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Why We Lie to Ourselves

thumbI recently wrote a post about being honest with yourself, and an astute reader pointed out that I hadn’t really tackled the why of lying.  Why do people engage in self-delusion (especially when it’s often to their own detriment)?  Here are some of my thoughts and observations.  I’d love if readers would chime in with their own experiences and theories.

1)  We lie in order to avoid what feels like a bigger and more unpleasant truth.

For example, if you settle for a partner and try to convince yourself it’s good enough, you don’t have to face the possibility of winding up alone.  If you tell yourself you’ll get to it later (the “it” can be any object of procrastination), you don’t have to think about what you’re really avoiding, or why.

Often the bigger “truth” we’re trying to avoid is about who we are as people.  We’re trying not to see some aspect of ourselves we dislike or fear, because we’re not sure that part of ourselves is up for change.  We might think of it as some immutable part of our character.  We’re assuming it’s something global in us as opposed to a discreet problem to be solved.

The irony is that by doing so, we can’t, in fact, change because we’re wasting too much energy in avoidance.

2)  We don’t want to accept certain things about other people in our lives.

Many people find it more comfortable to feel badly about themselves than about others.  This is especially true of small children.  They’ll internalize a concept of themselves as bad rather than see their parents as bad.  And once this proclivity is ingrained in a child, it often persists in later life.

What I mean is, trauma can make it harder to see the truth about yourself because you’re so busy denying the truth about others.  You’d rather be the bad person than think they are.

It’s a coping mechanism that can serve its function for a time, but as adults, it can be extremely detrimental. It can keep us trapped in a negative cycle of beating ourselves up while we fail to hold others accountable.  And it starts with this lie: “I deserve to be mistreated.”

3)  We don’t want to see because then we’d have no choice but to change.

This goes to the lie of minimization, and pretending that everything’s fine when it really isn’t.  This takes a lot of emotional energy to pull off.  Often, people find themselves having physical symptoms as a result.  Keeping up this lie has a great cost.

But the alternative is so scary.  If we admit how awful things really are, then we’ll find our daily reality intolerable.  We’ll have to change ourselves or our circumstances.  What if no other options are readily available?  What if we’d have to overturn our entire lives?

At some point, the cost of maintaining the lie will outweigh its value.

4) We’re afraid of what others would think of us.

The other ones on the list have been about shame; this one is about embarrassment.  They are, of course, related.  We don’t want to be embarrassed because it’s likely to trigger our shame.  Shame is powerful: It feels so awful that we’ll do a lot so we won’t have to feel it.

Embarrassment is about a specific act; shame is about who we are.

We lie to ourselves so that we can lie to others with less of a personal consequence.  If we believe it, then it’s not really a lie, is it?

This is not an exhaustive list but rather, some broad categories.  How do your experiences fit within this?  How do they contradict it?  What can you add?

Worried man image available from Shutterstock.

Why We Lie to Ourselves

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2014). Why We Lie to Ourselves. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 May 2014
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