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How Self-Deception Can Be Psychologically Healthy

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Why We Deceive Ourselves (Sometimes)
Douglas LaBier Headshot

How Self-Deception Can Be Psychologically Healthy

Posted: Updated:

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Michael Shermer's TEDTalk shows that our human tendency to "believe" can lead people to embrace a range of falsehoods, despite evidence to the contrary. That brings to mind another interesting aspect of "self-deception" -- one that's psychologically healthy and leads to positive development: Both research studies and clinical evidence from psychotherapy show that a strong belief or expectation about achieving a goal or overcoming a problem can have a powerful impact upon what actually happens in your life.

To explain, first consider which "self" it is when we speak of "self-deception." You might recognize two "selves" within you: One who envisions and believes in the possibility of achieving something you desire -- say a new project that you though of; or of solving a personal conflict that creates much unhappiness. And then there's your other "self," who tells you desire isn't possible, or that it's unrealistic or that you lack the ability to make it happen.

Many people experience those conflicting "selves." It can be difficult to know which one is "true," or which to identify with. I wrote in a previous post that some people accept falsehoods that are contrary to facts because, as some research finds, rejecting false information requires more cognitive effort than just taking it in. The former takes more mental work. Moreover, a person may exist within what Eli Parisner calls the "filter bubble:" Your informational milieu may reinforce information consistent with what you already "know" or are selectively exposed to.

You may use your mind to give your highly rational and logical reasons why you won't be able to achieve your vision or goal. -- Douglas LaBier

Well, a similar thing can occur with respect to your personal issues, the realm of your emotions, your desires, fears and view of your capacities. But when you're able to infuse the positive version of your "self" with a strong belief that you can achieve the outcome you desire, that view of what is possible, then you're creating a catalyst to your growth and development. So in this sense, "self-deception" means believing that if you embrace the vision of possibility, and act in ways consistent with the goal or outcome you desire, it will occur.

Doing this includes recognizing that the "self" who tells you that you can't or won't be able to achieve what you're aiming for is a false self. That is, you may use your mind to give your highly rational and logical reasons why you won't be able to achieve your vision or goal. That can be insidious. It requires that you recognize such "reason" as the enemy. It's the product of fear, and an impediment to your growth, not an ally.

Several research studies show that you can learn to mentally discard unwanted thoughts, and that can free energy and commitment to achieve what your "reason" might say you can't. Similarly, other research shows that strong belief in your capacities to achieve what you desire or aim for can help you achieve your aims. Such mental focus can help you keep in check the "rational" self that gives you reasons why won't be able to do, in reality, what you desire. As the legendary Yankee manager Casey Stengel said, in one of his famous malapropisms, "They say you can't do it, but sometimes it doesn't always work!"

I've seen the effectiveness of "self-deception" in many psychotherapy patients who've been able to overcome conflicts and grow in their emotional, creative and relationship lives. A number of research studies support this, as well. For example, some show you're able to self-generate positive attitudes and problem-solving behavior by focusing your consciousness on compassion and empathy towards yourself. That reprograms your brain, in effect, and reinforces the behavior and self-perceptions you desire.

Of course, the positive form of "self-deception" must always work in conjunction with ongoing self-awareness and self-examination. Your vision of possibility must be grounded in effective dealing with reality. Both psychotherapy and empirical research show that ongoing self-examination are essential ingredients for successful outcomes in your life, in general. With that in mind, embrace what the novelist George Eliot wrote: "It is never too late to be what you might have become."

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.

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