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A Healthy Dose of Self-Delusion

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In less than an hour, I was scheduled to give a morning lecture in a required statistics course to a room full of 20-year-olds. Ordinarily, I would've braced for the challenge by working on the crossword while pretending to review my notes.

But this was the day of my university's Health and Wellness Fair, and I had heard that by submitting to a quick physical exam, I could get a free restaurant gift card. I figured that between learning how to lower my cholesterol and winning a free bloomin' onion, I'd just about break even.

I was in for a rude awakening, however. My blood pressure was borderline "abnormal." I was more than surprised by the revelation -- I was downright indignant.

There had to be some sort of mistake, I told myself. So I cajoled the nurse into another measurement, and when I didn't fare much better the second time around, I still didn't buy the results. Instead, I walked straight to my class where -- as any of the students who took notes that morning can attest -- I spent the first ten minutes using my supposedly abnormal result to illustrate the concept of measurement error.

That'll teach them to screw with me, I figured.

In the days that followed, I continued my mental gymnastics in an effort to rationalize away the bad news. Research in psychology -- my academic field -- suggests that we possess a veritable toolbox of self-deception to help us cope with ego-threatening feedback. Well, I visited damn near every aisle in my mental hardware store, from convincing myself that I'd be fine because I wasn't a smoker to taking solace in an obese passerby because hey, at least I'm better off than that guy.

And I continued to doubt the test itself. Three or four days in a row, I found an excuse to stop by a pharmacy with a free blood pressure machine, much like an arsonist who can't stop driving by the scene of his latest crime. There, I'd wait for my turn among the coterie of senior citizens also too cheap to buy a portable monitor.

After a week, reality started to sink in. My vow after high school soccer that I would never, ever go running again? The notion that weekend slow-pitch softball constituted an exercise regimen? It seemed that my proverbial chickens were home to roost.

So 10 days after the screening, I swallowed my pride and made changes. I started slowly, passing on another afternoon meeting with my new compatriots-in-hypertension at the CVS, and heading instead to the campus fitness center to request a locker. Then I went home and steeled myself for a morning appointment with a stationary bike.

I remember the feeling of dread when my alarm clock went off. I could visualize dozens of obstacles in front of me, most of them mental rather than physical: Which door led into the gym? Would I know how to program the bike? Oh crap -- was I going to have to shower in front of my students?

(The good news is that the students go back to their dorms to shower. The bad news? Turns out that getting a Ph.D. doesn't override the male tendency to eschew locker room modesty after age 50. Let's just say I'm now far more familiar with many of my senior colleagues', ahem, bodies of scholarship than I'd like to be. Really, gentlemen, when you have the towel draped around your shoulders, how hard is it to just wrap it around your waist instead?)

I showed up early that first day, hoping to avoid crossing paths with anyone I knew. But, of course, as soon as I settled on a bike, I was greeted with an enthusiastic, "Hi, Professor Sommers!" Looking up, I saw a woman who sat in the front row of my class, running briskly on a treadmill pointed directly at me. Awesome, I thought to myself as I returned her greeting -- nothing like going down in flames in front of a captive audience.

I dragged myself through 30 minutes of computer-controlled hills that morning, motivated principally by the desire not to make an ass of myself. Two days later, I did it again. And again two days after that. Gradually, I became less self-conscious about the whole endeavor. Within a few weeks, I was trading in the bike for periodic runs.

I've kept with it for more than two years now. I set a personal record in April, running just over 75 miles, and my blood pressure has long since returned to normal. So you might suspect that I look back with embarrassment or regret at my reaction to the original news -- at my psychological smorgasbord of rationalization and detachment from reality. But I don't.

You see, I needed that period of unjustified skepticism. It gave me breathing room, propping up my psyche while I figured out how to channel pre-existing personal tendencies into better outcomes. Like transferring my obsessive attention each morning from fantasy baseball to a website that tracks my running. And realizing that the same mental stamina I rely on to stick with a manuscript through its late-night completion can also get me through a workout.

No, without my week-and-a-half's worth of denial, I never would have arrived at a plan that stuck. Like Mary Poppins always says, a spoonful of self-delusion helps the medicine go down. Or something like that.

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Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.