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Can You Tell When You're Fooling Yourself?

How can we know when we are deceiving ourself?

Source: Pixabay

I recently received a 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.

My reply:

That’s a very good question. How do we know when we are deceiving ourself, rather than learning or growing from our experiences, or simply being stoical? By its very nature, self-deception is hard to distinguish from the truth—whether our internal, emotional truth, or the external, objective truth.

You have to develop and trust your intuition, and ask yourself: "What does it feel like to react in the way that I’m reacting?" Does it feel calm, considered, and nuanced, or shallow and knee-jerk? Am I taking the welfare of others into consideration, or is it just all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or am I left feeling small, anxious, and a little ashamed?

Self-deception doesn’t ‘add up’ in the grand scheme of things and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw, try to look at the bigger picture of your life and see how the thought or reaction might fit in. Did you react from a position of strength or vulnerability? What would the person you most respect think? What would Socrates or the Dalai Lama think? Talk to other people and gather their opinions. If they challenge or disagree with you, does that make you feel angry, upset, or defensive? The temperature and coherence of your reaction speaks volumes about the character of your motives.

Finally, truth is constructive and adaptive, while lies are destructive or self-defeating. So how useful is a self-deceptive thought or reaction going to be for you? Are you just covering up an irrational fear, simply getting by, or helping to create a strong foundation for the future? Are you empowering yourself to fulfil your highest potential, or depriving yourself of opportunities for growth and creating further problems down the line?

Is the cycle simply going to repeat itself, or will the truth, at last, make you free?

With best wishes,


Neel Burton is author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception and other books.

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