Lies come in two large categories. One is to save face and the other is manipulation. You could also call these categories white lies and strategic lies. I’m primarily interested in self-deception, which comes under the heading of saving face. Or maybe hiding, or disguising, your true face, into one you believe is acceptable.
Self-Deception Shows Up In Several Ways
Self-deception can be situational. Saving face can mean either protecting your own reputation, or it could mean acting to help another avoid embarrassment or hurt, as in telling social white lies. Some are obvious like those occasions when we opt to tell someone they look fine when you may actually think they appear tired or perhaps not as nattily dressed as you’d hoped.
We may rationalize eating a yummy dessert or some fantastic bar food justifying it because we are out and having fun, and we “deserve” it. Or maybe we go ahead and hit the purchase button on Amazon telling ourselves the bill isn’t due until the end of the month, and anyway, I can pay off the minimum charge.
But what about self-deception in a relationship? There is a range there, too, of how far you go to maintain the relationship. The closer you are to someone, how much you desire to maintain that connection, and how much you trust the other and yourself are the variables. Each plays a significant role in the outcome. For now, let’s go with a small, medium, and large example of what self-deception looks like.
Self-Deception Is Risky
But not as scary as the risk of vulnerability.
Small: You make your kindergartner a healthy, nutritious lunch every day, and every day, he trades it or throws it out. You only find out by overhearing him and his buddy chattering during a play date. When you ask him about it, he outright denies it, because he does not want to a) get in trouble or b) make you feel bad or c) both. He is saving himself from looking a little worse, when what he wants, always, is to make sure you love him, and think well of him. He doesn’t want to disappoint you.
Medium: A high schooler complains incessantly about her awful teachers, their unreasonable assignments, never having any time for a social life, and feeling lonely. How is she deceiving herself? Maybe she is an average student but is expected to be stellar by well-meaning parents. The pain of facing that reality and failing is much worse than believing her own complaints about others. Maybe her workload is super heavy, and she cannot manage her time well enough, or her social skills are not yet well developed. It is still more comforting to blame outside forces. Academic life is heavy with stresses; she doesn’t want to disappoint her parents.
Large: When you find yourself in a relationship that makes you feel a constant, thrumming sense of desperation because you cannot please your partner without taking on their interests, likes and dislikes, despite how you feel about his/her choices. When you start to lose yourself because you are consumed with making sure you cannot be replaced, you are already lost to real connection. You have made the decision that your needs, wants and desires must always play second fiddle. This means you are afraid if you risk showing your true self to your partner or friend, they will shun you, think less of you, and the connection will sever. So you live with the deception in fear of what you perceive as the greater loss, the loss of connection, albeit one that is not genuine. It is based on the unhealthy notion that taking on your partner’s desires and pushing yours to the side, will keep you from disappointing them.
The Sad Consequences Of Self-Deception
Let’s consider one other example that has reappeared in the news lately. Tonja Harding’s ill fated attempt to win Olympic gold by taking out a competitor has resurfaced due to the recent movie about her story. Her own self-deception was about not believing in herself, and her abilities, enough to trust them. And what a sad, destructive story that was.
Ironically, one of the benefits of self-deception is believing that we are better than we are at a given skill or attribute. When we have confidence in ourselves, or high self esteem, it can be a form of self-deception that is a way of fooling others to our own advantage. Some people are just born with more of this natural tendency, perhaps as a personality trait. Think of someone you perceive as self assured or self confident, and rate your own belief in their abilities. I suspect it will be positive.
Others develop the habit of self-deception as a way of coping with challenges, as in the ‘medium’ example above. But when you are always looking to others for validation, or you cannot own your part of the responsibility for your success, this is a painful way to live.
We do need a certain amount of self-deception is important to live a healthy life. We do care what others think of us. However, when it reaches an extreme level, it results in sad, unfulfilling relationships, or such poor belief in your abilities, you throw down your own worst roadblocks to living an engaged, emotionally satisfying life.
If you are having trouble figuring out your own self-deception tendencies, call me for a free 20 minute phone consult, or shoot me an email. Together we can figure this out, and you can learn to trust yourself in ways that will set you free to have the best possible relationships.
Page Rutledge, LCSW, MSW, MPH is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Wilmington, NC. She specializes in anxiety management and couples communication. Visit her website and blog at www.pagerutledge.com