In this article I interview Dr. Cortney Warren PhD, Clinical Psychologist and former Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Cortney is an award-winning expert on eating disorders, addictions, self-deception, and the practice of psychotherapy from a cross-cultural perspective. With over 45 peer reviewed journal articles, Cortney’s work appears in some the field’s top journals.
In this article we talk the Psychology of Self-Deception:
- What is self-deception?
- The problem with self-deception
- Why we lie to ourselves
- The signs of self-deception
What is self-deception?
Michael Frank: Let’s start with a clear definition of terms: What is self-deception?
Dr. Cortney Warren: Self-deception at the most basic level is an inability to be honest with yourself.
Self-deception is either:
- Believing things that are not true, and trying to fool yourself into believing things that are not true
- Not believing something that is true
Self-deception is living in this kind of alternate reality that we create for ourselves as humans on a daily basis to keep ourselves comfortable. It is very protective, and it keeps you from information that you don’t want to admit or acknowledge, simply because it’s too hard or too painful, or it’s something you don’t want to be true. And so in that way, self-deception is anything that you just can’t quite acknowledge, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Doesn’t self-deception just make you delusional?
Michael Frank: Doesn’t self-deception therefore just make you delusional?
Dr. Cortney Warren: It certainly can. And when you see self-deception in its most compelling, provocative form, the lies are massive. And I’m sure if you look at people in your own life, or if you look at yourself really honestly, you can see people telling you things that just aren’t true.
Maybe a friend of yours is giving you this whole rendition about a dating history they’ve had, or about their family of origin, or about their job, and you’re listening to them thinking, you’re totally full of crap, you’re absolutely delusional, and I know that you believe what you’re saying because you want to believe it’s true, but I’m looking at you as a mirror going, oh my gosh, you don’t see it, and it’s so obvious, and if I could just show you yourself for a minute, you would see that all of this is a masquerade, and if you just admitted that one little seed of truth, everything would change.
Michael Frank: You either don’t see it, or you don’t want to see it…
Dr. Cortney Warren: All of the above.
Is self-deception just lying to yourself?
Michael Frank: Is self-deception just lying to yourself? Or does it manifest in other ways?
Dr. Cortney Warren: Well, the hardest part about self-deception in terms of how it practically influences your life, is that you can’t possibly tell other people the truth if you are living in a lie. Because you will tell them whatever lie you are living in. And so in that way you will perpetuate whatever your self-deceptive reality is to everybody around you. And so in that way you become a liar. It’s not an intentional lie, you’re not meaning to mislead people, you’re misleading people by default, because you can’t tell them what you can’t admit.
Don’t we all lie to ourselves?
Michael Frank: Playing devil’s advocate: Don’t we all lie to ourselves? Isn’t it just a common universal behavior? Don’t we all engage in self-deception?
Dr. Cortney Warren: Yes, absolutely, every single human, and it serves a really important function, it really does. At some level, you have to play around with truth and lies even from a really young age. So little kids, for example, lie about all kinds of things and they self-deceive in all kinds of ways, but at that age, it’s actually really constructive for them because it’s their exploration of reality and of the world. So for example, you’ll have kids say: “I’m a princess”, “I’m a pirate” and they know it’s pretend, but they act it out as if it’s real and in that way, it’s how we start to realize that our reality, our identity as a human, is actually separate from yours.
And there are theories of human development that really outline how important it is for you as a human being to understand that what another person thinks is true, might be totally different than what you think is true, and that’s how you can manipulate and get away with things. Because if I lie to you but you don’t know the truth and you don’t actually necessarily know I’m lying, isn’t that fascinating? That’s the mind of a kid, right? And so yes, every human lies, every human. What I would say though, is that as we age and mature, the goal always one hundred percent of the time is for you not to lie to yourself, because the more you can acknowledge the truth to yourself, the more power you have to create the life that you want to live.
Whether you want to lie to others deliberately or not is a much more complicated question, and there are scholars who tell you:
- It’s okay to lie
- It’s okay to lie under certain circumstances
- It’s never okay to lie
You’ll hear the realm. What I would say is independent of what you think about lying to others: Always try to be honest with yourself. Always.
The problem with self-deception
“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception” – Plato
Michael Frank: Let’s state the obvious: What is wrong with lying to yourself? What’s wrong with engaging in self-deception?
Dr. Cortney Warren: The first thing that’s wrong with it is that it indicates to me that you’re not strong enough emotionally or psychologically to tolerate reality. And anytime you’re not strong enough to do something, it means that you’re giving up power, you’re weak. And in that way you’re losing your ability to make choices for yourself that will lead you to be who you want to be, that will lead you to live the life that you want to live.
We always want to act from a place of security and comfort and honesty, because the more that you do that, the more consistent your life is going to look with what you really want it to become. And so when we think about raising children, or what I would recommend for patients that I work with, is I am trying to build you up as much as I can so that your ego strength, so that your psychological strength, is as high as it can be, because from that place I believe you’re going to make much better choices for yourself.
Another reason self-deception is a problem is that if you’re dishonest with yourself, you will make choices based in insecurity, and the more you do that, the more you’re going to regret the choices you make. Because in general, humans don’t make good choices from places of weakness. We will resort to whatever is easy and familiar. We will go right back to early childhood issues, we’ll go to what’s pleasurable, to what feels good, even if we know that all of those things are really bad for us.
And what I often find in people who lie to themselves for a long time about something, is that as soon as they acknowledge the truth, and have the “oh crap” moment, they look at me and go: “My whole life is a lie. I made all of these horrible choices and now I have to live with the consequences. I have a tremendous amount of regret because I know that my life could have been completely different. But the only way it was going to be different is if I was strong enough to be honest with myself, and to make different choices for myself, and I could have lived a whole nother reality. But instead I wasted all this time trying to live a life that wasn’t right”.
I also see, particularly in adults who have kids, is that if you pass on the lies that you believe to your kids, you will see lots of transgenerational trauma, and that is also really, really, really unpleasant. When you see, oh my gosh, I have this issue, I’m uncomfortable with the way that I look, I’m constantly dieting, I’m very insecure in my romantic relationships etc. and I inadvertently passed that down to my kids and now I’m watching them doing the same crap that I did and I never would have wished that on them, and I didn’t do anything about it, and so they’ve learned from me. That’s not a great place to be either. So the consequences of self-deception can be massively negative.
Michael Frank: So self-deception:
- Doesn’t change or improve anything
- Makes you more delusional
- Leaves you with massive regret
- And it also masks the problem
Dr. Cortney Warren: Yes. All true.
“If you tell the truth, it’s part of your past, if you tell a lie, it’s part of your future.” – Dr. Cortney Warren
Dr. Warren’s awesome Ted Talk: Honest Liars: The Psychology of Self-Deception with over 1 Million views
Why we lie to ourselves
Michael Frank: Why do we lie to ourselves? Why do we engage in self-deception? Is it just because we can’t handle the truth? Because we find reality too difficult to deal with?
Dr. Cortney Warren: I think that’s the core of it, yeah. Because think of it this way: If you were really strong, it’s really not that hard to acknowledge something negative about yourself, or something negative about your life. It’s not that hard. Someone could give you feedback like: “You know what? You’re really arrogant right now” or “I really don’t like the way you said that to me” and you could say: “Oh wow, tell me more about that, how did I come across?” It doesn’t cost you anything because you’re strong. It’s the moments when we’re most vulnerable and insecure that we want to lie the most, because we can’t handle the fact that it could possibly be true. Does that make sense?
Michael Frank: It does. The less ego strength you have, the more insecure you are, the more likely you are to try to protect that fragile ego.
Dr. Cortney Warren: You will have to protect yourself when you’re insecure. If you’re secure, there’s nothing to protect. You can tolerate pain. You can tolerate discomfort. You can tolerate unpleasant realities, because it doesn’t mean that you’re worthless. It doesn’t mean that there’s something really horrible about you. All it means is that there might be a reality that’s really tough that you can explore and learn about yourself in a more honest way, so you can figure out what you’re going to do about it.
Michael Frank: I think people also lie to themselves about things they can’t control, or they feel that they can’t control, or that they can’t change, or that they feel powerless to change.
Dr. Cortney Warren: Yes, which is related to insecurity because there are things that you can’t control in the world, right? Really horrible things happen to really amazing people every day. But if you can acknowledge that something bad has happened to you, or something bad is happening in the world and you don’t have control over it, it feels pretty bad, it feels uncomfortable, yeah.
But it’s better to acknowledge that it is happening, and that you don’t have control over it, and to sit with that and figure out what you’re going to do about it, then to create a delusional worldview in which you are dismissing that this reality exists that you can’t control.
The signs of self-deception
Michael Frank: What are the most common ways in which self-deception manifests itself? Or for those of us who lack self-awareness, who don’t engage in mindfulness or meditation or self-reflection or introspection, what are some common telltale signs that we ourselves may be engaging in self-deception?
Dr. Cortney Warren: There are so many ways. One of the primary ways that we talk about self-deception in psychology really comes from Sigmund Freud, because even though he didn’t call his ego defense-mechanisms “lies”, really what he was describing is the human tendency to lie to ourselves in very characteristic ways in how we act and how we think, and then cognitive behavioral preeminent scholars like Aaron Beck took it from there and created a whole list of ways that we lie to ourselves.
Deflection and Projection
So for example, from a Freudian perspective, one thing that we do is we deflect anything that we see about ourselves that we don’t like, and then we project it on to other people. So instead of admitting: “This is something that I don’t like about myself, but it’s true” we say: “This isn’t true of me at all, this is true of you. I can see it all over you, but that’s not me.” It’s a way of protecting yourself.
Another way that you see self-deception manifest a lot in kids is in something called regression, which is where you essentially go to an earlier stage in emotional development. So let’s say for example, you have a child, and then you have a second baby, and then all of a sudden your first child that was talking and potty trained and doing really well, is wetting the bed and won’t eat anything. And you’re going, what is going on?
And it’s coming from this insecure place where all of a sudden they have to defend themselves, and they’re going to go to an earlier stage of development than they’re actually capable of doing, which is really a lie.
From a cognitive perspective, the ways we lie to ourselves are really more about how we think, and the things that we tell ourselves that are clearly not true. So for example, to go off of your idea of the control issue, one thing that we do when we can’t control things, is we try to rationally explain why they exist. Trump is elected President in the United States because (insert theory). Somehow it makes me feel better about the fact that he was elected, if I can explain to myself that there was a reason for that to happen.
Another thing that we often see is people trying to use challenging life experiences to justify unideal aspects of themselves.
We use our pain: I had an alcoholic parent. I had a really difficult experience with friends. I was teased a lot etc. We use those experiences to say that it’s okay that I treat you in a crappy way. It’s okay for me to yell at you. The reason I drink now is because my father was an alcoholic. The truth is: The reason you drink now is because you’re choosing to drink – even if your parent was an alcoholic. Now what? And so the more you try to deflect away from yourself to explain who you are, the more you’re lying.
“I acted in this way that I really don’t like because bla, bla, bla, and I deserve to act that way, because if you hadn’t done that to me…” and you can go on and on. And the reality is if you could just sit for a moment with yourself and say: “Wow, I did act that way. What does that say about me? Do I like that about myself? Is that something that I’m okay with? And if I’m not okay with it, I better do something about it, even if the circumstance was horrible”.
What I encourage people to do in therapy, or when I teach or lecture, is to use the external environment to understand yourself, don’t use it as justification for who you are. Use it to say these things happened to me, this is where I was raised, this is the culture I grew up in. I was raised in the United States where mainstream cultural ideals of beauty dictate that I am defined by what I look like, and I should be eternally eighteen and really thin with long hair and blue eyes. Hmmmmmm.
So given that that’s true:
- Who am I?
- How did that affect me?
- How am I going to let it affect me today?
- What am I going to do differently in my behavior so that I am living a life consistent with what I believe, and not with what was told to me about what was true?
Those are the things that I want to push people to do. To use experiences and your environment to look in the mirror at yourself, and focus on:
- Who are you?
- Where are you coming from?
- Who do you want to be today?
- What are you going to do to be your best self?
Because that’s the only thing you have control over in this whole entire world. The only thing you can control is you. And that doesn’t mean that you won’t have painful life realities. It means that you have to decide who you’re going to be in spite of them.
When I see self-deception the most is when people try to convince me of something. For example: If I meet with you and let’s say you’re doing some sort of new job and you say: “My old job was so terrible, I hated every minute of it… but I just got this new job and it’s the best company I’ve ever worked for! My boss is amazing!” That’s an immediate red flag. Immediate.
If you’re dating someone: “I’m so in love with this person! I’ve never felt this way in my whole life!” Red Flag. Why? Because it’s too extreme. It’s not really a reasonable expectation that those things are true. And I’m pretty sure that if I talked to you in six months, I’m going to hear the same story except the current job is going to be the old job that you now hate, and you’re going to think that your boss is terrible, and you’re going to be on to dating the next person who you are now in love with too.
What you really need to do is – pause – and really look at this. To have an honest assessment of yourself and your life, really requires you to take a deep breath and to assess everything about you and your circumstance and how you’re responding to it. And that doesn’t mean you can’t be madly in love, but it does mean that for example, that the early phase of being in love is based on a lot of lies.
Why? Cause you don’t really know each other yet. And so although this person may be amazing and wonderful, and you might even be with them for years very happily, who you think they are, is not who they are, because you’re not really real with each other yet, and how you really feel about them isn’t really realistic right now because your neurotransmitters in your brain are going crazy as if you’re having an addictive response and that’s not really real. Does that make sense?
Michael Frank: It does make sense. You both idealize each other and see each other through rose colored glasses.
Dr. Cortney Warren: Yeah, and then when you break up it’s also a lie, cause oftentimes you’ll either see them as the villain, or you’ll still see them through the rose colored glasses as the one who got away, neither of which are true.
Where is the lie?
Michael Frank: You’ve mentioned projection, regression, rationalization, deflection. Are there any other common ways in which self-deception manifests itself?
Dr. Cortney Warren: I mean, there are myriad ways, there are so many ways, and I will say this because I find it to be the most helpful piece of feedback that I can give to people where they listen to me and they say: “Oh my gosh, I did what you said, and I get it”.
When you are having a strong emotional reaction to anything in your life, to a relationship, to a circumstance, to a job situation, when you feel that internal flare of anger, of anxiety, of sadness – pause – pause for a moment – before you do anything else and say to yourself: “What reaction am I having and where is it coming from?” And instead of describing the situation, or the way the situation or someone made you feel, say: “This situation is bringing up this emotion in me. Where is the lie?”
Because I’m pretty sure that there is a lie there somewhere. It could be that you’re telling yourself a falsehood. It could be that you’re having an emotional reaction that actually is being triggered by something in your past that has absolutely nothing to do with the current life situation. That’s called emotional reasoning, and it’s where you have an emotional reaction: “I’m so angry, clearly it’s your fault in this moment cause I’m angry”
As opposed to: “Clearly my reaction says something about me that I’m very unresolved about, and it may or may not have anything to do with the current circumstance. It maybe that the current current circumstance is literally just reminding my body and psyche that this is a very vulnerable issue for me, and now I’m flaring, but instead of blaming you, what I really need to do is look inside and heal wherever that flare is”.
So where is the lie?
The lie isn’t that the current situation is causing the emotion. The lie is thinking that anything external could possibly cause the reaction. The reaction says something about you. Figure out what it is. As soon as you do that, you will feel this immediate light bulb moment, and it doesn’t mean it’s going to be pretty, it might be really, really sad, or really, really scary, you might burst into tears. But it will have a sense of peace attached to it because you will have finally admitted something that’s real, and as soon as you do that, you can work with it, and that is empowering. The whole point is empowerment.
Actually, the real reason that self-deception is so destructive is that it’s all based in vulnerability and insecurity, and the more I can help people feel empowered, and take some control over who they are, and how they want to live in this world, already they’re healthier psychologically, because already they have the opportunity to change. That’s amazing. That’s a gift. That’s a wonderful place to be. Even if you have to hit rock bottom to get there, and you will see many people do hit rock bottom and all of a sudden they say, I can’t live like this anymore, I’ve got to get honest.
Denial is another huge one…
“I don’t have a problem”
“I’m not an alcoholic”
“I don’t struggle with intimacy”
“I don’t struggle with any of these things”
“What are you talking about?”
All of a sudden my life falls apart. Holy Crap. I struggle with all of those things. You’re right. I’ve just never been able to admit it to myself until right now.
And I say, applause. Bravo. You’re exactly where you need to be. You actually have hope now. Now the hope is endless. Now you can you can make whatever changes you need to make so that you’re never here again because regret is a horrible thing. It really is. Of all the patient issues that I encounter in therapy, independent of the circumstances, independent of whether it’s depression, or a psychotic illness, or an eating disorder, regret is a thread you see through them all, and the worst part about it is that you can’t change the past. And so if you’re left with regret and the consequences of the way you acted were really, really severe and horrible for you, you now have to come to a place where you live with that regret because you can’t change what you did.
And sometimes that means you ended up in prison. Sometimes that means you ended up in Vegas and you gambled away every single penny that you have and now you owe thousands of dollars to credit. It could mean that you ruined your relationship with your kids. It could mean that you abused them. It could mean that they’re in Child Protective Services custody. It could mean all kinds of things. But I can’t change those things and neither can you. And if you got yourself to a place where those things are true for you because you made bad choices, at some level, you’re going to have to look yourself in the mirror and deal with that. And that does not feel good. I don’t wish that on people ever.
Michael Frank: Dr. Cortney Warren, how do we find you online? What’s your website?
Dr. Cortney Warren: My website is Choosehonesty and I write a blog for Psychology Today called The Naked Truth and anyone is welcome to Contact me through any of those sites. I’m also still a faculty and adjunct faculty in the Department of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
This is part one of a two part series with Dr. Cortney Warren on self-deception.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dr. Cortney S. Warren is a Clinical Psychologist and former Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After earning her bachelor’s degree at Macalester College in 2000, Cortney received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Texas A&M University in 2006 after completing her clinical internship at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School.
Raised traveling the world as the child of two professors, Cortney has a unique perspective on human nature. She is an award-winning expert on eating disorders, addictions, self-deception, and the practice of psychotherapy from a cross-cultural perspective. With over 45 peer reviewed journal articles Cortney’s work appears in some the field’s top journals, including the International Journal of Eating Disorders, Appetite, and Obesity. Cortney’s view that self-deception is humans’ biggest obstacle to life fulfillment is described in her most recent book, Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Psychology of Self-Deception and TEDx talk: Honest Liars