You know the type. People with their FitBits. People who ask for a salad instead of fries. People who turn down a drink with dinner because ‘it’s a weeknight’. I used to laugh at ‘those people’.
I wondered why they continued to kid themselves into believing that happiness could be found by forgoing the things they crave. By constantly pressuring themselves to be slim and healthy. I was perfectly happy, right? So I was 50 pounds overweight, who cares? I got to do what I wanted, when I wanted. I was slave to no one, with no rules.
Turns out I was the one kidding myself. Lying beneath all the bluster was the truth – I was desperately unhappy. I had zero self-confidence and I was unfit to the point that walking up a small hill had me floored. Worst of all, I was using alcohol to cover this up. I drank every day, giving myself the false belief that my life was a blast. As an introvert, alcohol allowed me to put on a mask – to pretend I was someone else.
You can fool yourself, you know. You'd think it's impossible, but it turns out it's the easiest thing of all – Jodi Picoult, author
When I look back now I find it hard to believe I was capable of such self-deception. What I have learned over time is that I was too psychologically weak to admit the truth and deal with the consequences of my problem. My mind was protecting itself from having to face the inevitable angst due to the enormity of the issue. Deep down I knew the problem existed, but I was choosing to neutralise the significance of it – by allow myself to believe I was happy this way.
The mind can protect itself against anxiety by diminishing awareness. This mechanism produces a blind spot: a zone of blocked attention and self-deception. Such blind spots occur at each major level of behaviour from the psychological to the social – Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author
The problem with self-deception is that we will live with the truth of the situation regardless of whether we are willing to admit it. Either way we are making a choice – to ignore the truth, or to accept it and make a change.
The Path to Change
Finally a trigger came which changed everything. I saw a picture of me with my friends on a night out. Friends who I thought were roughly the same size and shape as me. I looked closely and realised I was taking up significantly more space on the page than them. Again my deceitful instincts kicked in – maybe I was closer to the lens? Maybe it was an awkward angle? But it wasn’t enough. The proof was right there in all its technicoloured glory.
I wish I could share that picture with you now, but I can’t. I burnt it.
I retreated into myself for a couple of weeks. I was wounded, confused and disgusted with myself. I bargained with myself, desperately trying to cling on to my web of lies. Eventually I was able to acknowledge the truth – that I was overweight, unhappy and unhealthy.
You’ll never know who you are unless you shed who you pretend to be - Vironika Tugaleva, life coach and author
At this point I became resolute in my plan for change. I was going to lose my excess weight, I was going to become fitter and I was going to be happy. I upskilled myself in nutrition and fitness, and started to make some big life changes.
I became that person who I scoffed at so readily before. I swapped my fries for salad. I stopped drinking so much. And I even recently bought a FitBit, completing my transformation into one of ‘those people’. I listened to my truth, and I change my life – I’m now a healthy weight, I eat nutritious foods and I work out most days.
Was it easy? No. Did I complete my transformation perfectly? Definitely not. I had many slip ups along the way, and my self-deception kicked in with brand new excuses (‘I’ve already lost a few pounds, I know I’m not at my target but I reckon that was always unrealistic – pass me the cake!!’). But every time this happened I got through it – I learned how to recognise these deceitful behaviours in myself and revert back to the truth.
What Can You Do to Break the Cycle?
Self-deception isn’t something that simply stops because of one moment of enlightenment. It is a constant threat that can come back to bite us in many circumstances. Even when you think you have found the truth within yourself it can rear its ugly head.
The good news is that there are ways we can break out of the cycle as it is occurring. In order to do this, we need to consciously look for signs that our mind is deceiving us:
The overt lie. The classic one here is ‘genetics mean I am overweight’. This one is probably an obvious lie to everyone around you, but you have been able to effectively fool yourself into believing it is true even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. You probably have an elaborate story here to reel off whenever your belief is put into question. Actively listen out for these stories and catch yourself in the act.
That niggling doubt. You know the feeling. It might be a small thing, but something happens which causes you to doubt yourself. For example – you put on a pair of old jeans and they are too tight. You start to wonder whether you have put on weight. You start to feel very uncomfortable – anxious even. Your minds reaction to this is to protect you from this negative feeling, so it drip feeds in ways to justify an alternate scenario – i.e. that you are not putting on weight. For example, ‘you just washed these jeans – freshly washed jeans are always a little tight. Don’t worry about it’. If you listen to these false truths, you start to feel a little better. This is a critical moment. You have reframed the situation and you move on believing that nothing is wrong. Over time your mind creates a repertoire of justifications – a web of deceptions ready and waiting for these little moments of doubt. You have to stop them in their tracks and take action. If you start down this path, the web will start to unravel, revealing the full truth of your situation.
The final sign is the toughest to spot. There comes a point when we have deceived ourselves so effectively that we are actually living in a simulated reality. We have woven such an intricate web of lies that they have taken on a life of their own. The good news is that at the core of this self-deception must always lie the truth. The sole purpose of self-deception is to distract you from the truth – without it, the deception would not exist. Therefore, somewhere in your mind you hold the key to change – the truth. There is no magic bullet here – you need to take some time reflecting on your life, your happiness and your beliefs. Eventually you will start to see things clearly.
Once you have recognised you are deceiving yourself, you will start to unravel the truth. At this point you have the challenging but necessary task of acting on this truth – learning new behaviours and forming better, more productive habits. It certainly won’t be a linear path to success – as human beings we can be sure of one thing and that is imperfection. But over time, your new behaviours and habits will become the new normal, taking the power away from your self-deception.
If you limit your choice only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is a compromise ― Robert Fritz, author and filmmaker
Whatever your situation, I leave you with one thought. When you are old and you reflect back on your life, what do you want to think? That you were honest with yourself and lived on your own terms? Or that you spent your entire life pretending to be something or someone that you are not in order to make your life ‘easier’?
You are entirely responsible for your own happiness. Whatever or whoever you are pretending to be, I urge you to stop now. Recognise the self-deceit, and make an active choice to be true to yourself. It might not be easy, but in the long run it is so worth it – I promise.