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Why do we lie to ourselves? April 24, 2023

I have a lot of patients ask my opinion about natural supplements and vitamins to treat certain ailments. I suppose it’s because of my reputation of being an open minded judge in regards to analyzing the significance of the effect of traditional or alternative treatments for any number of ailments.  Sometimes the best treatment is the traditional Western approach using FDA-approved medicines and procedures, prescribed and administered by medical physicians. Sometimes the best treatment is the non-traditional Eastern approach using natural supplements and herbs. It should come to no surprise that many medications prescribed by doctors were first found in nature. Some of these examples include willow bark for the anti-inflammatory Aspirin, red yeast rice for the cholesterol medication Lovastatin, and most recently, gila-monster venom (almost like snake oil!) for the diabetes drug Byetta. 

I tell my patients the only litmus test I use when evaluating a treatment is the available evidence-based research showing that the treatment in question is shown to be effective to treat that condition. Having preconceived biases really hampers my ability to be an effective doctor, so I need to always make sure that I check myself before rendering a judgment that may be premature. It can be, and indeed is very difficult to do a “self-check” of my personal set of biases when I undertake such a task. 

But this brings up a great point–sometimes we want something to be true so badly that we unknowingly accept falsehoods in order to craft our own narrative to support that viewpoint. For example, a patient who has been smoking a pack of cigarettes every day refuses to take  cholesterol medicine because they don’t want to take “those bad chemicals” into their body, even though it may save their life. Another patient has no problem eating only organic grown and processed food to avoid the “harmful pesticides and hormones” in their food, but they also don’t exercise and they drink alcohol excessively, which is far worse than eating non organic foods. Yet another patient has no problem spending hundreds of dollars per month on supplements that give “all the nutrition from fruits and vegetables I need” in a few capsules without realizing that all the nutrition that they really need is to just eat those fruits and vegetables from a garden, at about ¼ of the cost. I could go on about other stories from my patients that cause me to scratch my head. I’m sure I do things that cause at least my wife to scratch her head. 

Why do we lie to ourselves? Why do we tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true in the real world, yet we believe them anyway? We weave our own narrative into our life stories that explain our very bizarre behaviors. Every last one of us believes something that can’t possibly be true in reality. No one person is immune. Either something we learned as a child, in our youth, or as an adult from family, friends, our social media group, in school, at work…It can be very subtle where we pick these things up from. And yet, in this age of the explosion of digital communication, we disdain any sort of discomfort that may prove us wrong in our beliefs.  We double down by wrapping ourselves in the comfortable blanket of acceptance of others who believe like us. And believe me, there are support groups for anything and everything. This bizarre thinking  afflicts all levels of people, right and left, educated and uneducated, naïve and experienced, sophisticated and simple, old and young, wealthy and poor, black and white. We want to feel comfortable and safe in our own stories. When we surround ourselves only with others who think and feel as we do, we become equally deluded by their stories as we do with our own. 

By default, as members of the vast human family,  we will never be able to attain a 100% grasp on reality. It’s just not going to happen. Some may think, “then why try at all?” I’m here to say, “Please keep trying”. All of us are on a spectrum that ranges between some level of diagnosable neuroses to full-out psychotic breaks. The psychotics are easy to pick on because of the obviously outrageous and outlandish claims they sometimes make (like flat earth theory or the zombie apocalypse). But it becomes much harder to pick out more nuanced dysfunctional thinking that might lead to anorexia or panic disorder or phobias or anger. That is why I find it fundamentally important to stop lying to ourselves. How do we do that? How do we stop lying to ourselves? 

First, we must recognize that our problem is caused by our own dysfunctional thinking patterns. Yes that means you. You are lying to yourself. That means me. I am lying to myself. Not someone else. Not something else. If you or I can’t get beyond the idea of why someone else is so wrong, then we are truly hopeless. We can’t be helped–at all. Yes, I include everyone in this. We can not change how we see the world unless we change ourselves. By asking ourselves, “What if I’m wrong?” goes a long way toward acknowledging our own dysfunctional thinking. 

Second, we must ask ourselves if what we believe to be true is rational. Does it square with other facts I have? Or not? In order to be rational, we need to intentionally seek out the perspectives of people who are very different from us. If we keep hanging around others who only support one viewpoint on a topic, we suffer from a form of intellectual incest or “echo chamber” thinking. A great example of echo chamber thinking is the New England Skeptical Society. Heavy usage of words like “quacks” “anti-vaccers” “phony” adorn their website when disparaging those who disagree. These insults only serve the purpose of supporting their own society’s views. This is also an instant indicator that very little perspective seeking is taking place. They are so easy to spot. They almost always resort to ad-hominem attacks in order to build an otherwise flimsy case and convince themselves that they are the intellectually superior ones. While we should certainly consider the New England Skeptical Society’s perspectives,  don’t let this happen to you! You will never be the great holder of knowledge by disparaging others. Never. 

Third, acknowledge that in the end, we are all just human beings, trying to make sense of the world around us. We must give each other grace to be wrong. You know, the whole “Treat others the same way you want to be treated” thing. That goes a long way. Remember, no matter who crosses your path in your life, whether it was a good experience or a bad one, all of them,  each and every one of them have feelings, emotions, and are dealing with some sort of trauma in their past. It might not be your trauma. Remember that. Try to understand them as a person before understanding them as a thief, murderer, cheater, grifter, liar, abuser, or __________.  Supporters of flat-earth theory see a flat ground in front of them. They don’t acknowledge something they can’t see. The earth doesn’t look like a marble to me when I look out my window. If that’s my only perspective, then that’s what I’m going to believe. In large measure that is true. The earth was objectively flat to all living before telescopes and cosmology. And they would be right. Who knows? Maybe someday some people I disagree with  may actually be right in the end, and I may be wrong. The difference between the two thoughts being time, experience, scientific progress and my ability to change my mind. 

I still lie to myself. It brings me comfort when I’m stressed or anxious. I must really enjoy telling myself stories that aren’t objectively true. I love my fantasy land. It just feels so good in the moments of discomfort and distress.  But I’m trying, ever so incrementally, to call myself out on these lies. Just because lying brings me comfort doesn’t mean that I should be ok with it. Next time you feel a strong impulse to lash out at someone different than you, stop. Think.  Ask yourself, “What if I am wrong?”

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