5 Steps to Earning Your Own Trust
Build the self-credibility you need to live your own best life.
Posted Aug 05, 2020
Although self-deception is among psychology's most studied phenomena, the field doesn’t even have a term for the opposite practice: deliberate self-honesty. Yet, as I’ve argued, this is among the most difficult and necessary character traits to cultivate if you're to live your own best life.
Why? For one, because you can't make truly informed decisions if you distort or censor uncomfortable truths from yourself. If you selectively forget or rationalize away the mistakes you made on the last exam, you miss the chance to correct those mistakes on the next one. If you deny how unhappy you are in your work or relationship, you miss the chance to improve your lot, or even discover what improvements are possible. Just as you can’t control the direction of your car if you don’t keep your eyes on the road, so you can’t control the direction of your life if you don’t keep your eyes on reality.
But there’s another, related reason: When we habitually avoid or distort reality, we lose credibility with ourselves. If we routinely set intentions that part of us knows we won’t keep, we eventually find ourselves struggling to take any of our intentions seriously. If we routinely talk ourselves into decisions that part of us knows are unwise, we start doubting our judgment even when it’s sound. What if there’s some lurking disaster I’m hiding from myself? we wonder, whether in words or in the form of a vague anxiety. We don’t trust ourselves to operate in reality, because we know our vision is compromised. As a result, we either stall out or defer to other people’s judgment of what's best for us. Either way, we give up control.
The good news is we can always decide to take stock of our self-deceptions and gradually regain self-credibility. Here's an approach that incorporates insights from social, cognitive, and clinical science, and that's been quite helpful to me and my clients:
1. Set expectations. Accept that you will sometimes lie to yourself, even after you’ve explicitly committed to doing otherwise. Research shows that most people self-deceive in at least some circumstances. Like any habit, cultivating self-honesty takes time and effort. Besides, acknowledging that you sometimes self-deceive is itself an act of self-honesty. So pride yourself on taking this step toward increasing your self-credibility.
2. Identify what’s in it for you. As noted above, the value of self-honesty derives both from its practical necessity in keeping our decisions tied to reality, and from its psychological necessity as a source of self-trust. To help make these benefits more real and personal to yourself, I suggest the following exercise:
- Write down 2-3 of your deeply valued goals and aspirations.
- For each, write down some lies you might tell yourself (e.g., “I can’t do this because of X,” “I’ll definitely fail” or “I’ll definitely succeed,” etc.). For each one, write down the likely short- and long-term consequences (both practical and psychological) of self-deceiving vs being self-honest. For example:
Having done this, which approach seems more aligned with your valued goals and aspirations? If it’s the self-honest approach, then proceed to Step 3. If not, you might have more self-reflecting to do before deciding whether to commit to this practice. I suggest you not commit to it just because you feel you “should,” since this is a recipe for further guilt-ridden self-deception.
3. Make a self-honesty inventory. Make a written list of all the feared or suspected truths you might be avoiding or distorting. Write down as many as you can think of, and keep adding more as you think of them.
This could be anything from “I should call my dentist about this toothache,” to “I’m a total loser,” to “I'm out of love with my spouse," to “I don’t fully understand the evidence for X political view that everyone around me believes.”
No editing or evaluating yet; just write them down as they occur to you. If you do this in earnest, it will be an uncomfortable procedure. Then again, there's also a clean, authentic feeling of self-respect that comes with facing the things you’ve been hiding from. Notice and savor that feeling.
4. Process the inventory. Having listed an inventory item, you can now examine it in the light of day. How much and what kind of processing you need to do will vary widely depending on the item; some you’ll be able to process in one sitting, while others you may need to think about over many years. By having listed them, however, you give yourself the opportunity to make this decision purposefully and consciously.
For each item, ask yourself:
- What’s actually true, and how do I know?
- What, if anything, do I want to do about it?
Some items may be easily eliminated (e.g., “Am I a total loser? Clearly not; I’ve achieved X, Y, Z”). When this happens, check whether this was simply a false narrative you internalized early on and have been afraid to examine, or whether it’s masking some kernel of truth: e.g., perhaps you’ve been underachieving at your job because you’ve avoided asking for help.
Some items may require further research, structured guidance, or the use of distress tolerance strategies to keep from getting too emotionally overwhelmed. And you may still not be certain (which is worth noting in itself). But even those items will likely feel less threatening now that you're looking at them.
5. Make it a habit. This is the crucial step. I suggest taking at least a few minutes each day to review, process, and update your “self-honesty inventory.” Some days you’ll have nothing to add, so your review can be very short. But take a minute to check in anyway.
You can also revisit steps 1-2 anytime you find yourself struggling to acknowledge your self-deceptions or keep up your motivation to practice self-honesty.
The more you practice, the more you'll find that catching and honestly processing your self-deceptions becomes second-nature for you. You’ll be able to do it with less effort and greater enjoyment. Your confidence and follow-through will grow. It will feel good knowing you have your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel, with less need for “backseat drivers” to tell you where to turn. And you’ll be less tempted to trade in self-honesty for a moment’s reduced discomfort. Your hard-won credibility will simply be worth too much to you.