Pushing through her body’s pounding call for more sleep, more rest and less coffee, Sylvia* has been working night and day, six days a week since launching a new business three years ago, and all without a holiday. Dragging herself physically and mentally through her long schedule, Sylvia’s chronic fatigue gets the better of her, causing her to spend her only day off each week in a fog of lethargy, body aches and emotional numbness. Sylvia’s extreme living is the antithesis of the lifestyle she set out to live when she left life as an employee to work for herself. “I’m really enjoying it and it’s not that bad. Hard work never really hurt anybody, right?” she declares without conviction.
Jade* is exasperated by her $40,000 credit card debt. Fielding regular “letters of demand” from creditors, she doesn’t have a job and is slipping behind on her repayments. Jade explains chirpily and at great length that her exorbitant spending on clothes is simply due to her love of textiles and the latest trends.
What Jade doesn’t mention is how the stark lack of intimacy in her marriage, coupled with too many marital arguments, creates deep anxiety for her.
While her husband travels a lot for work, when he is in town he arrives home late, spends an inordinate amount of time on the computer, gets into bed after she has fallen asleep and is secretive and avoidant. If Jade tries to press the issue, an abusive altercation usually unfolds. Afterwards, like Pavlov’s dog, Jade finds herself surfing her favourite online stores well into the night, clocking up thousands of dollars worth of credit card debt on clothes, shoes, accessories and jewellery.
The expenditure, all at 20 per cent interest, is something she can’t afford but continues to add to regardless. This has been happening every few weeks for the past two years. But try suggesting a link between her online spending sprees and fights with her husband, and Jade remains adamant her spending is driven by a love of fashion, not her husband’s abuse and disturbing secrecy.
A Tangled Web
These stories illustrate 19th-century poet Walter Scott’s potent observation: “What a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive”. Self-deception can be dressed up as the occasional little white lie, projection, denial and the insidious self- betrayal. In isolation, these traits may seem benign but ultimately they’re painful and come at a cost.
Deceiving ourselves can present in countless ways, from someone with a daily drinking habit insisting they don’t have a problem with alcohol, to the declaration “I’m not a jealous person” from someone who secretly checks their partner’s phone, or “I don’t know why I’ve gone up a dress size”, even though they have dessert every night.
The stories we tell ourselves are coping mechanisms. They provide comforting illusions so we can fool ourselves into believing things that are false and refusing to believe things that are true. They’re comforting because they’re half-truths and illusions – they’re machinations of our mind. We use stories as Band-Aids that cover up a deeper pain. Ultimately, we humans are masters of self-deception.
We can ignore our stories in the hope they’ll go away. But they won’t. We can try to live with them. But not forever. Our comforting illusions that distort our reality hold a potent grip on us. We feel paralysed and cannot let them go because that would call on us to face and own a painful truth. But that painful truth is also just a story.
What Band-Aids are you wearing right now? What deep hurt are you covering up?
Another form of self-deception is rationalisation. This is where we find a reason to justify doing things that go against our better judgement and our goals. “I know that smoking is really bad but it relaxes me”, or “I know I’m overweight but I can’t help it if my body craves sweets”, are examples.
Driven by fear
What if I was born heterosexual and everyone around me was born homosexual? Would I hide my heterosexuality to fit in? Would I go so far as to “kill” that part of me to feel part of the crowd? That’s self-betrayal. In its extreme form, it’s a kind of suicide or self-harm. When we self-betray, we hide or abandon parts of ourselves and the things that are important to us.
Self-betrayal is typically driven by a fear of being judged, shamed or abandoned by others. Do you compromise yourself to meet cultural norms? Do you strive to live in a specific postcode, drive a certain car, look a particular way, frequent certain restaurants, get married or have children because you feel you’re supposed to or because you believe that it’s right for you? The danger is that we can’t fully accept who we are and what’s important to us. This then causes all sorts of anxiety, stress and deep emotional discomfort while we live an unsatisfying, artificial life. A duplicity of spirit, if you will.
Ultimately, we’re lying to ourselves and, by default, cheating ourselves. To avoid being honest, we make choices that are harmful to us in some way. We may use drugs or alcohol, overeat, gamble, shop compulsively, lie, leave people or take our emotional baggage out on those we love the most. Looking back at life with regret is incredibly painful and for many it can lead to feeling like they’ve wasted their life. It all boils down to the question: “Do you want to waste your life?”
For Jade, she’s losing sleep over her increasing debt and plummeting credit rating. She hesitantly confesses that avoiding her husband’s behaviour is eroding her self-worth and has created a toxic relationship with herself.
From Deception to Awareness
Self-awareness is where we become observers of ourselves. This is the crucial step.
Imagine you’re at the end of your life and you’re standing at the gates of heaven. This is the moment you’re given to review your entire life. For the purposes of gaining learnings from this lifetime, you get to relive, one more time, the moments in your life.
Go ahead. Relive the positive moments and notice how it feels and what you learnt from those experiences. Now relive all the negative experiences and notice how they make you feel and what you were able to learn. This time, zoom in and relive the times where you know you were in denial, deceiving yourself and others, generally betraying yourself. What does that feel like? What were you avoiding? What lies were you telling yourself? What was the deeper pain that you were covering up? Why is that the deepest pain? Notice the cost to you and others. Now ask yourself this question: If you could have your time again, how could you do this differently?
Whenever you experience one of the telltale signs of self-deception (see Insight panel, left), pause and check what’s behind it, and ask yourself what lies you may be telling yourself.
According to author and anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, “We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong – the amount of work is the same.” So why not make the hard work count? Fall through your stories, rationalisations and self-betrayals; rip off your Band-Aids. Don’t wait for your next story. Because at the bottom, once you get through all your layers, there is the truth. A much more beautiful truth than any story you could ever create or receive.