Skill #23 Self-Deception: The Problem of Not Knowing You Have a Problem

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If you don’t know you have a problem, is it possible to change it? Yes, it is. And in this post, I’ll show you how.

“You’re never upset for the reason you think you are.” 

Today we’re going to talk about self-deception. Self-deception is the problem of not knowing that you have a problem. If you don’t know you have a problem, is it possible to change it? Yes, it is, and in this post I’ll show you how. 

We’re going to start with a story, and then we’re going to talk about what self-deception is, how to notice that you’re doing it, and how to get out of self-deception so that you can start to see problems clearly.

What Does Self-Deception Look Like?

Let’s start with the classic example from the book Leadership and Self-Deception.

At night a husband and wife are sleeping. The baby in the other room starts to cry, and the husband wakes up. The husband’s first thought is “I should get up and take care of the baby before he wakes my wife. After all, she works so hard all day and needs all the sleep she can get.”

But then the husband’s next thought is ”I work hard too. I work all day, and I need to get up early for a meeting. Why should I get up? My responsibility in this family is to go to work and earn money so we can live. I need all the sleep I can get so I can function at my job. I have a big project to complete tomorrow.”

And the baby keeps crying. 

Then he starts to think “Why doesn’t my wife get up and take care of the baby? Doesn’t she realize I need to get sleep? Okay, I know she’s awake now. She’s just being lazy.” Now he starts to feel upset and angry at her. “This is so unfair,” he thinks. “I work hard all day and she can’t even just take care of the kids so I can sleep.”

Before long the husband is really upset toward his wife. 

If you asked him why he was feeling that way, he would probably say “Because my wife didn’t do her job.”  He started out feeling a desire to help her, and he ended up feeling bitter and angry and actually believing that his sleeping wife was mistreating him. 

Self-deception is how you subtly convince yourself that when you’re doing something wrong, it’s actually right.  We do this through blame, minimization, denial, and a whole bunch of other self-justifying tricks of the mind that leave us feeling vindicated — but also leave us feeling stuck, unhappy, trapped, angry, and hopeless.

This is a super tricky problem to address because if you are self-deceived, your subconscious is going to do everything it can to stay there. You can’t see the real problem, and you don’t even want to see it. 

If you’re trying to solve your problems but nothing is working, then a good question to consider is “Am I self-deceived?”

It is so easy to see this mindset in others, like the alcoholic who denies that he has a problem. He flies into a rage when his wife suggests that he needs help. He screams at her “I’m a lawyer; my drinking is just to deal with the stress of the job — which I’m very good at. I’m not some bum on the street. You’re the one with the problem”. 

Or it’s easy to see self-deception in the thief: he steals whatever he can, bikes, phones, whatever, and he justifies it by saying that it’s the victim’s fault because they left their doors unlocked or they’re just stuck-up rich people who deserve to have stuff stolen from poor victims like himself. 

It’s easy to see self-deception in others, but oh so hard to see it in ourselves.

How Did the Husband Become Self-Deceived?

We all have flaws, we all mess up, but we also want to like ourselves and feel good, so the easiest path is to just lie to ourselves about how good we are. But we’re better at deceiving ourselves than we are at deceiving others. People can sense how we really feel toward them.

In that story, the husband felt to help his wife. But then he didn’t do it. He probably felt a very brief sense of guilt. He had to start justifying himself to try to make that guilt go away; he created a way of seeing his wife to make himself “right” and her “wrong.” Before long he was awash in feelings of self-righteous indignation, victimhood, and irritation toward his wife. 

If he had just honored that sense, he wouldn’t have felt guilt and wouldn’t have needed to build up that wall of anger around it.

How Does Self-Deception Impact Us?

When we’re self-deceived, we waste a ton of energy in self-justification, distorting the truth about ourselves and others to feel good, while completely missing our opportunity to live life to the fullest, to live our values and dreams. 

Self-deception leads to pain — broken relationships, addictions, anger, numbness. When we’re stuck in self-deception, we choose to defend ourselves instead of change, even when we’re miserable! When we don’t accept responsibility for our choices, we hurt ourselves and everyone around us.

How Do We Become Self-Deceived?

When we act contrary to our deepest sense of what is right, we feel guilt. When we seek to avoid that feeling, we start to distort the way we see the world to justify our actions. Self-deception is about avoiding the sensitivity or vulnerability of being human. 

So we twist reality to justify ourselves. This is self-deception. It takes strength to admit our flaws and face our weaknesses, and it’s easier to lie to ourselves. Sometimes we do this for so long that this just becomes a habitual part of ourselves. It becomes difficult to see or remember the original truth of our feelings.

When you are self-deceived, those false feelings of anger, resentment, or frustration will spread to those around you, exacerbating the problem. 

For example, with the husband in the previous story, if the morning after he had started acting cranky towards his wife, she would have been more likely to act cranky towards him, and it would have invited her to start to see him as a jerk to justify her behaviors. 

What Happens If We Stay Self-Deceived?

If you were to ask this husband the next morning what he was feeling, he would have said “Anger, irritation, a sense of injustice.” If you would have asked him “Why are you feeling that way?” he would probably answer “Because my wife won’t help out; because my wife is lazy or disrespectful.” 

In this situation his “truth” was that she was the bad guy and he was the victim. He thinks that the reason he’s upset is because his wife won’t help out. But we know the truth: he didn’t feel angry, mistreated, or upset until after he didn’t do what he felt he should. 

He felt peaceful when he thought “I should get up and take care of the baby,” and when he didn’t do it, he had to create an alternate reality in his mind, one where his wife was the bad guy. His anger, his sense of victimhood, were actually self-deception. 

And if you had asked him in that moment of self-deception what the solution to the problem was, he maybe would have said “My wife needs to help more” or “We need to have a conversation so I can tell her how she’s hurting me” or “I guess I just need to cope with this. I just need to accept that I’m going to suffer because of my wife’s laziness.”

None of that would have made things better until his eyes were opened to his own responsibility in the problem. 

As a therapist I see this all the time. A couple comes in, and they are both exerting so much energy in trying to change the other, convinced that if only the other person would change then their problems would be solved. Self-deception never improves relationships or solves problems. 

When we’re lying to ourselves about the nature of the problem, all our attempts to fix it will fail. Communicating, coping, expressing your emotions, trying to change others, leaving, all of these normally helpful strategies fail or make things worse.  

How Does Self-Deception Impact Those Around Us?

When we are self-deceived we see others falsely; we lose sight of them as human beings with needs and hearts and start seeing them as obstacles to our happiness. When we see people this way, it doesn’t matter what kind of behaviors we are using when we interact with them; they will sense how we feel towards them, and that invites resistance from them. 

Have you ever had an experience like this, where you thought that another person was mistreating you, that you were right and they were being jerks, etc., and then later realized that you were either contributing to the problem or actually the one at fault? 

So Where Does All This Leave Us?

Okay, Emma, so what you’re telling me is sometimes I have a problem of not knowing that I have a problem. Great. Now what do I do with that? 

One of the only antidotes to self-deception is to ask yourself the question “Am I seeing this situation falsely right now?” or “Am I in some way responsible for this?” or “Is it possible that I’m causing this problem, or at least contributing to it more than I’m willing to admit?” 

If we use self-deception to rationalize our mistakes, the deception leaves us helpless to solve the problem. Seeing our responsibility gives us the freedom to act and the power to create real change in our life. 

What Steps Can I Take?

The first step that you can take to stop self deception is to look for any signs of self-deception. These include:

  • Justifying: “I had to do that because…” or “If she didn’t do this, then I wouldn’t do that.” Generally we don’t need a reason to do the right thing. We only need a reason when we’ve done something wrong. The husband does work hard, but he didn’t need to remind himself of that until he was trying to excuse his not getting up to help the baby. 
  • Trying to change others: This includes believing that if they would change it would solve your problems. 
  • Blaming: Seeing the other person as the problem. Sometimes other people do have problems; that is not self-deception. Self deception is using other’s problems as justification for yourself.  
  • Horribilizing: Making the other person out to be worse than they are and you to be better. (Remember, this can be the opposite too — we can make ourselves out to be horrible as a way to justify ourselves).
  • Feeling hopeless: Feeling hopeless, powerless, or constantly angry
  • Victimizing: Focusing on how you’ve been mistreated.
  • Compiling evidence on the other person: keeping internal lists of all the wrongs you have received, etc., and pulling those up in my memory. 
  • Seeing the same pattern of problems repeat themselves in your life: For example, if every boss you have sucks at communicating, then you might want to take a look at your own communication patterns.

When you see clearly, you can then begin to look for little ways you can change your actions to line up with your deepest sense of what is right and the kind of character that you value. Here are some ways you can overcome self-deception:

  1. Check yourself for signs of self-deception. Remember, self-justification indicates that you aren’t living your values, that at some point you’ve acted in a way that goes against your deepest sense of what is right.
  2. Pause. What does my reaction to something or someone say about ME? 
  3. When you notice signs of self-deception, take some time to try to get clarity. Calm down, slow yourself down, spend time in a safe place or with a safe person, maybe do some introspection and write down what kind of person you would like to be in that situation. 
  4. Take responsibility for what is in your locus of control. Don’t use others’ actions as excuses for you not living your values. This is one of the most common ways we get stuck in self-deception. Don’t get wrapped up in spotting self-deception in others, and don’t get stuck beating yourself up. 
  5. Be humble and willing to change. Focus on trying to do a little better, on taking action that lines up with your values. 

Consider one problem you’re having in your life and ask yourself the question “Am I seeing this falsely?” Do you have any of the signs of self-deception listed above?  

If so, then ask yourself “What kind of action would I have to take to live my values?”

You can learn to recognize the signs of self-deception in yourself, and you can learn to see yourself and others more clearly. Obviously, this is a big and complicated topic, and a really important one. 

This approach to understanding how to change how you feel and resolve problems is really adapted from The Arbinger Institute’s work. Their approach has been life changing for me. Their bestselling books like Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace have been really influential for me, and Bonds that Make us Free by C. Terry Warner takes it all to a deeper level. 

The Arbinger Institute’s seminars can also be amazing. I’ve discovered more freedom and power through their organization of ideas than just about anything else I’ve studied. If you want to dive deeper into this stuff, I’d recommend starting with their book The Anatomy of Peace

Extra Resources/Arbinger Awesomeness

One of the most influential books (philosophies) in my life has been The Arbinger Institute’s work Leadership and Self-Deception and their other works like The Anatomy of Peace and The Choice. Bonds that Make us Free by C. Terry Warner was also transformative for me. 

The Arbinger Institute’s seminars are life changing. I’ve discovered more freedom and power through their organization of ideas than just about anything else I’ve studied. To dive deeper into this stuff I’d recommend starting with their book The Anatomy of Peace and The Choice.

I also really like The Parenting Pyramid and The Choice in Intervention

Here are some brief summaries of their work:

The Basic Principles

  1. An act contrary to what I feel I should do for another is called an act of self-betrayal.
  2. When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my self-betrayal.
  3. When I see a self-justifying world, my view of reality becomes distorted.
  4. So when I betray myself, I enter the box of self-deception.
  5. Over time, certain boxes become characteristic of me, and I carry them with me.
  6. By being in the box, I provoke others to be in the box.
  7. In the box, we invite mutual mistreatment and obtain mutual justification.  We collude in giving each other reason to stay in the box.

Living the Material

  1. Don’t try to be perfect. Do try to be better.
  2. Don’t use the vocabulary — “the box” and so on — with people who don’t already know it. Do use the principles in your own life.
  3. Don’t look for others’ boxes. Do look for your own.
  4. Don’t accuse others of being in the box. Do try to stay out of the box yourself.
  5. Don’t give up on yourself when you discover you’ve been in the box. Do keep trying.
  6. Don’t deny you’ve been in the box when you have been. Do apologize, then just keep marching forward, trying to be more helpful to others in the future.
Check out the full How to Process Emotions Course with 30 ways to help you process emotions below. 

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