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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills
A major obstacle to self-knowledge and, in turn, to a flourishing life, is the tendency of one part of the mind to lie to the other.
We lie for what might – initially – seem like a very understandable reason; because we want to avoid pain. We become experts at pushing disturbing thoughts very far into the unconscious – because we are squeamish.
There are four things we particularly like to lie to ourselves about:
i: Things we need to change about our lives
We lie about all the problematic aspects of our lives it would take so much effort to alter: our jobs, our relationships, our friendships, our relations with our families, our health, our habits and ideas.
ii: Things that might disturb our self-image
We lie because we need to think well of ourselves and are devoted to imagining that we are essentially unperverted and normal, without peculiar loves, hates and deviant thoughts.
iii. Things we badly want and can’t have
We lie because we don’t want to feel so inadequate – and yet because there’s so much that is good that lies outside our grasp.
iv.Things we are angry with others about
We lie because we’re furious with certain people we’re supposed to love (it might be our own father or mother). And we lie because what we’re furious about feels so minor and pathetically petty for a grown-up to care about.
Given how risky the truth about us can feel, we have had to learn to be masters of deception. Our techniques are wide-ranging, devilish and often hugely imaginative. Here are some of the leading manoeuvres we employ to pull the wool over our own eyes:
We identify something that can powerfully keep our thoughts away from troubling inner confrontations. Online pornography is a favourite, the news another, alcohol a third. We don’t so much like these elements in and of themselves; we like them for their ability to keep us away from what we fear.
A sadness we haven’t been able to admit to is often covered up with exaggerated doses of manic cheeriness. We aren’t happy so much as incapable of allowing ourselves to feel even the slightest sadness, in case we were to be overwhelmed by our troubling feelings. We develop a brittle, insistent tendency to say that all is very well. ‘This is lovely, isn’t it?’ we might press, leaving no room for any ideas to the contrary.
Anger with a particular person or situation which we have cause to bottle often seeps out into a generalised irritability. So successful is the lie, we don’t really know what’s up: we just keep losing our tempers. Someone has moved the TV remote, there aren’t any eggs in the fridge, the electricity bill is slightly higher than expected, a meeting has been rescheduled for a less convenient time, we weren’t cc’d in a minor email (it’s the principle that counts we tell ourselves); there’s a queue at the hotel reception desk … anything can set us off. Our brains are so filled with how frustrating and annoying things are, we have cleverly left no space for focusing on the true, very sad and annoying realities.
We tell ourselves that we simply don’t care about something – love or politics, career success or intellectual life, that beautiful student or the house we can’t afford. And we are very emphatic about our lack of interest and disdain. We go to great lengths to make it very clear others and ourselves how absolutely unconcerned we are. There must be no mistake. We simply and absolutely don’t care. They’re all stupid. It’s a waste of money. What idiots.
We might go in for long, highly erudite and argumentative explanations about why something doesn’t impress us. We get very rational and factual. We’re being more eloquent and clever in fending off any idea that we might be interested in something, than in defending anything we do actually love.
We grow censorious – and deeply disapproving of certain kinds of behaviour and people. What we don’t admit is that we are so full condemnation only because we need to ward off awareness that a part of us in fact really likes the condemned element. We attack certain sexual tastes as utterly deviant and beyond the pale – precisely because we half-know that we share them somewhere inside ourselves. We are delighted when particular people are arrested or shamed in the press; what they did was utterly awful, we insist, our outrage shielding us from any risk of spotting the connection between them and us.
When our feelings get tricky indeed, we just pass them on to someone else. Rather than accepting them as our own, we convince ourselves they exist in others only – whom we attack and censor for having them. Perhaps your partner has started speaking about a party you’ve both been invited to. It’s being thrown by a moderately famous person, who is in an up-and-coming pop group. You’re thrilled by this, but frightened to. You’re meant to be egalitarian and serious. You can’t want this. So sensibly, it seems it must just be your partner, whom you accuse of being a ‘serious social climber’. You have found the perfect person on whom to land your unacceptable, fervent desires.
There is unwelcome news that someone is trying to impart. We know – at some level – that it is true, but because it is also unbearable, we resort to a highly successful diversionary tactic: taking offence. A colleague tries to give us a bit of feedback. Instantly we accuse them of rudeness, arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Feeling offended takes up all our attention. It muddies the waters. We no longer have to pay attention to information that is – at their heart – correct but challenging.
We are sad about particular things but confronting them would be so arduous, we generalise and universalise the sadness. We don’t say that X or Y has made us sad. We say that everything is rather terrible and everyone is rather awful. We spread the pain so that its particular, specific causes can no longer be the focus of attention. Our sadness gets – to put it metaphorically – lost in the crowd.
The idea of being dishonest with ourselves may not sound especially decent, but we should allow ourselves to ask a realistic set of questions: why shouldn’t we just lie if it is more pleasant to do so? What is the issue with keeping things from ourselves, if we suffer so much from the truth? Why is the truth an a priori good?
The defence of honesty must ultimately be a cautionary, egoistic one. We need to tell ourselves the truth when we can for the simply reason that we often pay a very high price for the lies.
– We miss key opportunities for growth and learning.
The things we’re in denial about are painful, but they simultaneously contain material that is potentially vital to our overall growth and development.
If we could stop, for a time, looking at naked people, or drinking or checking the news, and face up to what we need to do, we might – gradually – end up in so much better a place.
If we could accept that we wanted certain things, even if we didn’t end up with them all, we could still secure some sort of substitute or a portion of them.
If we could face up to our stranger desires, we’d learn to navigate more freely in our minds and be alive to a wider range of our own thoughts, which could render us more creative and interesting.
– We’re not very nice to be around.
Our defences might be hidden from ourselves, but their consequences are often evident to others. They are the one who suffer our irritability, or gloom or manufactured cheerfulness or our defensive rationalisations. They sense we’re often being unfair. They back off and keep a distance. We grow isolated and friendless.
– We develop harmful symptoms
The truth will out. And, when we don’t let it emerge, it has a tendency to reveal itself through involuntary (often physical) symptoms. We become insomniac or impotent, an eyelid starts twitching, we acquire a stutter, we scream in our sleep, we lose energy, we fall into depression…
The way to greater honesty follows some of the techniques seen in the rehabilitation of crimes. We must reduce the shame and danger of confession. And we must improve the chances of rehabilitation.
To bolster the courage to look more frankly into ourselves, we need a broader, more reassuring sense of what is normal. To begin listing the ingredients of a redrawn definition of normality, it is very normal to be envious, crude, sexual, weak, in need, child-like, grandiose, terrified and furious. It is normal to be excited by people who are younger and older than us and to desire random adventures even within loving committed unions. It is normal to be hurt by ‘small’ signs of rejection – and to be made quickly very insecure by any evidence of neglect by a partner. Sometimes we want to jump on the railway tracks or lick the toilet seat. It is normal to harbour hopes for ourselves professionally far beyond what we have currently been able to achieve. It is normal to envy other people, many times a day, to be very upset by any kind of criticism of our work or performance, and to be so sad we think a lot of suicide or flight.
We don’t think in this free and honest way because we’re scared that we could never come back from such confessions. But recognising a feeling doesn’t mean you act on it. Admitting to a fantasy or desire doesn’t have to be followed by acting it out – in fact, it is usually an alternative to doing so. We should accept our desires and yet still not think them a sensible guide to action.
Understanding how self-deceit works can help us with ourselves – but also with others. We start to see them as beset by the very same problems as us: so quite often they’ll be saying things which are not in fact in line with their true feelings or desires – mean things when they are feeling vulnerable perhaps, or arrogant things when they are feeling small – and we’ll identify that it is charitable to forgive them for not always managing to be reliable correspondents of their inner lives. It’s not really sinister to think this way of others, it’s a kindly move that gives us the energy to lend a second, more compassionate look at behaviour that might initially have appeared simply horribly off-putting.
Exercise: An Experiment in Honesty
Consider our list of defensive, self-deceiving moves:
We all practice them all the time.
Can you remember specific incidents in your life when you employed them as strategies?
What were you trying to hide from yourself?
It’s vital this exercise happens in a group – because the enemy of such an effort is the sense we’re all alone. And the solution is the normalisation of the disavowed parts of ourselves.