”THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE – BUT FIRST IT WILL PISS YOU OFF.” (full disclosure: I saw the line on a t-shirt.
Imagine that you have a police detective in your mind who tools around in a patrol car, or rides through your neural circuits on a motorcycle, or even walks around inspecting your mental territory with a magnifying glass like Sherlock Holmes. Upon finding a thought or feeling that’s forbidden, the officer writes out a citation that says, “Forget it.”
Where does that inner surveillance of your beliefs, attitudes and actions come from? You may have learned as a child that if you revealed thoughts that were forbidden, it meant punishment or loss of love from the adults who cared for you. Or that you’d get ridiculed or beat up by the kids down the street, or by the school bully. So your inner police siren jolts your mind into thinking something different. If you’re like most people, you have a whole collection of such mental tactics.
So you make mistakes that cause you trouble. And if enough of the rest of us have ideas and feelings that similarly make us act in ways that harm ourselves or others, we can do major damage to our families, our communities, our country, and even the world.
All that’s part of what counseling, psychotherapy, and some spiritual practices are for. They’re to help people replace old ways of acting they formerly needed to protect themselves or others, but don’t any more.
Here’s a thumbnail summary of reasons we sometimes make avoidable (or even tragic) mistakes.
1. If we were punished in the past when we refused to act feel as others wished, at some subconscious level we recall the old punishment, feel the old fears, and avoid thinking or acting that way now—even when its exactly what we need to do. A similar pattern can occur when we’re afraid we won’t get something we need or badly want.
2. We deny realities many others can see because of “everybody knows” attitudes held by people around us. These attitudes are passed along to us by others in our “reference group” – that is, everybody with whom we compare ourself. Most of us want approval.
3. We want to feel like hotshots. We think that if we admit that someone else is right and we’re wrong we must look stupid. Actually, the opposite is usually true. Flexibility of mind leads us to be right more often than wrong.
4. We think that if we admit that we were wrong about something and change our mind about it, we’re defective. This is egocentrism that makes us dumb. When we’re willing to notice what’s actually going on now—inside us, outside us, or both–we become smarter. The effects are usually more positive than when we slide into sef-deception.
In some ways we’ve all been brainwashed. The plutocrats and overlords of every culture and country spin myths that help them keep their special privileges. “Half a truth can be a great lie,” noted Benjamin Franklin. We can learn to see through such mental smokescreens.
Many of the lies we tell ourselves (our acts of self-deception) serve the useful end of helping us feel better. We protect or inflate our egos and assuage our insecurities by pretending to be more capable or knowledgeable than we are. We refuse to admit, for instance, that we might be or might have been wrong about something. As a result, often we end up super wrong.
But how, you might wonder, even if you’re sharp enough to notice that you’ve been snared by some dogmatic belief system, can you step outside it and think for yourself?
Truly wanting to do so is a good start. Developing the ability to hear what you’re inwardly telling yourself is a next step.
Of course we all have our pet peeves. One of mine is self-righteousness: “I’m good and righteous and
you’re bad and wrong and maybe even evil and controlled by Satanic forces.” A person who’s feeling or acting self-righteous fancies himself or herself better than others who think or act differently, or who look or sound different. When that includes you, you may not even notice it. You think you’re just in touch with reality. Blaming, finger-pointing, and even insults are often flaming arrows that show that we’re probably projecting—thinking we see in others the things we don’t want to recognize in ourselves.
It’s easier, writes James Hillman, “to discover yourself a victim than admit yourself a perpetrator.”13 After all, we want to think we’re good people who are doing the right things. Recognizing damage we’ve done, are doing, or are thinking of doing is an advanced stage in psycho-spiritual growth.
Can you be that conscious? Are you willing to work to develop your ability to see and hear your own projections? If so, welcome to a better life!