Out of everyone in the world, the person who lies to you the most is almost certainly you.
Most of the time it’s not something we think about. It’s just a sort of automatic response, or a defense mechanism. We look at the things we’re working on, at the general state of our lives or goals, how we’ve been performing in various areas and – rather than making an objective assessment – we tell ourselves whatever it is we want to hear.
The worst part is since it’s something we do all the time without thinking about it for what amounts to most of our lives, it’s hard to spot. It takes real effort to figure out when we are, and aren’t, being honest with ourselves and that’s why so few people wind up doing it.
Let’s look at some ways to change that.
The Importance of Honesty
There are a few different ways that I’ve found people lie to themselves consistently. The first I see all the time being involved in the realms of fitness and self-improvement, and that’s lying about progress. Sometimes these also take the form of lying to yourself about your own commitment or performance as well. What are some examples?
A person wants to learn to speak Cantonese. They say they’re studying hard, but really they’ve been skipping days and their practicing has mostly been short Memrise sessions stuck in here and there.
A person wants to finish a novel. They start off pretty strong but they tell themselves more and more that they’re too busy, that other work is getting in the way and making them too tired to be creative, that they’ll definitely get more done on it as soon as things calm down.
A person wants to lose weight. They tell themselves they’ve been eating healthy. In reality, they’ve eaten out and gone way over their calorie budget ten times in the last two weeks but they say it was only one or two little cheat meals. The scale hasn’t moved because of water weight.
A person wants to start getting more sleep. They tell themselves all day long that they’re definitely going to stick to that schedule they set. No caffeine after noon, no alcohol after eight, cut down light exposure and thirty minutes of light reading before bed at ten. At one a.m. they turn Netflix off and tell themselves that it’s fine, they’ll definitely do better tomorrow.
Any of those sound a little familiar?
A related type of lie that falls into this category is when we use dodgy, passive excuses as assessment for our progress. Things like, “I’m doing my best.” Or maybe, “I’ve been trying hard to [insert goal activity here].” These soft excuses have the same kind of effect as the more blatant ways we lie to ourselves.
So what’s the problem?
This type of self-deception robs us of the clarity we need to actually make progress in our lives. It’s a kind of self-preservation, a natural avoidance of things that are difficult or make us uncomfortable. It’s present in everyone and I’m sure in the (at least geologically) recent past when humans still had to be concerned about being eaten as often as they had to be concerned with finding food, and when a broken leg or a small infected cut could be a death sentence, it was a useful survival mechanism.
Now that natural inclination to avoid difficulty and discomfort and take the path of least resistance causes more harm than it does good.
These lies allow us to ignore multiple types of discomfort. They not only allow us to avoid the discomfort of actually trying hard (avoiding overeating, sticking to study sessions, working out), but also to avoid the discomfort of recognizing that we are failing.
To a lot of people being forced to face the realization that you’ve failed, or not worked as hard as you could have, or weren’t ‘strong’ enough to resist temptation, is more discomforting than the behavior they avoided in the first place. These lies and excuses often feign success or provide some kind of external excuse for any noticeable lack of progress. This makes it next to impossible to actually make any progress because to make progress you’d have to fix what’s wrong, and to fix what’s wrong you’d have to admit something is wrong in the first place, which requires you to crawl out from under the safety blanket of lies.
The second way I see people lie to themselves is just as damaging, but works in almost the opposite way. Rather than destroy their progress by telling themselves they’re doing much better than they actually are, they destroy their progress by convincing themselves they’re worthless or incapable. For example:
A person who has always wanted to learn to play guitar, but who tells themselves they’re awful at it anytime they practice. They feel like they’ll never be good enough to actually play in front of anyone.
A person who would love to be able to speak German on a trip they have planned to Berlin next year, but who tells themselves they just don’t have a head for languages and they’re far too old to learn a new one now anyway.
A person who wants to get fit who, after a minor setback like a day or two of going over their calorie budget, tells themself that they’re weak and pitiful and it’s a waste of time to even try to get in shape so they might as well gorge themself on junk food.
While the first type of self-deception is all about artificially building yourself up and pretending you’re doing better than you really are, this second type is all about lying to yourself about how poorly you’re doing or will inevitably do.
This kind of deceit does just as much to arrest or even reverse your progress as the others do. Rather than stop you from making progress by convincing you that you’re already succeeding, it stops you from making progress by convincing you that you can’t succeed, or that you’re not worthy of success. Either kind leads to the same end result. The key commonality between the two is that they’re both built around one thing, the very same thing that is necessary to stop lying to yourself.
How to Cultivate Self-Awareness
Thankfully, half the battle (or at least maybe a quarter if you want a more reserved estimate) is recognizing the need for improving your self-awareness in the first place. It takes a small amount of self-awareness in the first place to realize that you need to build more of it, and that can be the toughest hurdle to clear for some people.
Once you know that you need to work on your self-awareness, there are a lot of different strategies you can use to start building it up and to reduce that innate habit of lying to yourself. Rather than try to list as many as possible individually, I’ve found they can generally be grouped into one of three categories – quantification, introspection, and monitoring.
Quantification is anything that adds objective, measurable data points to whatever goal you’re working toward. For example if you’re working on getting stronger, noting down the workload of your lifting sessions (weight, sets & reps, rest times, etc.) will give you clear numbers on whether or not you’re improving. You can’t lie to yourself about how you’re getting stronger if the numbers say you haven’t increased the workload of your lifts over a reasonable period. Even just marking down days you’ve done an activity in a don’t-break-the-chain type system, like checking a box on a calendar every day you study your target language or every day you hit your macro targets, adds a reference-able set of data to tell you if you’re being honest with yourself about how you’re doing.
Hopefully you already have set solid, quantifiable goals as opposed to nebulous ones and have something here you can work off of.
One key thing I want to note here is that you have to not cheat, and you have to actually act on the data you wind up with. I’ve seen with all the quantified self stuff getting marketed lately people who will get so fixated on one aspect they ignore everything else. If you get so obsessed with getting steps on your FitBit that you let it bounce around on the dryer to hit your targets, or if you decide you’re going to go ahead and mark off that you studied today even though you didn’t because you don’t want to mess up your streak, it’s not going to actually help you succeed.
Introspection is the process of sitting down and – with an obvious goal of being as brutally honest as possible – examining your progress, behavior, attitudes, etc.
We do an annual review once a year to go over all of our goals from the previous year, how well we did in accomplishing them, what areas we fell short in, what things can be improved, and what things we excelled at, among other things. It’s kind of like the type of extended performance review you might get at a job, except applied to our lives. It’s an excellent way to take a hard, critical look at how we’ve been doing and correct any behaviors or attitudes that may be making things harder on us rather than better.
Introspection doesn’t have to mean a big yearly review with a long worksheet though, it might be taking some time at the end of a project to ask yourself how it went, what went well and what needed improvement. It could be just taking five minutes in the morning for some quiet meditation on your work habits, or your progress toward your goals, or even just noting down at the end of the night what things you did well that day, what things you struggled with, and what your goals are for the next day. The core idea is to make sure that at least some time is set aside purposefully for you to take a look at yourself and your behaviors and analyze them is a constructively critical fashion.
Monitoring is kind of a sibling or an off-shoot perhaps of quantification. It’s the act of setting up someone or something external to yourself to check in on your progress and make sure you’re staying on course.
A digital example might be something like RescueTime, which keeps track of how much time you spend doing various things on the computer and lets you know if you waste several hours a day on Facebook or Reddit or something when you should be getting work done. A human equivalent might be as simple as a friend who you agree to go to the gym with to work out regularly, or someone who checks in with you to make sure you got your writing done that day.
These external checks help add an additional layer of complication to self-deception, because we also have to deceive them to get away with it. You can’t convince yourself you’ve been working out more than you actually have if your friend is complaining you skipped out on the last gym sessions. Does that mean you can’t lie or cheat when using some kind of external monitor? Well, no, and that’s something you have to watch out for. Bringing yourself to lie to someone else though is a lot harder than being deceptive to yourself.
Depending on your goals, there are strategies and tools that fit into each of these categories you an use to help cultivate, and reinforce, your sense of self-awareness in order to stop lying to yourself so much.
While these three can help with both types of self-deception – falsely building yourself up, and falsely putting yourself down – it’s important to note the second type is also helped immensely by working on embracing positive self talk.
It may sound like something from a feel-good pseudo-psychological self-help book, but any time you think to yourself something that’s expressing a negative self opinion stop what you’re doing and contradict it with something positive. If you think, “I’ll never be smart enough to learn how to speak Lithuanian,” then stop what you’re doing and tell yourself something positive like, “Fuck that. I’m goddamn brilliant and if I want to speak Lithuanian there’s nothing that’s going to stop me.”
Working on overcoming negative self-talk is a topic requiring an article and guide all on it’s own, but just keep in mind that negative self-talk is almost always going to make things worse, not better, and you should do whatever you can to think of yourself more positively.
It’s also worth noting that if you’re constantly down on yourself, and always feeling like you’ll never be good enough to accomplish the goals you set out for yourself, or that nothing’s worth it and you should just give up, you may want to consider talking to your doctor about the symptoms of depression. Sometimes the issue isn’t that you’re not trying hard enough, it’s that there’s some kind of chemical imbalance somewhere that needs fixed. Don’t be afraid to explore other potential causes.
Do you have any other suggestions for how to be more self-aware and stop lying to yourself? Have you ever come to the realization that you’ve been deceiving yourself about something? if you’ve got any good advice for everyone leave a comment and share it with us!