If you happen to leaf through a copy of Seth Godin’s classic “All Marketers Are Liars” (that’s the original title; the updated edition has “Are Liars” struck out, and replaces it with “Tell Stories”), you may make it to the first chapter. If you do, you may come across the part where he discusses why people lie to themselves:
Everyone is a liar… The stories we tell ourselves are lies that make it far easier to live in a complicated world… We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works, so we embrace it.
It makes sense. You can’t go through the world knowing everything about everything, continually updating your data silos, plugging that stuff into your decision-making algorithms, and always expecting your decisions and outcomes to be corrected right away. You’re not a supercomputer, and you’re definitely not a god, so you’ve got to accept your limited capacity for knowing and correctness, and just get by cutting corners and drawing simple trendlines.
Telling ourselves lies, however, doesn’t always work out so well.
Lies that Undermine
Take the case of addicts. These individuals (through some fault of their own, or perhaps due to unfortunate and uncontrollable circumstances) basically let their obsession and craving for one thing control their entire lives. Whether it’s pornography, drugs, alcohol, or gambling, it’s not inconceivable that someone can get unhealthily addicted to something that brings pleasure or satisfaction.
The thing is addiction is not always physical; it doesn’t always involve a substance that acts as a chemical hook, or some other factor that is in and of itself irresistible. Many times, it’s a matter of mindset that drives the habit. It starts innocently, a way to escape, then little by little the person lets the cycle spin faster and faster, gathering momentum, tightening into one focus until it becomes like a drill that pulls them down into the deep underground. (It can be argued that an addict’s circumstances can affect his or her mindset or behavior, making him or her more prone to addiction; journalist Johann Hari delivers a great TED talk that touches on this idea).
Somewhere in the middle of that process, the individual builds a system of lies that justify the addiction. They know that what they’re doing is self-destructive; hardly anybody lives in an information vacuum anymore, at least as far as addiction is concerned. But because of their need to continue the habit, they have to concoct something to convince themselves that they’re still on a good trajectory (calling it a story is generous as it doesn’t have to have any consistency; more often, it’s a patchwork of lies). If you watch and listen long enough, you can more or less get the gist of the internal dialogue: “I may be going underground, but I bet there’s oil or gold down there somewhere.”
So here’s the question: How do you distinguish a useful lie from a self-destructive one?
Ditch the Deceit
I’m not a big fan of religion, but I am a big fan of gaining perspective. Whether it’s through prayer, meditation, travel, or advice from friends who know you well, there is always value in examining your life. If every day feels okay, but your life overall feels somewhat of a mess, it’s best to find a way to step back, go outside yourself, and try to find out what the truth is.
Metaphorically speaking, make it a point to face a mirror. Take a selfie. Ask someone how you look. Do something.
The truth may be inconvenient; it may sting; it may necessitate drastic, painful, amputation-level change. However, disposing of an ugly lie is better than letting it fester and rot you from the inside. Or, if you prefer the words of a famous writer, we can go with Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.
Of course, keep in mind Seth Godin’s input. After all, a marketing guru probably does a better job describing people’s behavior than a titan of literature does prescribing it, right?