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The 3 Most Common Lies We Tell Ourselves

Lying to yourself can be as destructive as lying to others.

Key points

  • Consideration of the lies we tell ourselves relates to the broader context of self-awareness.
  • Honesty requires taking daily inventory of one's true thoughts, feelings, and personal actions.
  • Most lies we tell ourselves relate to emotions and how those emotions interact with relationships and overall goals.

When considering the word "lie," the first association that may come to mind is a behavior enacted by one individual to another. While there’s no question that lying is frequently practiced in social relationships, another behavior is likely just as common: individuals lying to themselves.

To begin, it’s important to note that psychology research on the lies individuals tell themselves is challenged due to an understandable self-serving bias, meaning that individuals often work to portray themselves in a favorable light. For this reason, the vast majority of subjects may not be truthful when asked to report how frequently they lie to themselves about any number of issues.

Based on anecdotal data from years of clinical work, including psychological assessment and psychotherapy, I can share firsthand knowledge about the frequency and even intensity with which individuals may try to tell themselves things that aren’t true.

Consideration of the lies we tell ourselves relates to the broader context of self-awareness. If you take a moment to think, for example, about individuals in your personal or professional life, it's clear to see there is variability in the degree of self-awareness a particular individual has. Some people are more open about their flaws and emotional struggles, while others are guarded to the point of secret keeping. It will also come as no surprise that it’s far easier to look analytically or critically at others than it is to look at yourself in an objective, evaluative manner.

How would you answer this question: What are some of the lies I may tell myself? Another way to think about this is to ask yourself this: What are some possible examples of my own denial when I think about myself and my actions, or my behavior in relationships?

In my clinical work, I’ve found that most of the lies individuals tell themselves relate to emotions and how those emotions interact with their relationships and overall goals in life. Read about common self-lies below and consider the degree to which you may engage in any of these cognitive distortions (otherwise known as lies).

1. Telling Yourself That an Apology Truly Makes Things Better

Social indoctrination teaches young children that social violations and other transgressions should be followed by an expressed apology. While this reparative attempt can be an important measure to incorporate into one's behavioral repertoire, people sometimes make the mistake of believing that an apology is a one-and-done, perfect solution. To be clear, an apology is not a solution to the problem of the violation or trespass. An apology does not solve any particular underlying problem, which could range from, say, the reason a small child aggresses another child on the playground to the more severe aggression of an adult who is verbally cruel to their romantic partner in a heated moment.

When people tell themselves that an apology makes everything better after a trespass, they lie to themselves about the potential longer-lasting damage, which is a loss of trust. Most importantly, telling oneself that an apology makes everything better prevents the real work that must be done to convince the other that the relationship is truly safe and trustworthy.

2. Telling Yourself That You're Angry When What You Really Feel Is Hurt

One of the most common mistakes I see as individuals navigate the complex web of interpersonal relationships is confusing one emotion for another. When someone feels significantly upset because of an action or inaction on the part of someone else, the first and last reaction is often anger. People gravitate toward anger quickly and automatically, which is understandable in some ways: Feeling angry also feels empowering. When one feels angry, one tends to feel stronger and more in control, as opposed to the way feeling hurt causes one to feel vulnerable or even helpless.

If you think about your own life and past experiences, recall an occasion when you felt overwhelmed with anger toward a romantic partner or friend. While anger may be an understandable consequence, ask yourself if anger was the true root of how you felt. Remember that humans can feel more than one emotion at the same time and that they also may experience a sequence of different emotions if they are self-aware and honest with themselves. In my clinical work, I’ve found that individuals who report feeling angry or get stuck in an anger spiral often actually feel more hurt than angry, though they try hard to avoid acknowledging the hurt feelings.

3. Telling Yourself That Cash and Prizes, Metaphorically, Are What Will Finally Make You Happy

Not everyone lies to themselves in this way, though this distorted belief is common among many. Given the influence of social media, for example, which can present a manipulated image, societal forces are hard at work in selling a dream and encouraging fantasy—or lies—over reality. While the impulse to believe that getting that new job, the nicer house, or even making a lot more money will finally lead to contentment, such changes rarely lead to true contentment. Accordingly, people often find that once they get to the place they’d told themselves would finally make them happy, it doesn’t really make them much happier.

The effect is a consequence of the lie or the distorted belief. The truth is that emotional success or a sense of true contentment depends on an internal process rather than an external one, meaning that contentment comes from making the best of what resources you have currently and taking appropriate action today rather than fantasy resources you yearn to have in the future.

The Takeaway Message

Self-awareness and personal accountability require honesty, and honesty requires taking daily inventory of one's true thoughts, feelings, and personal actions. The more conscious one becomes about engaging in responsible, honest behaviors in each moment and in every facet of daily life, the greater improvement one will experience in contentment, goal achievement, and relationship quality.

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