Self-Deception and What to Do about It

Why is it that we hesitate to deceive others, but think nothing of lying to ourselves? I’m afraid we all practice self-deceit and sometimes with grave consequences. The most common ploy we use is rationalization. That’s just a fancy way of saying we make excuses and blame our lack of success on circumstances beyond our control. We don’t like to admit we are the cause of our problems, so we invent reasons for our failures. Let me give you some examples of the lies we tell ourselves.

Did you ever notice in your discussions with others that they are wrong and you are right? Isn’t it odd that you are ALWAYS right and NEVER wrong? How can that be? This lie prevents us from learning from others. Why do we feel threatened by different opinions and find it painful to admit we may be wrong?

Well, we often get stuck in “either-or” thinking. That is, EITHER Tom is right OR I am right. Either Mary is clever or I am. But it is never that way. Actually, SOME of what Tom says is right and SOME isn’t. Tom is SOMETIMES right, but SOMETIMES wrong. Just because Mary knows more about SOME things than I do doesn’t mean she knows more about EVERYTHING than I do. Once we understand this, we will feel less threatened by different ideas and more willing to listen and learn.

The lies they tell themselves allow some people to destroy their health with cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and overeating. Others go penniless because they justified their wild spending habits by saying “I work hard, so I deserve these luxuries” or “Perhaps I can’t afford it now, but I’ll be able to pay for it later, so I’ll put it on my credit card.” Lies. Lies. They’re all lies.

A favorite lie of many is, “I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the time.” If you didn’t have the time to do the important stuff, how come you had time to do the unimportant stuff? Yet another all too popular lie is “I have more than enough time to do it LATER.” These procrastinators while their lives away, LATER wondering where all their time went and why they failed to reach their goals.

Those who are too frightened to step out of their comfort zone and make something of themselves proclaim, “I’m not afraid, I’m just being cautious.” “Those who year after year fail to make any progress announce, “I cannot help it. That’s just the way I am. It is my nature; I was born this way.” Lies. Lies. Lies. They don’t get us anywhere.

Unless we end the self-deception, face our fears, admit our faults, accept responsibility, roll up our sleeves and get to work, things will remain the same. Is that what we want? Is that what you want? Assuming that it isn’t and that you are committed to stop lying to yourself, let’s look at some of the methods we use to deceive ourselves, for once we are aware of them, they will be easier to uproot.

1. Rationalization. I already mentioned this method earlier, but the important thing to understand is that NO RESULTS + GREAT EXCUSE = NO RESULTS. This formula clearly shows that no excuse, regardless how good it is, advances our cause. In a word, there’s no point in making excuses. It’s just a waste of time. Far better to use that time to take steps, no matter how small, to bring us closer to our goal.

2. Justification. Also mentioned earlier. When we justify our actions, we twist the facts, pretending to ourselves that our wrongful acts are perfectly reasonable. For example, an office worker who pilfers office supplies tells himself, “My boss is exploiting me, so I have a right to take some supplies for myself.” Not only is he a liar, but a thief!

3. Selective Attention. When faced with an opinion that we disagree with, rather than consider we may be wrong, we dismiss, discount, and downplay its importance. We always remain on the lookout for information that supports our beliefs, and automatically reject anything that conflicts with our preconceived notions.

4. Denial. Rather than face the painful truth, we choose to ignore it. Denial is a ruse frequently used by addicts. For example, an alcoholic may say, “I don’t have a problem; I’m just a social drinker.” or “I’m not drunk. I can still drive safely.”

5. Wishful Thinking. This is the opposite of denial. Deniers pretend that what is true, is not, and wishful thinkers pretend that what is not true, is. Wishful thinkers delude themselves into believing something is true simply because they want it to be so. The world abounds in wishful thinkers, so it’s not surprising that roughly 2,350 years ago Demosthenes taught, “Nothing is so easy as to deceive oneself; for what we wish, we readily believe.”

6. Projection. This is a form of denial, but neither the problem nor its severity is denied. Instead, all responsibility is denied. “Yes, it’s true I have many problems,” Tom says, “but so would you, if you were raised by my mother.” In this tactic, we shift the blame for our problems on another or claim life circumstances are responsible.

7. Introjection. This method is the opposite of projection. Rather than deny our responsibility, we assume the responsibility of another. In other words, instead of blaming the perpetrator, we pretend it is our fault. For instance, a woman is in love and finds it too painful to acknowledge her boyfriend is a bad person. Rather than admit the truth and end the relationship, she believes he abuses her because there is something wrong with her.

8. Regression. Rather than coping with a problem in a mature way, a person under stress or frustration may revert to earlier, childish methods. That is, the troubled person may sulk, whine, or cry, and feeling helpless expect others to rush to his or her aid.

9. Repression. Child victims of sexual abuse and incest may find the pain and confusion too much to bear. So, the subconscious represses the memories. That is, it buries the memories below the level of awareness. Although repression alleviates the pain and allows the child to function, the memories remain intact. And until they are faced and dealt with, the victim may not be able to form healthy relationships.

10. Suppression. After a traumatic event, victims may find the memories too painful to bear and deliberately push them out of their mind. In repression the memories are subconsciously hidden, but in suppression they are consciously hidden.

11. Displacement. In this method of coping we take out our frustration and anger on innocent people. Suppose your boss gave you a hard time today and you are angry. But you feel you cannot express your anger to your boss without putting your job in jeopardy. So, what do you do? You pick on someone who will not strike back, such as your spouse or children.

12. Dissociation. One way of lessening the pain of the present moment is by detaching ourselves from reality. For example, rather than face unpleasant circumstances, we may engage in daydreaming.

13. Minimization. This is a combination of Denial and Rationalization. It is when we downplay, dismiss, or discount the significance of our actions. It is used when someone points out a fault that can’t be denied because of overwhelming evidence.

14. Intellectualization. This is about ignoring the emotional side of any problem in order to relieve stress. It easier to cope by focusing on the dry, cold facts and remove oneself emotionally from a stressful situation as if it is not happening at all.

As you can see, lying to ourselves is a coping mechanism. We do it to avoid pain. But here’s the rub; the pain of not facing and handling the truth is greater than facing it. You probably already understand that. So, why do you continue to lie to yourself? You see, it is one thing to UNDERSTAND it is better to face our problems and quite another thing to FEEL the pain, doubt, and worry that accompanies facing them. When it is a battle between the intellect and our emotions, our emotions almost always win. That’s because we usually operate on autopilot, allowing our emotions to run the show. However, with practice, we can interrupt our feelings and ask ourselves “Is the action that I now FEEL like taking in my best interest?” If it isn’t, we can choose to act differently. When we stop and question our feelings often enough, it will become a new habit, so that we will always be acting in our best interest, even when our actions are automatic.

I don’t wish to get morbid, but if your doctor told you that you had a terminal illness, wouldn’t you do things differently? Wouldn’t you see to it that you spend your remaining time doing what works for you, rather than sabotage your own success and happiness? Well, guess what? You do have a terminal illness. It is called life. So, if you don’t start acting in your own best interest today, when will you begin?

So, the next time problems erupt, face them. Analyze them and tear them apart. Ask yourself, “What are the best steps for me to take now?” Then do what you believe is best. Study your results, and make further refinements if needed. Force yourself to look at your life in order to make it better. Don’t just talk about it; take action! Change affirm-ations to affirm-actions.

And as Bernard Baruch wrote, “Approach each new problem not with a view of finding what you hope will be there, but to get the truth, the realities that must be grappled with. You may not like what you find. In that case you are entitled to try to change it. But do not deceive yourself as to what you do find to be the facts of the situation.”

The problem with self-deception is it blinds us to the cause of our problems, thereby making us incapable of solving them. We’ve got to remove the glasses we’re wearing, regardless how bright the light of truth may be. Once we face our problems, we’ll be able to overcome them. And that’s the truth!

Also see



Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception by Neel Burton

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute

Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self by Rodney Smith

Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception by Daniel Goleman

Perceptual Intelligence: The Brain’s Secret to Seeing Past Illusion, Misperception, and Self-Deception by Brian Boxer Wachler MD

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and‎ Robin Hanson


The Critical Inner Voice

Cortney Warren: Honest liars ─ the psychology of self-deception

The Psychology of Self-Deception