The lies we tell each other are nothing compared to the lies we tell ourselves.
Why do we do this? We have to lie to ourselves to justify the things we’ve done, especially the things we’ve done to other people. So one self-deception leads to another. Then when people go their separate ways, the lies and self-justification become more intense.
The longer two people are away from one another — and away from whatever happened between them — the more their internal narratives diverge.
Have you ever listened to two people — two people who once loved each other or two people who were once business partners, for instance — tell their stories about what happened to the dead or dying relationship? If you just listen and don’t challenge what you’re hearing, you would think the two people are telling entirely different tales.
I wonder whether two people can ever see the truth of what has happened between them as they drift apart — with someone slowly becoming “somebody that I used to know” to the other.
In the pop song, “Somebody That I Used To Know,” by Gotye, the first part is all about a man feeling sorry for himself — about the hurt he experienced from a former love who has cut him off — but just as we’ve developed a sympathetic picture of him, the woman comes in for the last third of the song to give an entirely different version of the story.
Is he lying to himself? Is he lying to us? What about her? Is she lying? Is their anger at each other justified?
It’s just a song, so we’ll never know. But it points to our own patterns. It points to our own tendencies to see things entirely differently — for people to be angry and hurt with one another, with each having told himself or herself enough lies to justify past actions that it’s hard to know the truth.
Just a few weeks ago, I was thinking about this pattern (and I wrote about it) in light of an old relationship of mine from years ago. I have my narrative about what happened. She has hers. It’s hard to say what the truth is. I think my version of the story is more objective and honest, but how could I possibly know whether I’ve lied to myself?
I’ve come to have a cynical view about the ability of people to communicate with each other, whether it’s in personal relationships or in a situation in which someone is trying to speak to a larger group. I suspect that most people assume that their intent is being communicated more clearly than it is.
I used to think it was difficult for one person to clearly communicate what he was trying to say to a broad group and have most of them understand the message as intended. Now I’ve decided it’s impossible. That feels depressing and alienating to me as it relates to public discourse.
But what really depresses me even more is the seeming impossibility of coming to an honest conclusion of what happens between two individuals who try to communicate and have some sort of relationship.
Last week, I was dealing with an account rep for a company that was trying to sell me a service that I need as a real estate agent. We had come to a verbal understanding of a deal and I was ready to move forward, but before I agreed to anything, I put my understanding in writing and sent it to the guy as an email. I told him I was ready to sign up for his service, but I needed him to reply to this and let me know that my understanding about our terms was correct.
For nearly a week, he claimed not to get multiple emails from me and didn’t send me anything in writing from his end outlining our agreement, all the while pressuring me by phone into signing up.
I was absolutely certain of what he had promised me on the phone. (When you promise me something, I remember it — even if you don’t — because I take promises seriously. If you tell me something, I assume you are going to follow through or else explain why you backed out of your promise.) But he never was willing to do anything to assure me that I understood our agreement correctly. So I backed away from him — because I felt I couldn’t trust him.
I know why people lie to each other. I don’t approve of it, but at least it’s something I can understand. What I don’t understand is why we lie to ourselves.
On one hand, I know that we do it in order to allow ourselves to maintain our belief in our core self-image. We like to think of ourselves — typically, at least — as the “good guy,” the one who does the right thing, not the one who mistreats or cheats someone else.
So when we do something wrong in some way, that conflicts with what we want to believe about ourselves, causing what a psychologist calls cognitive dissonance. When we experience the pain that comes from such cognitive dissonance, we are forced to unconsciously re-arrange the facts — lie to ourselves, either fully or in part — so we don’t have to see the truth of what we’ve done to someone else.
I do see the mechanism. I’ve studied the psychological concepts and I’ve come to understand how it works, in myself and in others. What I don’t understand is why we keep doing it — even after we understand that our deception leaves a trail of hurt people behind us while we go right ahead patting ourselves on the back for how virtuous we’ve acted.
There was a time when I was sure that two people could always find a way to resolve the conflicts between them — active or passive — by exploring an issue until there was a mutual understanding and then mutual amends were made.
I don’t believe that anymore.
I still believe that two emotionally healthy people ought to be able to do such a thing. I believe that emotionally healthy people ought to be able to resolve what has happened between them and then either restore their relationship or else go separate ways with a mutual understanding of what happened.
But what I see around me proves that the vast majority are too deep in self-deception to be healthy enough to resolve such conflicts.
One of my conclusions about the human race years ago is that we all have a genetic defect — to one degree or another — of some form of insanity. We’re all a little crazy. We like to think we’re honest and rational, but we’re not. We’re emotional and we’re self-deceptive — and most people don’t seem to want to change.
It was popular in some circles late in the 20th century to be optimistic enough about the future of humanity to think that we could eventually perfect ourselves. My conclusion is just the opposite. I’ve come to believe that we are fatally flawed — and it’s a miracle we haven’t destroyed ourselves.
I do believe we can live together. I do believe we can love one another. I believe we can be emotionally healthy and happy together. But I don’t believe very many people are ever going to choose those things.
Most people will continue to lie — to themselves and to others. Most people will continue to honor the defense mechanisms that hide their true selves from the world. Most people will continue down a path toward emotional, psychological and spiritual self-destruction.
The only thing we can do is to invest our lives in the few who want something more — and to give up on those who make it clear that they will never be healthy enough to seek something better than what they’ve found in their past.
It’s not a satisfying answer, but I fear it’s the truth.