It’s easy to see why people lie to others: to keep their jobs, to avoid an argument with someone, to protect their reputation, or because they think everyone will be better off for it. It’s wrong, we know, but sometimes we figure that doing so is the best option in a sea of bad choices.
Lying to ourselves, though? It happens quite often, and as it turns out, we’re pretty good at it. We convince ourselves that we really need that new gadget, that we made a wise financial choice, or everything is fine (when it isn’t). Even if the evidence proves otherwise, we stick to our guns and refuse to back down.
More often than not, the lies we tell ourselves are harmful to our well-being and can be more damaging than we realize. So why do we do it?
1. We want to be right.
Whatever we do, we want our actions, attitudes, and beliefs to line up together. So if you perform an action that goes against your beliefs, such as making a snide remark about someone, it makes you feel uncomfortable.
This feeling is the result of cognitive dissonance, which happens when your thoughts and beliefs fail to align with what you do. We try to get rid of the dissonance, so we either justify our actions or change our beliefs to fit what we did.
For instance, you might feel bad about the hurtful things you said, so you try to reduce your feelings of guilt by telling yourself, “Everyone else is doing it, so it must be okay.” While doing so helps us sleep at night, there are times that our justifications can have serious repercussions.
A doctor might misdiagnose a patient and simply shrug it off by blaming external circumstances, such as the cardiologist who mistook a case of severe heart disease requiring immediate emergency for gastric reflux. When the person is in a position of authority, it can be especially hard for others to challenge their decisions.
So here’s the question: what is the price we pay to be right? Is it worth forgoing an opportunity to improve ourselves, to improve current practices, or possibly risking someone’s life?
Of course not. But it’s tempting to do whatever it takes to avoid those uncomfortable feelings of dissonance.
2. We want to avoid change.
If someone is in a toxic relationship, the solution is clear: leave! But to the person in this situation, the answer isn’t so obvious. Friends will point out red flags, and the person involved with refuse to believe any of it.
The power of denial is so strong that we hold onto false beliefs, even if the evidence overwhelmingly points against it. We do this partly because of our fear of change. We hold onto old things and refuse to let go, which clogs up space for new ideas, people, or opportunities.
Sometimes we take denial a step further by going out of our way to confirm a lie. When we get stuck in our careers, we hold onto a false hope that things will automatically change on their own. Instead of looking for a new position or changing directions, we convince ourselves to stay where we are. “My boss always compliments my work and tells me I do a good job”, we might tell ourselves.
The other reason behind our denial is the time investment involved. When we spend so much time and energy trying to make something work, it becomes harder to cut our losses and move on. Eventually, there comes a point when we need to realize that we’re best off somewhere else.
3. We don’t want to get hurt.
Many of us would like to think that if we witnessed unethical practices in a company, we would do the right thing. The consequences though, can be daunting.
Michael Woodford, CEO of Japan’s Olympus Corporation, shocked everyone when he blew the whistle on his own company. In less than two weeks as Chief Executive Officer, he was fired in the boardroom after uncovering and questioning the company’s $1.7 billion in mergers and acquisitions.
After spending 30 years at Olympus as an employee, Michael risked his career to uncover corruption within the company, which ended up costing him his job. At the time, he and his family were under tremendous emotional and financial pressure, especially as numerous people in the company were exposed of wrongdoing and the company’s stock fell by 75 percent.
Now think of what someone could say to avoid putting themselves at risk. “I don’t want to be a troublemaker” or “my family’s livelihood is at stake” are two phrases that come to mind. Rocking the boat feels too dangerous, so excuses are made instead.
In many situations, it seems easier just to maintain status quo, rather than confronting someone, reflecting on how we behave, or investigating something suspicious. We naturally want to keep going down the same route and maintain the same habits, even if we have to lie to ourselves.
Listen to Yourself
Our interests, hobbies, and personality quirks are things that differentiate us. We might love to go hiking in the woods and have certain friends, but hate heading to certain places. And while these traits and behaviors can make us interesting as people, they also indicate certain things about who we are.
If someone uses a phrase that sets us off for an inexplicable reason and causes us to instantly dislike that person, it could be due to a negative experience in the past. Maybe another person we knew said the same thing and ended up breaking our trust. So whenever we hear that phrase or see something that reminds us of that person, alarm bells go off.
“I don’t trust that person. She seems like the type of person go back on her word,” we reason. If we react strongly to someone or something without a clear explanation, it’s likely because of a painful and memorable event in our lives. Fairly or not, we justify our actions, thoughts, or behaviors with a reason that may or may not fully make sense.
If it feels like your behavior isn’t lining up with who you want to be, stop and think about why that’s the case. Why do you feel a certain way? What’s causing your behavior? Are the justifications you tell yourself truthful or do they simply cover up the real reasons?
We’re afraid of being wrong because it feels like a failure on our part. But look at it another way. Not all failures are bad; they’re just a necessary part of learning.
Honesty Heals Wounds
It’s hard to open up to yourself about why you feel and act the way you do. Honesty takes strength.
Most of us would rather bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the problems we face aren’t so bad. We prefer to experience little bits of discomfort rather than risk being honest and having our careers, relationships, or finances blow up in front of us. After all, what comes next after the explosion?
It’s not easy to uncover truths, but once we do, we see everything much more clearly. We’re given the chance to make changes and build again.