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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


Some time ago my podcast partner, Alvean Lyons, and I recorded an episode entitled “Lies we tell ourselves.” We were not sure how well that topic would be received as most of us don’t like being confronted-especially on the subject of our truthfulness. As it happens, it was and continues to be one of the more popular shows we’ve done.

It is a curious behavior, lying, and lying to oneself seems almost an absurdity. We know we do it—yet we are able to suspend the censorious angel that tells us so. Instead we extend to ourselves a gracious benefit of doubt as to the harm we may be doing in conducting actions or harboring thoughts that undermine our character. In those cases when we are caught red handed our most likely response is denial even though it is apparent that we pay the highest cost for perpetuating a falsehood.

Far more self-destructive than denial, we will often press our case even harder, digging a hole for ourselves so deep we may never see daylight. So why do we do this? Usually, but not always, the first of what may become many lies begins with little fibs, excuses for doing or saying something we know to be wrong. As anyone who has ever abused alcohol or drugs knows, the first few departures from what we know to be good for us never seem particularly evil or destructive; they are easy to argue away with the notion that we are merely broadening our experience and capable of stopping whenever we wish. Of course, this is not true—if we aren’t able to stop ourselves before we take the first step—how then will we be any more capable the fourth, fifth or nth time? In no time at all our portfolio of excuses—the lies we tell ourselves—grows geometrically until we vehemently defend our behavior even as we cry out for relief from the demon that is riding us.

But let’s take something more insidious and less obvious to make clear how this game we play works. Pick another topic, intolerance, fidelity, abusiveness, alienation. There is a long list of behaviors that proliferate from our seeming inability to confront ourselves and alter our course. Now, I do not want to suggest evil here—though unquestionably our actions and the thoughts behind them can engender real evil if they persist. Most of us strive to be better versions of ourselves, most of the time—but we also betray those qualities with innocent facility when we first “practice to deceive” as the poet Robert Burns wrote.

It is at that precise moment when we take the first drink, sample the first drug, commit the first thought without censure that we have need of a corrective voice. I am inspired by a thought I encountered recently. The author suggested that he had been encouraged by a mentor to counter his mordant self-denial and pessimistic outlook with reciprocal arguments. When he asserted the possibility of a negative outcome, he would stand the argument on its head and think instead about how things might improve from a positive development.

Apply this to the negative voice lying to the recovering alcoholic that one drink will not set them on the path again, or the spouse with a wandering eye. After all what can go wrong, has a very different effect if we ask, what can go right? Examining ourselves is hard to do—that’s why we tend to avoid doing it. Asking the affirmative question rather offering up the lame justification puts us off our practiced stride. It forces us to ask why we are engaging in thoughts or actions we know cannot lead us to anything good or lasting.

I find this approach very helpful—I know I am not immune any more than most to the temptation to tell myself seemingly innocent white lies. There are things I know I should do but don’t—things I should not consider that tempt me –it is all too human. I may not be battling an addiction or worse but I am not quick to exonerate myself. Like most of us, I am only a few steps shy of practicing self-deceptions.

Most of us want to think the best of ourselves. Condemning our thoughts and actions is neither rewarding nor realistic though it can be as destructive as giving ourselves a pass on whatever we do. That’s why I like this particular form of intervention---it forces me to examine my motives and expectations while offering a possibility—a reward if you will for staying the positive course. It’s worth trying, after all what could go right?

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