this and present a philosophy that goes from understanding that the majority of thinking cannot be trusted, and then leads to more happiness.
Copyright William Berry, 2014
Feist, J; Feist G.J; Roberts, T.A; 2013; Theories of Personality
Flagg, Donna; 2011; Psychology Today Blog: Office Diaries; “’The Truth Hurts’ Is A Lie” retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/office-diaries/201101/the-truth-hurts-is-lie
Loftus, E.; 2013; The Fiction of Memory; TED Talk; Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_loftus_the_fiction_of_memory?utm_medium=on.ted.com-facebook-share&utm_content=awesm-publisher&awesm=on.ted.com_a03Ol&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign
Nietzsche, F; quote retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/12799-sometimes-people-don-t-want-to-hear-the-truth-because-they
Nin, A; quote retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/483575-we-don-t-see-the-world-as-it-is-we-see
Tolle, E; quote retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/643995-rather-than-being-your-thoughts-and-emotions-be-the-awareness