It's Time to Stop Lying to Myself

Admitting and accepting my capacity after a car crash is the only way forward.

Posted Nov 12, 2018

It’s often hard to know when you are deluding yourself. When you are wishing on white lies that construct the core of who you are, despite wanting something else. Yet those white lies, designed as coping mechanisms to survive, can eventually undermine the ability to thrive. Because, whatever the color, a lie is a lie. And no matter the intentions, the shifting sand of a lie can never be a foundation upon which to build a future.

For years after my car crash, I carried on in my life just as before. Same scholarly pursuits, writing, publishing, training, traveling, and serving my community. Because that's all I knew to do. I just carried on with all my activities, duties, and responsibilities, all of which were enormously more demanding and energy draining than before. This was a direct path to feelings of inadequacy (why can't I do it anymore?), humiliation (what will others think of me now?), self-loathing (just try harder, don't be weak!), and depression (there is no future worth living). All of this was lumped together with the aftermath of memory impairment, chronic pain, headaches, and tinnitus, which fed directly into my bleak perceptions of who I had become.

I refused (or more to the point, was unable) to admit the obvious: I had a deficit that was real and was impairing my ability to function. Not only did I refuse to admit it, I wasn’t even aware enough to acknowledge it. This just provided the perfect dark environment within which my mental health plummeted. I need to shine the bright light of acceptance on my scenario but I had a lot of work to do.

As Alan Watts wrote in the 1966 classic "The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are,” I was only vaguely aware that things were not right. As in the German expression “Hintergedanke,” I had a feeling in the back of my mind that I could not easily admit to anyone, especially not myself. Regardless of my level of awareness, I was participating in the “tacit conspiracy to ignore” who I really had become and what my capacity really was.

I was pushing myself forward with the intensity and determination that decades of martial arts training had instilled in me. Except, pushing on the body is not the same as pushing on the brain. What is good for a bodily injury is not necessarily the best approach to dealing with a brain injury. As Alan Watts points out, this time from “The Wisdom of Insecurity”, "The brain is not a muscle". 

I guess I really started lying to myself on January 24, 2014. That was the day after the car crash that effectively erased whatever life trajectory I was on. For the longest time, I failed to realize that such an erasure, while obviously devastating, also presented an opportunity. An opportunity for growth. For reimagining for a new trajectory based on reality, not grounded in false expectations. But getting on that new trajectory meant owning up to the lies told to sustain. And that’s really hard to do.

In neuroscience, there are lots of brain imaging revealing that lying (often called “deception” in research studies) takes up far more of the brain’s processing power than does honesty. Maxim Kireev and colleagues at the Russian Academy of Sciences and St. Petersburg State University in Russia used functional magnetic resonance imaging and advanced statistical analysis to look at interactivity in different brain regions while participants played a game involving honest and deceptive manipulations.

Kireev and colleagues found that being deceptive required greater entrainment of higher-order brain mechanisms in the prefrontal cortex than did honest actions. In a very simply stated way, even at the neurophysiological level, lying requires more activity in the brain and greater cognitive effort. When lying, we must remember both the truth and the lie and all the implications that can arise from the lie. With honesty, we need only consider what we are doing (and in my case, who I am). It’s much simpler, really.

In my case, my functional capacity was greatly diminished by the brain damage associated with that car crash that left me with post-concussion syndrome. My lying was in the form of deceiving myself about my new limitations and in trying to live up to expectations others had of me based on my past history of achievements. This created a perpetual feeling of cognitive dissonance. I realize now that my false sense of self after my crash took up too much energy. I was constantly comparing to past expectations and possible future outcomes that didn’t exist anymore.

Living in the present is a key principle of many philosophical traditions, especially Zen. More words (I've been doing a lot of additional reading, you see) from Alan Watts in “The Wisdom of Insecurity” resonate here:

“The power to remember and predict, to make an ordered sequence of a Helter Skelter chaos of disconnected moments, is a wonderful development of sensitivity. In a way, it is the achievement of the human brain, giving man the most extraordinary powers of survival and adaptation to life. But the way in which we generally use this power is apt to destroy all its advantages. For it is a little used to us to be able to remember and predict if it makes us unable to live fully in the present.”

For me, that last bit is key to move effectively forward. Living in the present. Experiencing life directly and not by what might have been or could be. What is, is now. What was is gone and what might have been will never exist. What I have is what I have now. Moving forward means fully embracing this without false comparison to the past. And without care for how others view me or what they may or may not think.

I have to be who I am and become who I will now be on my new trajectory and not worry about the judgment of others. As physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) wrote, “You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing.”

In order to put into effect this adaptive and only useful way forward for me means making changes in my life in order to be who I can be now. This approach is consistent with the adage of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in “The Leopard” (1958) when he wrote that, “For things to remain the same, things will have to change.”

And that’s my challenge. To change my approach to my life. Now that I have gained a certain awareness, to be honest with myself and faithful to who I am. It has been a hard journey, coming to admit and accept that I’m a brain scientist with a brain injury. But this journey is something I must continue. It is something I endeavor to do, with successes and failures, each day I wake to my new reality.

© E. Paul Zehr (2018) from Shibuya, Tokyo.