Thursday, July 5, 2012

The strategy of self-delusion

[If this sounds familiar, see the end of the post...]

A while back, a friend told me that he is a “last-minute type of person.” I wonder, though; maybe he's just lazy and irresponsible, and until he stops deceiving himself about it he won’t be able to change. [Of course, maybe he's facing a more serious biological/psychological hurdle; this post is not addressing that kind of situation.]

I see two steps in this sort of self-deception:
1) Transform the negative behavior from an action into a character trait;
2) Find positive language to express it

Herewith some examples of “thinking positively” in order to fool ourselves:
I don’t fail to respond to email in a timely fashion; I’m an “old-fashioned letter-writer”.
I don’t refuse to give tzedakah; I’m “careful with my philanthropy”.
I don’t waffle; I’m “sympathetic to all perspectives”.
I don’t attack other people ad hominem; I just “get carried away in my passion”.
I don’t speak insensitively; I “shun political correctness”.

Imagine if the villains of the Torah could have used this method:
Pharaoh didn’t deny Divine authority - he was “Type A”.
Bilaam didn’t sell himself to the highest bidder - he was a “money player”.
Haman didn’t try to destroy the Jews in revenge for Mordechai’s disrespect - he was “an aggressive kind of guy”.
Mahmoud Ahmedinajad isn’t anti-Jewish - he just believes strongly in his cultural values.

This brand of positive self-redefinition is like the software programmer’s trick of labelling a bug a “design feature.” We avoid self-awareness, and we avoid apologizing and having to change, by re-labelling our weaknesses as character traits.

Where does this come from? The art of the cover-up often starts with parents and teachers and sympathetic friends, who use this method to avoid offering honest criticism. “He’s really a good guy, he just…” “My son is great at ____, he just ….”

Of course, if you lie only to yourself and don’t let it affect social behavior, that’s only your problem, and you can limit the fallout. Had Kayin kept his delusions to himself (“I’m not failing to give my best crops; I’m careful with my philanthropy”), Hevel would have survived.

But self-delusion is rarely a bloodless sport, because we live in a world of other human beings with whom we interact, and who are affected by the negative traits we conceal from ourselves. Shuls, community organizations, businesses, book clubs, we all depend on other people to function responsibly and productively, and when people turn a blind eye to their own character defects, the world suffers.

But no, the answer isn’t for us clear-sighted people to go around highlighting everyone else’s flaws. Somehow, I don’t think תוכחה of “You’re not a last-minute type of person, you’re lazy,” or even something more mild, is really going to inspire change in all but a masochistic few.

No, the answer, as always, is to start by working on ourselves.

Too bad I don’t have any problematic traits to change.

[I originally posted this four years ago, but only had two comments, both from people I don't see around here anymore, so I figure it's legitimate for re-posting in a week when I shouldn't be spending time on new posts...]


  1. Sure working on yourself is important and I wouldn't suggest telling everyone where they fall short, but for someone who is important to you (family, work , wherever) sometimes it is important to remember what Robert Byrnes taught "Would some power the gift to gie us to see ourselves as others see us"

    From one who needed someone to tell him "you are as lazy as the day is long"
    Joel Rich

  2. I agree with the basic premise of this posting; HOWEVER, you fail to take into consideration that there are some very legitimate personal disorders that have a medical/psychological underpinning--ADD and ADHD for instance--and they require professional outside help for any kind of amelioration. Constantly being late is a known and classic symptom of ADHD.

  3. Joel-
    I hear.

    Understood; that's what I meant by writing "Maybe" in that first paragraph. To make it more clear, I have now added an additional, bracketed sentence.

  4. "But self-delusion is rarely a bloodless sport, because we live in a world of other human beings with whom we interact, and who are affected by the negative traits we conceal from ourselves."
    - Beautifully Said!

  5. Rebbe Noach of Lechovitz said "G-d cannot be deceived. People too will eventually see through your deception. The only one you can succeed in deceiving over the long term is yourself. But what kind of a victory is it to have deceived a fool?
    Quoted by R'Abraham Twersky in his book "Rebbes and Chassidim"

  6. R'DT,
    Love it!
    Joel Rich

  7. I agree, but at the same time I think it's worth noting that excessive obsession with one's faults can be destructive too. If one isn't careful, there can be a fine line between reducing one's pride and complancency and crushing one's sense of self-worth completely. In such a case (which probably is the type of serious psychological problem you mention in brackets), the reverse can also apply i.e. perceiving all one's positive traits as negative ones: "I'm not eager to share my learning, I like showing off; I'm not kind, I like being praised for good deeds; I'm not conscientious in my work, I'm a workaholic; etc."

  8. "Sounds familiar" would be an understatement. The [original version of the] first paragraph is on my screen whenever the Sticky Notes gadget is open. (This has been the case for... probably at least a year, and maybe a couple of years.) I thought it was an excellently phrased description of an easy mental trap to fall into, and well worth keeping near the surface of my mind. Still do. Thanks.