The temple to Apollo at Delphi has the inscription, “know thyself.” To the ancient Greek philosophers, knowing yourself is a matter of knowing your moral virtues, values, and character. It is understanding your commitments along with your aspirations. This sort of self-knowledge is necessary for living the best possible life, which is described by Aristotle has happiness or flourishing.
Achieving self-knowledge is no easy matter. This may be especially true for people struggling with addiction because they operate under a strong influence of self-deception. Self-deception seems emblematic of the lived experiences of addiction, which means it is appropriate to explore some of its dimensions.
I offer the following definition of self-deception in the hopes of identifying its characteristic dynamics and dimensions. Armed with definition, it may become easier to identify the less familiar but no less potentially devastating forms of self-deception that accompany if not fuel an addiction. So long as self-deception runs rampant, self-knowledge will be severely compromised thereby limiting how much a person can flourish. Self-deception is:
A person who suffers from self-deception has a lack of perspective and knowledge, which affects her ability and willingness to act and take proper responsibility for those actions. Self-deception erodes autonomy. The person who suffers from too much self-deception really cannot be free because her actions neither will be guided by knowledge nor voluntarily chosen. This entails that it will be difficult for a person to choose to address her addiction.
Easily Identified Forms Self-Deception
Denial, minimization, and rationalization are the more garden variety versions of self-deception. They’re well known and as a consequence, more easily identified.
- Denial is willful ignorance not to recognize a state of affairs as real or actual.
- Minimization involves the reduction of the seriousness or extent of that state of affairs.
- Rationalization creates justifications excusing a person from having contributed to that state of affairs.
Each of these forms individually aims to absolve a person from responsibility for that state of affairs. Taken together, their compounding effects can be devastating.
Additional Forms of Self-Deception
Now on to some less familiar – but just as powerful – forms of self-deception.
- Doublethink is a form of self-deception that involves the ability to believe and live contradictory beliefs. The term “doublethink” comes from George Orwell’s great novel, 1984. Simply put; doublethink is being able to tell deliberate lies while still believing them and forgetting any facts that are inconvenient. Doublethink isn’t just believing a contradiction (which never can be true) but having that contradiction drive actions and behavior. All of these tactics become necessary for living, according to Orwell.
How are these tactics necessary for living with an addiction? Firstly, they help to manufacture a reality in which one’s use is not disordered or addictive. Even if on some level a person believes she is becoming addicted, she can appeal to the always ready at hand belief that she is just fine. She can make a claim she knows she is fine. She can overinflate that claim to knowledge so that it maintains dominance in her perception of herself; that knowledge will override any wish to change. Without a wish to change, there will be no willingness. On the basis of her claim to knowledge, she can further claim that since there is nothing wrong with her, she has no responsibility to herself or to others to change.
Doublethink is not just limited to people struggling with their own use. People who love, live, or work with struggling addicts engage in doublethink as well. They may either be drafted or enlist themselves in the manufacture of a shared reality.
- Perfectionism is a form of self-deception that provides enormous cover for a person because it is often lauded. A perfectionist is someone who demands the best from herself and from others. “Good enough,” is a heretical thought for a perfectionist; what is good enough for others may be abject failure for her. A perfectionist believes not only that she should but actually is capable of meeting a standard that is unmeetable. A perfectionist doesn’t make an accurate assessment of herself and what’s possible. Perfectionists are people who continue to improve, polish, and hone such that they have an extraordinarily hard time letting go of something. This has an impact on agency; a perfectionist most surely is acting and being highly industrious yet the final product never fully makes its appearance. A perfectionist offloads responsibility for the present by promising something better in the future.
The perfectionist who is moving down the spectrum of a substance use disorder always faces a ruthless judge of her actions and character; she faces herself 24/7. Since she holds herself to an unmeetable expectation all the while believing that she should meet it, she will always fall short. The verdict is always “guilty.” Constantly falling short and thereby failing herself and others may be an accelerant for her use. Even in recovery, perfectionism can run rampant if a person believes that she should never have cravings or thoughts about using again. The harsh judge is still in the building.
- Procrastination – the first cousin of perfectionism – is one of the least recognized forms of self-deception. Procrastination is the attitude and behavior a person embodies when she postpones action she knows she should take now. She may promise herself or others that she will take action a minute, hour, day, month, or year. In that moment of hesitation right now, a chasm open between what a person knows she wants to do and what she wills to do. In the absence of willingness, her knowledge is not sufficient to motivate her.
Like perfectionism, procrastination may involve a busyness masquerading as productive process. One easy case of procrastination is the person who knows she needs to make changes in her use of alcohol and needs to find help. She may get quite busy exploring various treatment options, which is a completely appropriate and responsible thing to do. She needs to believe that she has undertaken the most exhaustive search so that she can make The Right Choice. This is a strain of perfectionism. However, looking at all the various treatment options without ever trying one is a form of procrastination.
She doesn’t take the action – to get help – that she knows she needs to take. In other words, she doesn’t take full responsibility. She makes a lot of motion but makes no forward progress. The philosopher Kierkegaard compares procrastination to sewing without tying a knot at the end of the thread. All the motions of sewing are there, but none of the sewing.
Assessing the Grip of Self-Deception
Self-deception is a major hindrance to self-knowledge, which entails that it is a major hindrance to treatment and recovery and a life of flourishing. But how does a person begin to overcome self-deception? Some might wonder if a person can ever accurately assess whether she is still self-deceived. Her judgment that she is self-deception free may itself be a product of self-deception. This sounds like a clever argument a philosopher might make. There may be a little something to this in one very special set of circumstances, namely when a person is completely isolated from others and has no people in her life to provide a reality check. But these circumstances do not obtain for the vast majority of people. For most people, there are others in their lives who provide a reality check and counterbalance.
Overcoming self-deception and coming to have genuine knowledge are best done in the company of the right others, Aristotle might claim. Who those “right others” might be for people struggling with addiction will depend on each individual person and her circumstances.
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