Self-deception: excuses and self-handicapping
As "games" illustrate, it is vitally important that we humans learn to face the truth and avoid fooling ourselves and others. Yet, there seems to be powerful basic human needs to "look good," to appear competent, to be right, and to be in control. This is referred to as impression management (Schlenker, 1982). We all (almost) put "our best foot forward" or "show our best side," although at times it seems to our advantage to appear weak and troubled. Lerner's (1993) new book, The Dance of Deception, describes many ways of avoiding the truth and their consequences.
Nonchalance is the ability to look like an owl when you have acted like a jackass.
Excuses (explanations or actions, used when we have goofed, to make us look as good as possible under the circumstances) are an excellent example of deception. Note that excuses are deceptive in three ways: (1) our attempt to hide our bad parts and "save face" with others, (2) our attempt to justify our own bad behavior to ourselves and (3) we are quite often not aware--and don't want to be--of what we are doing. Snyder, Higgins and Stucky (1983) claim that excuses come in three basic forms: (1) "I didn't do it ." Sometimes we say, "someone else did it" or our memory (our "story") distorts the facts so we feel better. (2) "I did it but it's not so bad ." Sometimes we fail to be helpful (see chapter 3) and say "I didn't think it was serious" (when there is famine) or "It isn't my responsibility" (when Kitty Genovese was killed while many watched). When we harm others, we may blame the victim (when we discriminate) or discount the harm we have done. When we get negative feedback, we attack the source and say the critic is stupid or we say the test is unfair. Men are more likely to use this type of excuse than women. (3) "I did it and it was bad, but I have an explanation." Sometimes we say, "Everybody does it" or "Anyone would have done the same thing" because the task was hard, "I just had bad luck," the "situation was awful," "I had a bad cold," "I didn't know," "I was confused," etc. Sometimes we reduce our shame or guilt by implying we weren't ourselves: "I didn't mean to" or "I only did it once" or "I didn't really try" and so on. Women are more likely to use this type of excuse.
Excuses are a way of saying, "I'm really better or more able than you might think (based on what you just saw me do)." They are our "public relations" efforts. They also soothe rough relationships: "I'm busy" sounds better than "I don't want to be with you" and "I forgot the assignment" is more acceptable than "I thought it was a waste of time." Snyder says excuses also help us accept our limitations, help us feel better about ourselves and help us take chances, since we know we can always come up with an excuse if we fail. So, excuses may do some good. However, there are several major difficulties with using excuses: (1) we seldom work as hard to excuse other peoples' behavior as we do our own (see chapter 7). (2) Constant excuses become irritating and drive others away. (3) Denial of real weaknesses may undermine self-improvement; if the excuses work well, we feel little need to change. (4) Excuses can become self-applied labels and self-fulfilling prophecies, such as "I had a little to drink" used as an excuse becomes in time "I was drunk" becomes "I have a drinking problem" becomes "I am an alcoholic." Excuses can become permanent and serious disorders (of course, the etiology of alcoholism is more complex than this).
(5) People who are especially insecure and concerned about disapproval by others will go to great lengths to avoid putting themselves to a true test of their ability. Often they will exaggerate any handicap which provides another explanation (rather than low ability) for their poor performance, for instance a person may not try very hard so he/she can still believe "I could have done better if I had wanted to." Others may say, "I don't do well on those kinds of tests" or "test anxiety really messed me up" or "I was really tired." There is also "self-handicapping ," i.e. actually arranging another handicap (not inability) which can be offered as an explanation for a poor performance. Examples: Partying all night before a test or agreeing to help a friend instead of doing an assignment. The handicapper's purpose is to forestall or avoid the painful conclusion that he/she just doesn't have much ability or not as much ability as one would like to have others believe one has. We strive mightily to keep our self-esteem and to feel we are in control of the situation (Jones & Berglas, 1978; Baumgardner, Lake & Arkin, 1985).
There is increasing research supporting Alfred Adler's 75-year-old ideas that we unconsciously use symptoms (physical complaints, test anxiety, depression, drinking) as an excuse, an "alibi," for poor performance. We also exaggerate the trauma in our background if our personal history can be used to excuse our failures (Snyder, Higgins & Stucky, 1983; Baumgardner, Lake & Arkin, 1985).
What an individual seeks to become determines what he remembers of his has been. In this sense the future determines the past.
-Rollo May, Existence
No wonder we use excuses so much; they provide their own negative reinforcement, i.e. excuses allow us to escape unpleasant situations (see chapters 4 and 11). But the high price we pay for this temporary relief is distortion of reality--we lie to ourselves, we fail to see things as they really are, one part of us attempts to fool other parts as well as other people. It is also quite clear that if we actually drink, take drugs, have physical complaints, or procrastinate (see chapter 4) as a means of excusing our poor performance or as a self-defeating effort to bolster our self-esteem, we could be in serious trouble if this excuse is used too often. The difficulties we face in this situation are: how do we detect the stresses and self-deception before serious damage is done? How do we control personal traits that normally make us feel better but with close scrutiny make us feel very uncomfortable? Discovering the unconscious is a problem for self-helpers, i.e. all of us. I'll give you the best answer I can.
When an archer misses the mark he turns and looks for the fault within him/herself. Failure to hit the bull's-eye is never the fault of the target. To improve your aim, improve yourself.
The part of us (the "adult") that wants to face the truth must be valued and encouraged. Those of you who have a strong part (the "child") that is impatient with this topic and wants to get on to something else are the ones who most need to ask yourself some questions, such as: Do I give a lot of excuses, like those mentioned above? Am I a procrastinator (they always self-con, see chapter 4)? Do I think I could do a lot better if I really tried? If so, why don't I try to do my very best and honestly observe the results? Do I feel under the weather more than others--tired, headaches, sleepy, tense (see chapter 5)? Do I think the way I was raised and other life experiences are keeping me from getting what I want? Do I so emphasize being free and happy that I overlook doing for others? (See chapter 3) Do I use irrational ideas or set unreasonable goals and create my own sadness or anger? Am I prejudiced? Do I feel superior to certain kinds of people--and might that be a way of hiding my own undesirable traits? Do I feel discriminated against, and do I use that as an excuse for not working harder? Do I have excuses for not asserting myself and not trying new things? (See chapter 8) Do I play games, as described earlier in this chapter, and, thereby, excuse myself for being aggressive or inconsiderate of others?
If you suspect you are deceiving yourself in one or more of these instances, it is important to face the situation squarely. Think about your possible underlying motives. Ask a friend who is frank (and doesn't think you are a candidate for sainthood) if your unconscious might be at work in certain situations? Accept the way you have been, but decide how to improve and start self-improving NOW. Don't continue deceiving yourself and, most importantly, don't continue to be inconsiderate of others without realizing the harm you are doing. We can surely find better ways to reduce our tension than by lying to ourselves and to others.
People--our closest loved ones--cause us problems and provide relief
Most of us humans are filled with social needs. People are the primary sources of our misery and our happiness--the sources of our troubles and our help. Many therapists believe that conflicts with others account for most stress. Thus, if you went to a psychiatrist or psychologist with headaches, anxiety, depression, eating disorder, or insomnia, he/she would ask you about your relations with others. Therapy often consists of resolving current or former (childhood) interpersonal situations. This focus on relationships comes partly from Adler (1951) who saw adults as striving for power and superiority over others. He encouraged his clients to develop a caring (anti-chauvinistic) "life-style" that lead to self-improvement and served others. Sullivan (1953) also emphasized how interpersonal relationships influence our "self"--our personality and our drives for security, power, pleasure, empathy, physical intimacy and so on. According to these writers, insight helps us change. Then, Berne (1964) wrote Games People Play, which we have just reviewed.
Even if interpersonal stress is not a cause of a problem, other people can often help with the solution. As you may remember from childhood, often a problem doesn't seem so big after we have shared it with another person, especially if he/she holds us lovingly on his/her lap. Often, as adults, we turn to friends and relatives just for comfort (not necessarily for sage advice) when we are in trouble. Friends are a very important part of our lives (Rubin, 1985), even though we change friends from time to time. In addition, there are "arranged friends" in the form of self-help groups, relative strangers offering help to people with special problems. It is usually especially reassuring to talk with people who have had the same problems as you have had. These support groups include the famous Alcoholics Anonymous and hundreds of other specialized groups for dieting, Parents Without Partners, parents of children with terminal illnesses, ex-psychotics, unemployed, abusive parents, people going through divorce, etc. etc. Call your Mental Health Center to locate the self-help group of interest to you. If there is no group near you, find two or three others nearby with similar concerns, if needed consult with a counselor, and start your own self-help group. These experienced, caring self-help groups provide a very valuable service free (see Method # 3 in chapter 5 and Lieberman & Borman, 1979).
A real friend is one who helps us to think our noblest thoughts, put forth our best efforts, and to be our best selves.
As our families scatter in a mobile society and each person is left on their own to make friends (Keyes, 1973), we sometimes become lonely. We may have no friend or relative to turn to when we need emotional support. Because of this isolation and the availability of mental health services, more and more people are seeking professional help with living without people or living with them (Howard, 1971; Schutz, 1975; Verny, 1975). William Schofield (1964) called psychotherapy "the purchase of friendship." In recent years there has been less of a stigma against "seeing a shrink." Thank goodness! It is a cruel and stupid idea to put down people for seeking help. What's really dumb is to not seek help when you need it! Besides individual therapists, there are group therapies, encounter groups, and church groups, like marriage enrichment. Most towns, schools, and hospitals have a psychologist or social worker available. Most counties have a Mental Health Center staffed by competent professionals. All these resources concentrate on helping us get along with each other. Don't hesitate to go for help.
To find our where your local Community Mental Health Center is located, go to: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Keep in mind, however, that it is difficult to "treat" a relationship (e.g. a marriage) if only one person is in treatment. Likewise, a weekend encounter may help you disclose intimate feelings with your temporary, two-day "friends" but these skills may not generalize to your permanent "friends," like spouse, father, daughter, co-worker, etc. Indeed, some psychologists argue that it is much more effective and reasonable to learn new skills, attitudes, and awareness while interacting with your spouse, friends, relatives and colleagues at work, rather than in encounter groups with "instant friends" (Flanders, 1976). In certain circumstances, however, it is better to not know the other group members (so you can disclose more openly). Several references will help you decide if growth and encounter groups have much to offer you (Egan, 1972; Lieberman, Yalom & Miles, 1973; Schutz, 1975; Shiffrin, 1976). It's best just to try it and see.
The relationships within a family
The central parts of our self-concept are introduced by saying "I am a _____" or "This is what I do." Almost equally important, however, is our identification with our family, as when we say "My father was a _____" or "Our family home is (was) in ______" or "I'd like for you to meet my family ____." Our family of origin (Mom, Dad, brothers and sisters) and our childhood are important, permanent parts of us. In addition, our need for intimacy is so strong that most of us expect to marry and have another family of our own, our family of procreation. We want emotional closeness; we want to share our lives. Fortunately, 60% of children get along well with their parents. The greatest fear of children is of losing their parents. Early in our lives, our parents know us better than anyone else and they are more likely than anyone else to love us unconditionally throughout much of our lives. Our family of origin also provides us with other life-changing, life-long relationships, namely, with our siblings. Our brothers and sisters have a powerful impact on us--sometimes fierce loyalty, sometimes bitter rivalry, sometimes both--but siblings are mostly overlooked by current psychology (Bank & Kahn, 1982; Klagsbrun, 1992). Our parents, our siblings, our spouse, and our children are, for most of us, our most important relationships.
No doubt our role in our family of origin influences our role in our family of procreation. Blevins (1993) helps you understand those relationships. Marriage counselors have found that the closeness (separateness vs. togetherness) and the flexibility (adaptability from rigid to chaotic) within each partner's family of origin influences the current relationship. Our marital expectations and conflicts frequently originated in our childhood. The chauvinistic aspects of traditional families are discussed in the last section of this chapter.
Creating a child takes no thought; yet, deciding to have a child is probably the biggest decision you will ever make, so do it carefully. Elizabeth Whelan (1976) has a self-help book that might help with the decision to have a baby or not. Parenting a child is a demanding life-long job.