I'm Full Of It, And So Are You

People deceive themselves consistently, yet trust themselves implicitly.

Posted Jun 23, 2013

Photo credit Alexi Berry

It isn’t common you’ll find a therapist and a psychology professor compose an article about how much he, and everyone else, lies to himself or herself. It would seem contrary to “the helping profession”. It is a well established and research supported theory in therapy. Yet the majority continue to go through life pretending it isn’t so, and believing their perceptions unreservedly.

Freud was the first to identify defense mechanisms, demonstrating the power of the unconscious. Defense mechanisms arise automatically to protect the ego from information it finds too unsettling. Recent research using brain stimulation supports Freud’s idea of repression and of wish fulfillment. In one interesting case a gentleman with damage to the right hemisphere had “repressed” the unpleasant information about the damage. However, when the brain was stimulated, the repression succeeded and he remembered. Moreover, when asked about how he knew the doctor his answers were more in line with wish-fulfillment (drinking or a colleague) (Feist, J; Feist, G; Roberts, T; 2013). Other studies using fMRI’s has confirmed that areas of the brain associated with repression are activated when human subjects are either asked to purposefully forget something, or when the material is conflict laden (Schmeing, J., Kehyayan, A.,
Kessler, H.; 2013).

Carl G. Jung followed Freud and developed his theory of the Shadow. He identified the Shadow as unconscious energy that an individual is afraid to face because it is inconsistent with his / her idea of self. This repressed energy is then projected onto the world (generally viewing the world as more negative and evil) or into dreams (where a person who is the same sex as the dreamer commits criminal or evil acts). Proponents of Object Relations Theory believe that most perceptions of others are actually internal aspects of oneself. This means one rarely actually perceives the other person as he or she is, but more as a combination of who we are and who they are. William James stated well over a century ago, “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.”

Of course, these theories are all psychodynamic, and the field of psychotherapy has moved away from them and toward more empirically based therapies. One of, if not the most, empirically based theories is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Even with this evidenced-based theory, a central theme is cognitive distortions. Put simply, an individual does not see the world accurately as a result of distortions in their perception. Although this theory is officially applicable only to those experiencing a disorder, it seems commonplace enough that most people experience distortions in thinking at some point.

Another area of psychology that focuses on how humans lie to themselves is memory. Much research has been devoted to memory; it indicates that memory is malleable. Studies focus on subjects “memory” of a list of words, and with astounding reliability, subjects can be “tricked” into believing they remember a word or picture that was not in the original list. Other studies of memorable events (such as September 11, 2001) demonstrate that subjects put great faith in their memory of the event years later (such as where they were and what they were doing). However, their memory does not agree with their taped recount of events shortly after it happened. These types of studies repeatedly demonstrate that memory is often inaccurate, despite the faith people put in it. (Coon D; Mitterer J; 2013).

There are many more examples of how we lie to ourselves, make promises we don’t keep, and otherwise deny the reality we are faced with. Not all lies, defense mechanisms, or projections are bad. But if one seeks a more authentic life, and to create herself as she chooses rather than as she was conditioned to be, then overcoming at least some of the faulty perceptions of reality one hosts is necessary.

If you are at all convinced now that you lie to yourself with alarming regularity, (and you should be because the evidence is astounding) then hopefully you are wondering what to do about it. First, it will take a great deal of energy not to lie to yourself; in fact, lying to yourself is the easier path. If you are willing to expend the energy, then the goal is to take control of your thinking. The majority of our responses, to one another, to oneself, to situations that arise, are automatic. We have been conditioned by our experiences. We respond without much conscious thought persistently.

The first step will be to question one’s thinking, to look for the underlying motives, to evaluate the thoughts that arise automatically. I wrote about questioning thinking in "The Truth Will Not Set You Free". It would be contraindicated to take control of all thought all the time in our busy world. One would not function well. A Chinese proverb states, “He who deliberates fully before taking a step will spend his entire life on one leg.” But one can add conscious deliberation into his life. Through mindfulness, which is simply being aware of one’s thoughts and choosing a response in a more deliberate manner, one can stop fooling himself. (I’ve written about creating and becoming your ideal self in Authentic Personal Growth and That’s Just How I Am). One of the best ways to create mindfulness is through meditation.

Meditation and mindfulness are not nearly as esoteric as they are believed to be. The benefits also abound beyond the ability to be mindful of your thoughts. To begin practicing mindfulness is simple; simply ask yourself several times a day what you are thinking. If the thinking seems against what you are trying to accomplish (for example if you are trying to let go of frustration you feel at someone but are instead thinking of all the irritating things he’s done lately) stop the thinking and focus on your breathing. As your thoughts drift away from your conscious control (meaning the thoughts are leading you more than you lead them) remember to come back to your breathing. Continue to focus on breathing, rather than thinking. Focus more completely on a task you might be engaged in, such as driving, doing the dishes, or whatever else you might be doing. And again, when the thoughts drift back from your control, return to the breathing. This is mindfulness, and mindfulness is meditation.

There are some excellent readings for meditation and mindfulness. I highly recommend “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. A second choice, though slightly more extreme, is, “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh. Of course there are also many other worthy titles. For those who want to get started right away, I suggest checking out this webpage which offers a 20 minute meditation.

References:

Coon D; Mitterer J; 2013; Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior with Concept Maps and Reviews, 13th Edition; pg

Feist, J; Feist, G; Roberts, T; 2013; Theories of Personality; pg58.

Schmeing, J; Kehyayan, A.,
Kessler, H., et.al. 2013, Can the Neural Basis of Repression Be Studied in the MRI Scanner? New Insights from Two Free Association Paradigms; PLOS one; retrieved from: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0062358

Copyright William Berry, 2013

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