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This article was originally published in Image Magazine April / 2012 - You can find more information here -

SWEET LITTLE LIES Written by Emily Hourican There is apparently only one certainty in the world of personal motivation, and that is that we are all lying to ourselves, pretty much all the time. We lie about why we did certain things – “I only told her for her own sake…”; about how much we can manage – “yes I only have ten minutes to get across town, but I can still pop in here and grab a coffee.” We lie about our will power, “I can easily stop eating chocolate, when I want to;” our ability to impact our environment, “if I can just get a bit more money, life will be perfect,” and about other people’s opinions of us, “he will ring, he’s probably just really busy...” Many of these seem fairly harmless – after all, does it really matter if you confront the fact that no, you can’t possible get that coffee and still be on time for the meeting? Or if you insist on believing that dress makes you look thin and gorgeous, as opposed to inappropriate and old? There is even a level at which lying to one’s self is positive. Any number of studies and scientific experiments show that most of us believe we are better looking/ smarter/ more moral/ more useful than other people. For example, seventy percent of us say we’re in the top 50% of the population as far as looks are concerned, which is clearly impossible (men, by the way, are more over-confident than women, and powerful men the most over-confident of all; wouldn’t you know it?). So there is a definite internal bias towards seeing ourselves as better than we are, and this kind of personal cheerleading has a place in our evolutionary journey. After all, our ancestors would never have set off across the ocean if they hadn’t optimistically believed in the bounty that must lie beyond. Humans are the only animals who lie, and our brains are by now incredibly sophisticated at producing false consciousness. This is the process by which the brain assimilates information, and almost immediately recalibrates that info where it is unflattering or unappealing, in order to tell itself a different, better story, one that fits with our self-image. This can be anything, from “of course I wasn’t the drunkest person at the party last night,” to “it’s the jeans that shrank, not me who got fatter.” And, as Robert Trivers, an American evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist, Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, points out, “the smarter a child is, the more it lies. Intelligence and deception are positively correlated. The healthier a child is at birth, the more they lie later.”


So, the lies are good? Well, yes, but only up to a point. The positive-story-telling process is known in scientific circles as Cognitive Dissonance, and it’s the one that causes perfectly intelligent people to say, “yes, I know smoking causes lung cancer, thrombosis and heart disease, but hey, that’s never going to happen to me…” Which is clearly where the power of the positive gets replaced with something more sinister. “There is a natural inclination in all of us to see ourselves as younger than we are,” says Brendan McKiernan, family therapist with the Bray Counselling & Therapy Centre. “This is harmless, in balance, and can even contribute to a positive self-image, which is good. Negative lies are far worse – “I’m terrible at everything,” “I’m a bad person.” However, when you start to go to extremes, problems quickly arise. Those helpful lies can then become destructive rather than constructive.” This happens when ‘reality’, in as much as any of us can know it, becomes hopelessly distorted in the service of a personally favourable story. Where someone can no longer recognise the truth, because they simply can’t face it. “This is the point where someone adopts an ostrich mentality. Reality is overwhelming, and sticking your head in the sand is a coping mechanism.” Basically, the favourable story turns into denial, at the extreme end of which lies schizophrenia. In the short term, denial is useful – where it gets someone through the immediate trauma of a situation too hard to cope with, for example; “denial is the psyche’s way of making the unacceptable, acceptable,” says Brendan. But long term, continued denial is a dud; “the more you can be in the territory of ‘reality,’ scary though that may be, the more you can grow and get to where you want to go in life.” At a most basic level, constantly telling yourself that guy from the other night did mean it when he said he’d ring, that he probably just had a really busy week at work, is a comforting way of letting yourself down gently. But if you keep doing it, you are failing to ask yourself several important questions – are you picking the wrong guys? Are you going too far, too fast? Are you preventing yourself from moving on and meeting other people, by clinging to false hope? Cognitive Dissonance and denial may be far more powerful motivations than previously realised. Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and New York Times bestselling author, has just produced a book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, in which he examines the reasons why people lie to others. His fundamental point is that previous beliefs – that people would essentially lie for gain, as much as they could without being caught – are incorrect. Because one of our most powerful motivations is looking good


in our own eyes. Therefore, we will only lie to others as much as we are able to rationalise to ourselves. We want to see ourselves as good, and so most of us never stray far from the straight and narrow path. It’s a piece of research that gives with one hand, and takes away with the other. The fact that we are desperate to think well of ourselves is a fairly good thing for society – a natural check to what would otherwise be a simple Survival of the Most Devious – but there are clearly troublesome consequences to the notion that we are so determined to believe ourselves to be angelic. After all, if we are so keen on a favourable narrative, chances are that we are overestimating our abilities and opportunities on every level. And while it might be nice to think we’re just about perfect at everything, it’s a belief that negates any chance of improvement, or the acknowledgement that we can learn from other people. Self-awareness is a powerful tool, as is the ability to recognise our short-comings. It is relatively easy to spot lies in other people – liars tend to look away, their voice rises on the key word of the lie, they pause more, they say ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, and use the passive form rather than active, because they unconsciously want to distance themselves from their lies. But how do you tell if you’re lying to yourself? Much harder. Particularly because, as Brendan McKiernan points out, “denial is unconscious. People don’t know they’re doing this.” And it all gets semi-impossible when you realise how much the outside world is lying to you, and busily helping you to lie to yourself: “drink this, it will help you lose weight,” “buy this dress and you’ll look exactly like Scarlett Johansson,” “a new kitchen will make you happier.” So what to do? Just accept that none of us can ever know reality, and continue to float along in our self-imagined little bubbles? No. The answer, according to McKiernan, is to first acknowledge that we all tell ourselves little lies – claiming that you’re totally honest with yourself is probably the biggest lie of all – and then accept the intrusions of reality where we find them. Take them seriously – even where they are slightly traumatising (as they usually are) – and act on them. For example, you catch sight of yourself in a shop window and think ‘who is that ancient crone wearing hot pants?’, before realising that its you. Instead of immediately recalibrating the image – ‘oh it was an unflattering angle and a distorted picture, I actually look pretty good…’ – try facing it. Maybe your hotpants-wearing days are over? That dress from last summer that no longer closes – consider the possibility that it didn’t shrink, rather that you filled out. Or a friend tells you a few home truths – ‘he’s never going to stop cheating,’ ‘you always say you can do everything, and end up by letting everyone down,’ ‘you are always the drunkest person at the party.’ Instead of telling yourself she’s


jealous/ stupid/ a cow, do a bit of hard soul-searching. Could there be a grain of truth in there? If so, clench your teeth and act on it. Because the thing is, self-deception, according to Robert Trivers, “begins pleasantly enough, but often ends badly. Living a lie is hard on your immune system.” Research shows that gay people who are in the closet have higher instances of bronchitis and cancer. Where they are HIV sufferers, those in the closet are more likely to die of AIDS-related diseases. Deception, of society and self, is hard to maintain and takes its toll on your health. Yes, truth is tough, but it’s where change starts.

Little White Lies • • • • •

It’ll all work out fine in the end Of course I can lose 3kg in a week and fit into that dress Ooh, those jeans have shrunk I don’t look 40… That dress cost me €400, it must be fabulous

Mid-Sized Grey Lies • • • • •

If I can just afford that new bathroom, I’ll be perfectly happy I don’t drink too much, I just like to have a good time He didn’t ring because he’s really busy/ out of the country/ his ex is putting huge pressure on him Yes I have loads of work to do, but it’ll be fine, I’ll do it all tomorrow There’s plenty of time to start eating healthily later

Big Black Lies • • • • •

Yes, smoking is a killer, but it won’t affect me… He’ll change My son is an angel, it’s that Murphy boy who leads him astray I don’t need to make an effort at this, it’ll all be grand anyway Oh I never lie to myself…

About the author: Emily Hourican is a journalist and author based in Dublin, Ireland. More information can be found in emilyhourican.com

Sweet Little Lies - Emily Hourican  

- About the author: Emily Hourican is a journalist and author based in Dublin, Ireland. More information can be found in emilyhourican.com

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