Tobe Brockner

The Tyranny of Self-Deception

I was standing in the middle of the woods, dripping with sweat, wrestling with a tent pole, trying to erect a structure that I would sleep in for the next 3 nights. A structure that was created by some kind of sadist who enjoyed torturing the likes of me with its complicated and contradictory instructions of "insert pole A into slot B and then connect the flange to hinge G while pulling the canvas cover tight..." and so on.

I was 12 years old and on a Boy Scout camping trip. My fellow scouts were moving about busily, setting up camp, and trying to move as little as possible in the stifling heat. This was in the backwoods of Louisiana where I grew up, right in the middle of summer, and in case you didn’t know it, the summer heat and humidity in Louisiana is brutal enough to make the Devil himself jealous of the setup we’ve got down there. (As an aside, the technical term for what this heat produces in humans is “swamp ass”)

To add to it, every animal in Louisiana wants to kill you and this thought briefly crossed my mind as I swatted at a mosquito the size of a small sparrow. I was miserable and we had just gotten there barely 30 minutes before. I didn’t think there was any way I would last another 3 days.

At about that moment, another car full of scouts pulled up and unloaded themselves from the vehicle. As they began milling around, greeting others, and unloading the car, their scout master said hello to our scout master, took his hat off, and wiped the sweat from his brow that had already begun beading up on his vast forehead.

“Someone turned the air conditioner off!” my scout master chortled.

At that moment my head whipped towards him and for a split second - barely a blip in my consciousness - I had a flicker of hope. For just one millisecond, my young and impressionable mind believed him that there was an air conditioner in the woods there with us and we just had to turn it on to exit this existential crises in which we found ourselves.

It only took another nanosecond more for me to come to my senses and realize he was trying to tell a joke, but I remember feeling like an idiot for believing him in that moment. Of course there wasn’t an air conditioner in the woods…how naive could I be?

As we move through life, adding layer upon layer of experience that is tempered and forged with time, like steel sharpening steel, we never quite lose our ability to be deceived by others. I may have only been 12 at the time, but my youth was not necessarily a factor in allowing myself, however briefly, to be deceived. Whether it is through confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, or some other means, our mind is eager and willing to believe that which it is already conditioned to believe.

This is dangerous.

A healthy skepticism for all information that comes our way is necessary to protect us from potential harm, either mental or physical. That isn’t a negative thing, it’s a very positive thing. It keeps us safe, it keeps us from wasting time or energy or resources on things that won’t serve us. Sure we may miss an opportunity or two in our lifetime from being overly skeptical, but we will also avoid a whole host of other problems, misery not the least of which.

However, there is another deception lurking in our midst that comes not from others, but from ourselves. 

It is self-deception and it is even more insidious and dangerous than deception that comes from others. Of all the people we can fool in our lives, our Self is the easiest to fool of all. We routinely do this by telling ourselves lies.

Some of the lies I tell myself regularly are…

  • I’ll just have one
  • I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it
  • I’ll start tomorrow
  • I wasn’t rude to that person
  • I’m right
  • This shirt looks good on me
  • It’s not a big deal
  • I don't need to stop and ask for directions

Of course, I could go on and on. Avoiding self-deception is achieved by getting ruthlessly honest about yourself and your behavior and developing a keen sense of self-awareness. 

At its best, self-deception gives us a false sense of confidence and ego. It makes us believe things that are not always necessarily untrue, but may just be slight exaggerations.

At its worst, it can get us killed. Self-deception creates delusion which breeds undue optimism in our circumstances, our outlook, and our own abilities and skills. It forms an ego that can be hard to tame and control. In short, it has the propensity to create absolute chaos in our life if not met head on or kept in check with honesty and self-awareness. The ego becomes a tyrant that rules your life with sometimes catastrophic consequences.

You may think I am being dramatic. Perhaps I am. But, I have seen the effects of self-deception manifest themselves in my own life and the results were not only ugly, but downright terrifying. I got fat, I was broke, I was in debt up to my titties, my relationships with my wife, kids, co-workers was strained and difficult. I had no real friends, I couldn’t sleep, I snored uncontrollably, I was constantly tired. I was barely making any money, I didn’t particularly care for myself, I didn’t always want to live.

It was a life of misery. Self-deception was the culprit.

It wasn’t until I was able to finally see myself for who I really was with a clarity born from self-awareness that I was able to take my life back. I looked at myself as an impartial observer might and said, “I wouldn’t want that guy’s life.” It was when I understood - really understood - that I was that guy that I decided to get honest with myself and begin constructing a new me.

I still struggle with this. We all do and we always will. But I am better about it today than I was last year. And next year I will be better about it than I am today.

Of that I am not deceiving myself.


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Tobe Brockner

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