We all tell lies and we tell them often.
Mostly we believe we lie to others. We justify this by saying we are protecting them – after all we cannot go about the place telling people they have bad breath or are brainless twerps or conflict would skyrocket, and society would break down.
It is true that lying does smooth social interaction and it reduces the likelihood of people being unduly embarrassed or ashamed in the moment.
But often the most harmful lying is done to ourselves, with the purpose of shielding us from self-truths that would otherwise leverage us to change how we behave. These little ‘myths’ often allow us to keep behaving badly.
For example, during my teenage years and early adulthood I used to tell myself (and others) the lie that I could not control my anger. This lie expanded to other myths that I was an ‘inherently angry person’ who would ‘not be responsible’ for exploding (if provoked) since my lack of control sent me from ‘zero to ten in less than a second’. Physiologically I could actually feel the anger rise in me in a split second. Many people who have anger problems tell themselves these exact same myths (including perpetrators of domestic violence).
Interestingly though, I never had any difficulty whatsoever controlling my anger in hierarchical situations like when I was in the presence of authority figures or at work – where impulsive outbursts would have been punishable, socially unacceptable or grounds for dismissal. Yet in my private life these outbursts continued into my 20’s.
That is, until I was firmly told that if I ever ‘lost it’ again, then that would be the end of the relationship. Full stop. Message received loud and clear.
Suddenly, within seconds, I realised that of course I could control my temper if I had to – which meant that if I could control it when I had to, then I could control it in any or every circumstance. In fact, the self-lie that ‘I had no control over my anger’ had been keeping me in a state of mythical yet unrelenting lack of control.
I reflected further. What was my reason for being so aggressive towards others? Almost immediately I knew that I had just been giving myself an excuse to try and intimidate and bully others into giving me what I wanted by coercing them – a not-so-veiled threat that if they provoked me (by not giving me what I wanted), I’d ignite in a frightening way.
This realisation was a huge shock because up until then I had believed myself to be the ‘victim’ of provocation. I always identified with the underdog in every situation, never with the ‘perpetrator’ – yet suddenly I realised I had become the perpetrator.
This led me to reflect further. Why did I need to intimidate others? My answer was because I did not believe that I could influence outcomes with other people unless I played dirty. I had no belief in goodwill, fairness or kindness in the world.
I kept probing. Why had I been so angry all my life – what purpose had it served? I realised that getting angry (no matter how terrified I was underneath) kept me feeling strong and stopped me from feeling powerless (as I had often felt as a child).
Anger also had another function. It made me feel invulnerable and stopped me from crying and being too sad to function. Then I realised that my anger had been a strategy adopted as a teenager to try and gain some control in an out-of-control and sad world.
This led me to wonder about whether anger was now an obsolete strategy that was doing me more harm than good. Clearly, it was distressing others and driving them away. They were too scared to properly share themselves with me – warts and all. This made me lonely.
It was also stopping me from being authentic – always putting on self-protective armour and concealing the vulnerable parts of myself. Other people saw me as strong, never needing kindness or nurturance. It stopped others from wanting to help me or cooperate with me. I was always having to go it alone – tough it out. It was exhausting!
Maybe most importantly, I realised back then that my self-lies were actually stopping me from realising my own strength. Every time I became angry I was inadvertently reinforcing the myth that either I had to lose control (like I was a victim to my anger) or that without the ‘armour’ of anger I would somehow collapse – like I would not have the resilience and fortitude to bear my own crying, human suffering and sadness.
Suddenly, I knew that my anger was holding me back and keeping me trapped in my past. I needed to take off that armour and make myself vulnerable. At first it felt like being naked in the world, soft and exposed. But soon, it felt natural and easy and I wondered how I managed unassisted to maintain the rage for so long.
Interestingly, moving through this thought sequence thirty years ago and trying to understand my motivations and then deciding that I would never again accept my anger (since it was damaging me and keeping me trapped) – took it away, evaporating it into thin air almost immediately. By the time a few months had passed I found it hard to believe that I had ever been angry or seen myself as an angry person.
This is the importance of breaking down self-deceit.
I guess this is why I have lots of sympathy for the ‘forced insight’ approach where we are deliberately not protected from confronting information that can help us change, no matter how upsetting.
This message though should be provided with kindness and with the other person’s interests at heart. For me, being told a simple truth in a calm, kind but unflinching manner – ‘this will be over if you ever lose it again’ – prompted me to radically examine and then shatter some of my self-lies, giving me the most wonderful opportunity to re-build myself from the foundations upwards.
This is why we should never miss the opportunity to examine an apparently entrenched self-lie!