6 Lies You Must Stop Telling Yourself
The stories that give us comfort but keep us from addressing problems.
Posted December 22, 2016
We all lie to ourselves about certain things: Tonight I'll turn my phone off at a decent hour. Mom really did love that scarf I gave her. The person on the other end of this customer support line really is named Jane Johnson.
Plenty of these lies are harmless or even beneficial; they lessen the friction that daily life can generate. But what about the lies we cling to more stubbornly, the ones that become ingrained and influence our behavior in ways that might not be for the best? I'm talking about lies we are so used to—that are so "egosyntonic" to our belief systems—that we don't even recognize them as lies. We fall into them so comfortably because, in the moment, they give us short-term comfort. But that may very well come at the expense of long-term growth.
If we want to make changes in our lives, we've got to examine how we may be deceiving ourselves. Do you recognize any of these six common misconceptions?
1. "When X happens, Y will automatically follow."
I've written about this myth of arrival before—the mistaken idea that as soon as we arrive at some endpoint (changing jobs, finding a new partner, finishing a graduate program, getting a raise), our lives will simply fall into place, and things will be easier and happier. But this ignores the fact that our unhappiness may very well be contributing to the situation we don't like, rather than being an effect of it. Perhaps you're staying in a job or a bad relationship because you're too depressed or anxious to make a change. Perhaps the reason you don't eat healthier or exercise is because you've never adjusted your schedule or grocery habits to allow it. In these cases, saying, "Once I change jobs…" or, "Once I lose weight, I'll be happier," gets you nowhere. It's putting the cart before the horse. Instead, ask yourself, Why hasn't X happened yet?
2. "I can change them, even if they don't want to change."
If I were to categorize 12 years of my advice column letters into major themes, one would be the "How do I get my partner to…?" questions: He doesn't want to commit, but there's got to be something I can do to make it happen. Or, she won't stop drinking, but I just need to get through to her. Add in family members—"How can I get my mother-in-law to be warmer to me?"—and colleagues—"What can I do to get my jerk coworker to stop being a jerk?"—and you've covered most of my inbox. Of course, our behavior can influence others, and we can help people become their best selves and encourage them to treat us better by altering our interactions. But when someone truly doesn't want to change, we are up against a brick wall. To believe that your sheer will alone will accomplish this can make you miserable when it inevitably doesn't happen.
3. "Tomorrow, I'll start fresh. Today I might as well not try."
It's the hall pass you give yourself to eat the rest of the frosting out of the can when you already feel bad that you ate too many of the cupcakes: You decide that you've already screwed up, so you might as well make your self-sabotage complete and go as far as possible—perhaps getting an extra bit of pleasure out of it. The problem is, the rest of that frosting is likely not very pleasurable because you're already feeling so down about eating it (and you might just be eating it to punish yourself into feeling even more sick). And of course it digs an even deeper hole for you to get out of tomorrow. This mindset is classic all-or-none-thinking, in which you convince yourself that you need a perfectly clean slate of a fresh day (or a fresh year!) in order to make positive changes. But why? Why isn't progress at 8:56 p.m. the same as progress first thing tomorrow morning? If you're looking to keep your house organized, save money, exercise, eat healthier, or be kinder to your loved ones, you only make it harder to reach that goal by refusing to take advantage of the opportunity in front of you, right here, right now, no matter how far "gone" the day seems. When you put things off, you just get more used to falling into a bad habit.
4. "They didn't mean it."
The excuses we can make for someone we love, or whom we are justifying staying with (or both), can be mind-boggling. We may give them the benefit of the doubt over and over again, imagining that there are harmless or even pleasant reasons for the ways they're making us comfortable or hurting us. When someone we're dating does something thoughtless, we might pass it off as a one-off mistake, and maybe it is. We all screw up sometimes, and being able to forgive a partner for understandable oversights is an important part of a healthy relationship. But what if what we're trying to excuse is a behavior pattern, like consistently dominating a conversation, belittling our successes, or making fun of our appearance? What if we're constantly telling ourselves (or our friends and family) that that person is just misunderstood; that they're not really the cruel, obnoxious, aggressive, or bigoted person they seem to be. In those cases, we must ask ourselves why their behavior would be that different from their character, over and over again. Chances are, their actions are more of a window into who they are than we want to believe.
5. "I'll have more free time when X happens."
We tend to expand our tasks to fill the time we have. Many people cut their work hours or give up a certain activity in the expectation that they'll have so much more time that they won't know what to do with themselves, and that they'll be able to adopt a significantly less stressful lifestyle. This can happen, but it is rarely automatic. Instead, it involves continual, conscientious guarding of your free time. Just as when you get a raise and automatically start spending more money on lunches and clothes instead of putting more money away for retirement, we have a way of spending our extra free time in ways we don't expect. This is comparable to what some people refer to as Parkinson's Law—the idea that work expands to fill the time we have allowed for it. If you want more free time, be deliberate about prioritizing and cutting out the fat from your schedule, here, now, and always. But assuming that as soon as your kids get out of preschool, for instance, it will happen just overnight without any new boundary-setting on your part, is unrealistic. After all, that's when soccer practice starts!
6. "I just need more willpower."
Yes, self-discipline is an asset, and plenty of successful people seem to benefit from having truckloads of it. But many others have increased their productivity and happiness simply by changing their environments, making it easier for them to adopt the habits they want. Want to stop using that credit card so much? Freeze it—literally—in a block of ice. Want to stop checking Facebook at stoplights? Disable the app on your phone. Want your family to be more organized? Make things easy to put away, with clearly designated places, routines, and containers. Want to eat more vegetables as snacks? Splurge on pre-cut, pre-washed versions that take much less effort (and thus are more tempting) to grab when you're hungry. Don't get bogged down with thinking that lifestyle changes are only about willpower. The more you can use what behaviorists call stimulus control—shaping the characteristics of your environment to better condition you into certain habits—the more likely you are to meet your goals.
Dr. Andrea chats live on Tuesdays. Send in your questions or read the chat transcripts anytime here.
For more on mental health and behavior:
- 5 Ways to Stop Catastrophizing
- Do This One Thing for Increased Happiness In the New Year
- Ask Yourself This Question to Better Meet Your Goals
- 6 Awkward Things You Must Tell Your Therapist
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and speaker who serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. She is the author of Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World and The Friendship Fix, and her mental health advice column Baggage Check has appeared in the Washington Post Express for nearly twelve years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and motivation, and is a television commentator on mental health issues. Send your mental health questions to Baggage Check at firstname.lastname@example.org.