I was 21 years old and working as managing editor of a weekly newspaper. I had just gotten out of a three-year relationship and I wasn’t dating anyone. As I worked alone at my office on a Sunday afternoon, a young woman dropped by to see me.
She was on her way back to her college after a weekend visit home. We had had a flirtatious relationship but it hadn’t been anything serious. Now that I wasn’t dating anyone, though, she had come to see whether I’d be interested in turning our flirtation into something serious.
I felt conflicted. I was attracted to her, but I knew I wasn’t going to date her. Maybe I wasn’t really completely over the relationship that had just ended, I told her. She understood. I kissed her as she left and we remained friends.
We both moved on to other relationships and I didn’t think any more about the conversation. I assumed she hadn’t thought about it for years, either. About a month ago, I realized that I lied to her that day — but only because I had lied to myself.
I decided it was time to call her — after all these years — and explain what had really happened.
I’ve always thought that I was bright and self-aware. I’ve known that other people constantly fooled themselves — about their wants, their fears, their preferences and even their reasons for doing the things they did in life.
I knew that our minds are such massive repositories of beliefs and programming that most of it was hidden from us. Our conscious minds are only a tiny fraction of what’s really gone on inside us.
But for a long time, I thought I was too bright and too self-aware to fall victim to such internal deception. Yes, I saw it in other people all the time. But me? No way. I had too much figured out.
I realized years ago that this wasn’t entirely true. I’ve found layer after layer of secrets hidden deep inside my mind. In my memories and beliefs and motivations. I guess after all these years, I figured I might have actually uncovered all of those old landmines.
But I was mistaken.
My latest realization — and the one which had caused me to lie to myself that day long ago — dealt with what made a woman “good enough” to be a romantic partner for me. Without realizing it, I had allowed my childhood programming — about my own need for perfection and how I defined perfection in others — to create artificial categories in my mind.
The details would take too much time to explain, but because I was physically attracted to this woman who had come to see me that day, I had defined her as someone who wouldn’t be good enough for my unconscious standards of perfection. I was attracted to her sexually — and my mind had somehow concluded at the time, without me even realizing it — that my romantic partner must be somehow above that.
It gets complicated, but there are plenty of examples of it in psychology, especially for men who come from very strict backgrounds where they were expected to be perfect — and for those who had somehow internalized the notion that sexual attraction itself was some sort of a sin.
Because I was attracted to this woman sexually, I couldn’t allow myself to see her as a potential romantic partner. So I made the decision to avoid her — and then I had to give myself (and her) a justification for what I had decided. I never knew that I had come to the decision for reasons that were completely invisible to me.
In a 1974 speech at Caltech, physicist Richard Feynman famously warned students against being fooled by biases they didn’t even realize they had.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself,” Feynman said, “and you are the easiest person to fool.”
I had fooled myself all those years ago — and I never realized it until a recent weekend when the truth hit me out of the blue. It took me a few weeks to decide for sure, but I finally decided I had to explain to this woman what had really happened.
I was driving home from work Thursday evening when she returned my phone call. She had been intrigued by my message that I wanted to explain something that had happened between us many years ago.
It turned out that she remembered the conversation very well. She had always assumed that I just wasn’t attracted to her in a romantic way and that I really had been too hung up on the ex-girlfriend.
The explanation doesn’t change anything for either one of us in the present day. She’s married and we’re at such different places in life that we wouldn’t be a good fit even if she were single. But she was happy to understand that I had actually rejected her because I had been too attracted to her.
We talked for about 15 minutes and that was it. She seemed genuinely grateful that I had solved the old mystery for her — and I felt relieved to explain a complicated truth. It helped that she came from such a conservative and perfectionistic background that what I explained made sense to her.
I still have all sorts of unconscious “programming” running in my head. I have assumptions that I’ve never adequately questioned — and I make decisions for reasons which I still hide from myself. I’ve figured out a lot of my hidden old programming, but it would be naive to assume I’ve figured it all out.
When someone makes a decision in your life which absolutely doesn’t make sense — especially one which contradicts what the person has said he or she wants — you can be pretty sure there’s hidden unconscious programming at work.
It’s safe to assume that the person has himself or herself fooled. It’s safe to assume that he or she has created a handy internal excuse to explain the contradictory actions. And it’s safe to assume that this person completely believes his or her own internal lies.
These lies can be convenient in the moment. They can even give us peace about doing things that are hurtful to someone else. But rooting out the lies and reconciling ourselves with the truth is far more healthy.
Resolving this small contradiction from my distant past has left me feeling relieved and peaceful. The result is worth the difficult psychological work involved, even if the moment of realization can be blindingly painful.
Note: If you’d like to understand the psychology behind some of the contradictions in our thinking — and how we unconsciously resolve them — I strongly recommend a book I read about 12 year ago called “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts,” by psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The book gave me a new framework with which to understand a lot of things I’ve done and a lot of things other people have done in my life.