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.
This article is part 2 of a 2 part series on the Psychology of Self-Deception:
If you haven’t read part 1 here it is: The Psychology of Self-Deception
In this article:
- How self-deception manifests in men vs women
- Is self-deception something we grow out of?
- The advantages to self-deception
- How to avoid self-deception
- Addictions and eating disorders
Who engages in self-deception more: men or women?
Michael Frank: Who engages in self-deception more men or women?
Dr. Cortney Warren: Oh, I think both. I don’t know that either engages more or less. They probably engage in different ways based on cultural norms. But I think both men and women probably do it about the same.
How self-deception manifests in men vs women
Michael Frank: Okay. Let’s take this one deeper then. How does self-deception manifest differently within men versus women generally speaking?
Dr. Cortney Warren: Well I would say that your culture, family of origin, and learnings from a cultural perspective, drastically influence what you learn is important about people. And so in that vein, gender role matters a lot to how we define ourselves as masculine or feminine. And you’ll see this in transgender research too, which is obviously really forthcoming and very important in the LGBTQ community, where we’re looking at what is culturally “supposed” to be male and “supposed” to be female.
And so for a man, your lies are most likely to be consistent with what is most valuable for your gender role. For example: It may be about being strong, being very athletic, having good hair, going to the gym, dating beautiful women, making lots of money, being a good provider. Why? Because those are things that you have learned either consciously or unconsciously are really important to being a “valuable man”.
Whereas for women, our lies are more likely to center around what we may have learned or internalized are true about what makes a “valuable woman”. For example: It may be about being beautiful, loving, nurturing, thoughtful, care taking, a good cook. And in Western cultural context, certainly the number one value based trait in a woman is what she looks like. And so unfortunately what you see in a lot of women is a hyper focus on physical appearance and eating. And the lies are often very self-deprecating. For example: “I’m fat”, “I’m on a diet constantly”. Whether or not you are is really irrelevant. It’s that you’re going to be telling yourself lies that lead you to not live up to what the cultural expectation is. And it’s going to make you feel badly about yourself. And none of it’s true.
Where are you most insecure?
Michael Frank: Are there certain types of people or personalities types that are more prone to self-deception?
Dr. Cortney Warren: No, I think it’s very broad because I think all of us lie to ourselves about something. I don’t think it has as much to do with personality per se, I think it has a lot more to do with, I think where you’re going to find the self-deception in any human, is where they’re vulnerable.
So if you want to know where you’re vulnerable to self-deception, ask yourself: Where are you most insecure? Did you have challenging experiences as a child that leave you uncomfortable with a certain issue, a certain area, a certain type of relationship, a certain age?
Wherever that is in your adult life is where you’re going to be most vulnerable to lying to yourself, and so in that realm, what I would say is probably the more trauma you’ve had in your life, the more prone you are going to be to self-deception, because you’re going to have so many areas that were so pained. So as you age negotiating that for yourself and grappling with that as an adult is going to be the hardest thing for you.
I talk a lot about relationships, particularly romantic relationships, partly because I struggled with them so much in my young dating life, but also because it is such an obvious way that people struggle with self-deception, because wherever they were vulnerable as a person growing up, they are bringing all of that to their first dating relationships, especially through adolescence and early adulthood, and the reactions are going to be based in those early learnings, and you’re not often really well equipped to know how to handle them, because romance requires vulnerability and it requires intimacy, and vulnerability and intimacy make us insecure by definition, because you’re putting your heart and your soul and your emotional well being partially in the hands of someone else who you’re showing all your cards do. You’re saying, this is who I really am, I’m so in love with you, I want everything about you, look at me, my body, my full reality, everything.
And when you’re that vulnerable with somebody, without a doubt, you’re going to have moments where you feel insecure, and in those moments, the way that you handle them can be really, really beautiful, and can make you closer, and it can also be really, really ugly and make you fight, and so learning how to navigate those moments of intimacy is such an important phase or experience for us as humans when it comes to self-deception.
Is self-deception something we grow out of?
Michael Frank: Is self-deception something that we often grow out of? Is it something that generally affects younger people more than people in their fifties and sixties and beyond?
Dr. Cortney Warren: No, I don’t think you grow out of it. I think you grow out of it – if – you work on it. So if you value personal development, and you value your own emotional growth, you will grow out of it because you will work hard to become a better version of yourself. And by definition, that means you’re going to have to start to acknowledge who you really are, and get really honest about who you want to be, because that’s how you grow, right? You need to say, this is what my life looks like now, this is who I am now, but I want to get over there, so how am I going to get there? Let me acknowledge who I am.
But I think that if you don’t get honest with yourself, your lies just compound over time and they probably continue to escalate, and at some point you’ll find yourself living a life that you hate. And then you often see people take drastic measures. You see people hitting rock bottom, using alcohol or drugs, getting divorced, leaving a career, ruining their family relationships, all in a pretty ugly way.
Sometimes though on a positive note, sometimes hitting rock bottom leads people to say: “I’m living this life that I hate, I want to change for the better”, and now they’re entering into the phase of wanting to learn something about themselves, and now they’re getting back on the path of being more honest. But I don’t think honesty happens without a lot of effort.
Actually, I don’t think living a conscious life happens without a lot of effort, because it requires constant self-awareness. It requires that you look at yourself all of the time and ask:
“Who am I?”
“What does that say about me?”
“Am I living the life that I want to live?”
“What do I need to do differently?”
Asking these really, really hard questions that existentially are incredibly important so that at the end of your life you can look back and say, wow, I lived an amazing life. I’m very grateful for the life that I have lived.
The advantages to self-deception
Michael Frank: Given everything we’ve said so far, aren’t there still some advantages to self-deception and lying to yourself? The first idea that comes to mind for me is the athlete’s mentality:
“I’m the man!”
“I’m the shit!”
“I’m the best!”
Mohammed Ali said:
“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.” – Mohammed Ali
I think that the mentality of believing that you’re the best sometimes in that regard can help you. It seems that the lie can become reality. The lie can become the truth. Are there any advantages to lying to yourself, to self-deception?
Dr. Cortney Warren: I think that’s a very interesting point that you’re making. And in an outlier case like Ali for example, half of it was probably bravado, right? Which is you have to project some kind of image if you’re going to be a professional boxer, certainly of his caliber. And there were probably, let’s say 100,000 boxers that have existed in the world who have said that they were the best and weren’t, right? Did it serve them very well? Probably not.
What I would say is, does self-deception have a benefit? Yes it does. Because there are times in our life when we are not psychologically strong enough to admit the truth. And if I showed you the truth, you would absolutely fall apart. For example: If I have somebody who walks into my office who’s in a really bad state, let’s say they’re really depressed and struggling with understanding themselves, if I can see very clearly some things that are true about them within five minutes of speaking to them, but I know that they’re not ready to hear them, in those moments as a therapist, I don’t believe it’s the right time for me to share that information, and actually I think that they’re probably not strong enough yet to admit it even if I did tell them, and I think if I did tell them the truth in that moment, they would fall apart even more.
So in that sense, self-deception does have an important protective feature to it, and too much truth too soon can be really damaging to people who aren’t yet ready to hear it. And so I think that is true.
On the positive side of it, like say with your Muhammad Ali example, you see this in business a lot where you’ll have these really vibrant young or even older professionals who say: “I’m starting this new business, I have this great idea, It’s going to be amazing, I’m going to market it, and so I’m clearly going to be a success!” And I look at them and think wow, there are so many more things that go into running a successful business than having a good idea, or having motivation, or having all of this thriving potential.
Is it bad for them to think that they’re clearly going to be a success? Maybe, maybe not. It probably depends. But I am always unfortunately going to be the downer voice of reason to say, I want you to keep this in perspective. All of those things might be true and your business still might fail. And it doesn’t mean that if your business failed that you didn’t have a good idea. And it doesn’t mean that you didn’t give it your all. And it doesn’t mean that people didn’t believe in you. It may have failed for a million reasons that are outside of your control. And so as I said to you in the very beginning of our conversation, my hope for people always is that they’re honest with themselves, a hundred percent honest with themselves.
I see it in my college students all the time. They’re so excited. They’re like, I’m getting out of college and I’m going to do this amazing thing, and I don’t want them to lose that because that’s so important. But I want them to be honest and really get them to say to themselves, I have all this potential, and it still might not work. Because the more they can go into it honestly, the better the outcome is going to be for them whether they succeed or fail. Does that make sense?
Michael Frank: It does. You want them to be confident and empowered, but at the same time to have some kind of reality check on the way things actually are. The more you can acknowledge reality and deal with it the way it is, and people the way they are, the more likely you are to succeed going forward.
Dr. Cortney Warren: Exactly. And then if they don’t make it, they don’t lose that sense of themselves. I never want to lose the vibrancy and the beauty that people bring to an excited platform. So if Ali thinks he’s the best, I don’t want him to lose that, yes be confident, be amazing, work hard, you are an example of so many positive things, but I don’t want you to get tied to an outcome because you can’t ever predict that. That’s also a lie. Fortune telling. Believing that you already know what the future’s going to bring. Let me just tell you, none of us do. Not a single person can tell you what’s going to happen.
So get really brutally honest with yourself about:
- This is what I love
- This is who I am
- These are my strengths
- These are my weaknesses
- I don’t know what’s going to happen
- My intention is this
- These are the steps I’m going to do to try to get myself to that outcome
And if it doesn’t work, it’s not going to be because I didn’t take these steps. It might be that it didn’t work because I took the wrong steps. It might be that it didn’t work because the economy crashed. It might be that it didn’t work for a million reasons. But I am more confident that you as a person are going to be fine if you start out with brutal honesty with yourself. It’s the people who are delusional and believe that they know the future that I get very nervous for, because when, excuse me, the shit hits the fan, they fall apart.
How to avoid self-deception
Michael Frank: How do we avoid self-deception? What are some practical steps that we can take? You’ve mentioned self-awareness throughout the interview. Do you want to go into that a bit more and even maybe even beyond self-awareness? Or is it purely about becoming self aware?
Dr. Cortney Warren: Well, the first step is always self-awareness, because you can’t possibly work on self-deception unless you start to admit some of the lies you’ve been telling yourself.
Notice when you’re having an emotional reaction
In terms of self-awareness, the biggest recommendation I can give to people is to start focusing on yourself, and definitely notice whenever you’re having an emotional reaction.
If you notice you’re having any kind of emotional reaction or flare – STOP – PAUSE – get out a journal, sit by yourself and say:
“What am I reacting to?”
“What does my reaction say about me?”
“What can I learn about myself from this reaction?”
This is the perfect opportunity to look in the mirror, and when it comes to self-awareness, what you’re really trying to do is become more aware of how you’re thinking, how you behave, what you bring to your life circumstances just by virtue of existing in the world, and starting to get really, really honest with yourself about what that looks like.
“Who am I?”
“What do I bring to my relationships?”
“What are some characteristics of me that seem to be true that I’m not conscious of, that I do by default, that I don’t even notice?”
And you can’t notice everything, right? And that’s why it’s easy to start with a reactive topic because then you’ll notice that you’ll all of a sudden go: “Oh, I’m reacting, I noticed this, okay, let me learn”.
You could also set aside a certain time of day to consciously reflect on yourself.
So for example, every morning I journal pretty much, and one of the things that I will do in my journal is say:
“What’s something that I’ve learned about myself within the last 24 hours?”
“What’s something that I’m thinking about?”
“What are my thought patterns around this issue?”
“What’s something that I’m emotionally struggling with?”
“What’s something I’m working on?”
So focus on you. Fully on you. And the more you do that, the easier it’s going to be for you to see patterns in yourself, and ways that you tend to exist in the world that may or may not be easy for you.
Listen to feedback from other people
Another good way to get self-aware is to listen to feedback from other people. Really often, we have close people in our lives who will give you tidbits of information about yourself, but oftentimes if it’s delivered in a non-ideal way, like if somebody is mad at you, or is yelling at you, you will immediately get defensive and you will not want to acknowledge that any part of it is true.
Instead of getting defensive, what I recommend you do is – pause – listen to what the other person is saying, and before you have any commentary back say: “Let me think about that and I will get back to you”.
Take the information they’ve given you as a gift and think about it. What about their feedback is true? And if you can see that in yourself, now you get to decide what you’re going to do about it.
After you start to get this information by deliberately focusing on yourself, or by trying to take in feedback from the world, or from people who know you, now you get to say, okay, I now have a choice, I now have to do something with this information. Self-awareness leads to self-assessment. What does this say about me? Let me assess where this is coming from. What do I need to understand differently so that I can make different choices?
And it requires action, it requires that you do something differently. Because understanding that something is true is not enough. Once you admit that it’s true, you have to do something with that information, otherwise it’ll eat you up more.
Then take action
I say that very, very clearly to people and I hope that they understand that ignorance is bliss. It really is. Because once you acknowledge the truth about yourself, if you don’t do anything, you’re going to feel worse.
If you acknowledge, for example, that you’re yelling at your kids or your spouse and that doesn’t feel good to you, and you say, wow, I really do yell, the next time you yell at them, you’re going to feel worse because you know better now. You know that you’re like that and it’s something you’ve decided you don’t like. So if you do it again, it’s like you’re stepping in the same pothole over and over and over again.
So as you become more and more self-aware, and as you start to understand where your vulnerabilities and deepest insecurities are, and I really mean that from an early childhood basis, you now have to decide how that is going to translate into different behaviors in your adult life. What are you going to do differently today?
It could be something that seems really small but makes a massive difference in your life. It could be that today I am choosing not to say anything negative about the way I look to myself. Today I am choosing not to yell at anyone even if I feel angry. If I feel angry, instead of yelling, I’m going to take a deep breath, I’m going to go to the other room and I’m going to figure out what my anger is about, what it says about me, and I’m going to have some sort of response that is healthy for me, and if I’m still really mad I’m going to hit pillows instead of yelling at my spouse.
It could literally be that your intention is I am focusing on being honest with myself today and I’m not going to react to anything. I’m just going to notice and I’m just going to take in information, and as I learn, I’m going to figure out what I want to change about my life over time. I’m not ready to actually change yet. Now I’m in the pre-contemplation phase where I’m trying to figure out what is really true because I actually don’t even know.
You have to do all of that to try to combat self-deception: self-awareness, self-assessment and actual behavior change.
Consciously seek out feedback from other people
Michael Frank: Do you think that we should consciously seek out feedback, not necessarily from psychologists, but even just from friends and family? Or do you think that people are likely to lie to us so that they don’t hurt our feelings especially if we’re feeling insecure?
Dr. Cortney Warren: They’re very likely to lie to you. Yes. But do I think you should solicit feedback? Absolutely. Especially if it’s somebody that you love and trust. And first what I would say to you is, bravo, if you can do this, because it’s very scary because you’re going to be very vulnerable.
Second, knowing that this is going to be somewhat of a scary situation, really prepare yourself, get centered, do some deep breathing. Then go to the people in your life who you care about and say: “I’m in this phase in my life where I really want to learn about myself. I just listened to Dr. Warren on this podcast, I’ve entered therapy (if that’s true) and I’m thinking about who I really am. I would like you to give me some honest feedback about how you see me. What do you see in me that you think is really wonderful and that you really love? And what do you see in me that really makes you sad, or that you think is tough to watch, or that you think is something I could work on?”
And don’t say a word. Let them tell you. Maybe even record it or take notes. And at the end if you have questions, clarify, and then say: “Thank you so much for being honest with me and telling me the truth, even if it was hard for you to say, and hard for me to hear, I’m going to take your feedback, and I’m going to work with it”.
And you know, the beauty of it is that they may say something about you that you actually don’t agree with. That’s okay, because if you don’t agree with it, but you’re empowered, it doesn’t hurt you. You can say, oh wow, they think I’m this way. I actually don’t think that’s true now that I’ve thought about it, but I’m really glad that they were honest enough to tell me and I’ll keep that in mind in case in the future somebody else says it to me. And if more than one person does say this to me, maybe I really need to keep an eye on it, because maybe it is true of me, and I just can’t see it right now.
It won’t cause pain, right? It’s an opportunity. So yes take every opportunity you can to get feedback about yourself, and think about whether it’s accurate, and maybe those traits only emerge in certain circumstances, in a given triggering situation – it’s still true.
Anytime somebody gives you feedback, think of it as a gift, even if it’s delivered in a pretty ugly way, you can say: “Well thank you for the feedback. I’ll think about it. I’ll keep it in my little bucket of things for me to work through and process and consider”.
How to ask for feedback from other people
Michael Frank: Do you think it’s better to ask for feedback face to face, or to get someone to send it to you in writing, because sometimes I think it’s easier for people to just email you their thoughts as opposed to having a hard face to face conversation with you, even if you may be willing to take it, to accept it, to listen, to hear.
Dr. Cortney Warren: Absolutely. The face to face is probably more bonding. So what I would say is if it’s somebody you’re close to, and you want the experience of sharing the information to be vulnerable so that it will bring you closer together as a relationship, have it in person. Because there’s something really, really, really magical about being vulnerable face to face with somebody that you love. It will make you closer to them probably.
But it is harder for people to be brutally honest to your face. They are much more likely to give you the whole story if it’s a written document, because there’s some anonymity and therefore they’re less likely to alter their story based on whether you look sad or upset, face to face they might not want to tell you, but in writing they maybe a lot more likely to tell you the truth. So I think you could go either way.
Addictions and eating disorders
Michael Frank: One of your specialties is addictions and eating disorders. What are some stats that the average person probably wouldn’t know?
Dr. Cortney Warren: The large majority of people living in Western cultural contexts are dissatisfied with their physical appearance. Probably 40% of adolescent girls in the United States have been on a diet by the time they’re in fourth grade (9-10 years old). Boys are increasingly experiencing eating disorders and most of them are centered around masculinity and being too small, so their eating will focus on getting bigger, using steroids, some version of binge eating.
Binge eating disorder is now in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, which is how we diagnose mental illness in the United States. Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder now. It’s going to affect about 5% of the US population and that’s comparable in other western cultures around the world, including Australia and most of Western Europe. And binge eating disorder is similar to Bulimia, but it has no compensatory behavior, so you’re going to find a much more even gender distribution and much more ethnic distribution of people with binge eating disorder characterized by eating too much food in a short amount of time while feeling a loss of control of the eating, which is a binge, but with no compensatory behavior, meaning they’re not doing anything to rid themselves of the calories following the binge. So they’re not purging or they’re not excessively exercising or using diuretics.
And when we think about eating disorders, one thing I really want people to know is that although our traditional eating disorder diagnoses really focused on young, thin, adolescent, white affluent girls, the demographic of people struggling with eating disorders now is much more diverse in terms of age and gender, and what an eating disorder actually looks like. It isn’t just the very thin people, people who are average weight and overweight are often struggling with pretty severe eating issues too that we now really know how to treat, and really can help work with if you find a good therapist who specializes in eating.
There is always hope
Michael Frank: Any final thoughts as we wrap up in regards to self-deception, self-awareness, or anything that we’ve discussed?
Dr. Cortney Warren: There is always hope for any single one of us. Even if you’re having a really, really tough time in life right now, what I hope for you is that you really look at yourself in the mirror and say:
“Who am I?”
“Who do I want to be?”
“How am I going to get there?”
And know that although you can’t control many circumstances in life, you have a hundred percent control over yourself, and there are things you can do to become more of who you want to be, and I encourage you to do them because it’s worth it. It’s worth every minute of it. Even if it’s hell going through it. You’re going to come out the other side in a much better place than you are now.
Michael Frank: Dr. Cortney Warren, it’s been a pleasure. 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 two 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