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3 Ways We Lie to Ourselves

Are you just a little too sure about it?

Key points

  • Some forms of self-deception can have negative consequences.
  • When a positive attitude feels forced, it could be because we’re trying to rationalize a bad situation.
  • Feeling physically agitated may indicate that our true feelings are more complicated than we realize.
  • Being hyper-critical of others may be a sign of underlying insecurity or unmet needs.
Source: panitanphoto/Shutterstock

There are some things we’re probably better off not knowing about ourselves. We don’t need to analyze our every flaw or take to heart every mean comment we hear. Researchers have found that such brutal honesty can be debilitating; it’s actually healthier to see aspects of ourselves and our lives as slightly better than they are.

But deceiving ourselves in more significant ways can create serious obstacles and make it harder to accomplish our goals. It could be a self-defeating habit we swear isn’t holding us back, a decision we can’t admit that we deeply regret, or a bad situation we’re trying to rationalize away. Being honest with ourselves may not change the past, but it can point us in a more productive direction moving forward.

The following are three signals that there might be more to the story than you’re telling yourself.

1. Your enthusiasm feels effortful.

Imagine that you’ve just spent years training for a profession, only to find that it’s far from what you hoped it would be. It might seem like this information would make you reassess the path you’re on, but that’s not always what happens. Instead, the worse things get, and the more invested we become, the more we might dig in, mustering all the enthusiasm we can to feel OK about the situation we feel stuck in.

In a classic study, researchers found that when college students had to go through an unpleasant initiation process to join a discussion group that turned out to be painfully boring, they somehow became more enthusiastic about the group, as if they had to lie to themselves to avoid feeling embarrassed about what they went through to get in. By contrast, participants who didn’t go through the unpleasant initiation were able to rate the group more objectively, recognizing that it wasn’t all that great.

How do you know if your enthusiasm is the manufactured kind as opposed to more genuine excitement? One clue is that instead of feeling light and joyful, it may feel forced and effortful like you’re trying extra hard to convince yourself of it. You might also find yourself exaggerating the positive elements of a situation well beyond what would seem warranted.

A good example of this kind of exaggeration comes from this scene in the comedy series How I Met Your Mother. Marshall Eriksen forces a smile as he attempts to paint a rosy picture of his new job, despite it clearly not being the right fit for him. He tries to be thrilled about his “reasonably comfortable” chair and the fact that not everything he does at work makes him cry. Marshall’s predicament is meant to be absurd, but if his attempts to find the good where there’s little to be found strike a chord with you, it might be worth giving your situation a closer look. There’s nothing wrong with searching for silver linings, but to make sound decisions, we need to be able to see the full picture, too.

2. Your physical state doesn’t align with your words.

In the scene described above, Marshall appears to have a positive attitude, but his body language signals stress and discomfort. Similarly, if we’re telling ourselves or others that something is going great—like a new relationship, living situation, or project—but we feel physically agitated whenever the topic comes up, that might be a sign that we’re suppressing some part of our emotions related to it.

The irony is that when we try not to feel or express an emotion, it can come out stronger in other ways, such as through our physiology. We might get sweaty palms, blink a lot, or feel our muscles tense up. In one study, when participants were instructed to suppress their emotions while watching a disgust-inducing film clip, they showed a stronger physiological stress response compared to participants who were not given this instruction.

It’s normal to feel apprehensive, even about things we’re excited about, or to feel mixed emotions going into something new. Experiencing fear and doubt doesn’t mean something isn’t worth doing. But if we’re telling ourselves everything is perfect while our body silently revolts, that might indicate we need to listen more closely to those physiological signs.

Maybe we still want to go through with the wedding we’ve been planning but just don’t want it to be so big. Or maybe we need to have a conversation with our partner about a challenging issue in the relationship. When those suppressed emotions are given space to breathe, they’re less likely to come out later in ways that don’t serve us—like a major blow-out the day before the wedding.

3. You’re fixated on people who are doing things differently.

It’s great to feel confident in your life decisions, but some people don’t just feel confident—they feel so sure that their way is the best way that they believe it must be best for everyone else, too. As a result, they might be especially critical of those who are taking an alternative approach.

Research suggests that this hyper-confident attitude might not reflect confidence at all but instead might stem from underlying feelings of insecurity or even envy. Instead of simply feeling good about where they’re at, someone in this situation might idealize their personal circumstances to the point where they view others with pity or disapproval. An example of this tendency might be the sense of moral outrage some people report feeling towards childless adults. It’s not that outraged parents must be lying to themselves about wanting kids, but maybe they’re struggling with parenting in ways they’re unable to acknowledge. By the same token, someone who spends their days criticizing parents might benefit from examining what’s behind that.

It’s often easier to spot misplaced outrage in others than in ourselves, but we’ve probably all at times felt resentful of someone for something we tell ourselves we don’t want or care about, but maybe secretly do. Are you genuinely concerned about your overly adventurous friend, or is your fixation telling you that you’re craving more adventure in your own life? Is your health-conscious neighbor just showing off when he’s always out for a jog or is there something inspiring about his commitment?

One good litmus test can be to ask yourself, “Is this person’s behavior causing clear harm to themselves or others?” If the answer is yes, you’re probably concerned for a good reason. But if the answer is no, and you’re still preoccupied with their behavior, you might want to ask yourself why. There’s no shame in feeling complicated emotions. But those emotions are much more useful when we can identify them for what they are.

These three signs can provide clues about a potential mismatch between how you think you feel and how you really feel. But sometimes, the signals we get are even simpler—sometimes, things just feel off. When you feel this way, don’t sweep it under the rug. Seek support from loved ones or professionals if you need to, and try to get to the bottom of it. The truth has a way of coming out eventually, but it’s best if we can get out ahead of it while there’s still time to make things better.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: panitanphoto/Shutterstock


Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(2), 177–181.

Baumeister, R. F. (1989). The optimal margin of illusion. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8(2), 176–189.

Gross, J. J. (1998). Antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation: Divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 224–237.

Laurin, K., Kille, D. R., & Eibach, R. P. (2013). "The way I am is the way you ought to be": perceiving one's relational status as unchangeable motivates normative idealization of that status. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1523–1532.

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