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I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard myself say, “That looks like a great book! I’m going to read that one next.” Even if I read one book every day, I would never be able to read all the books I promise myself I will.
Who am I kidding? More importantly, why do I keep lying to myself about what I think I can accomplish?
I can take some comfort in the fact that I’m not alone in my struggle. Up to half of all doctoral students never complete their Ph.D. programs. They have the motivation to start and (presumably) the intention to complete their course of study, but their actions end up being quite different from their stated goals.
Self-deception becomes a much more serious problem when it comes to our health. I often hear patients say, “I’m going to quit smoking and go on a diet!” or “I’m going to start walking 15 minutes every day.” Many follow through and make great changes. But for some, I strongly sense these commitments are self-deceptive. How do I know?
Why We Lie to Ourselves
One of the core principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is the role that personal values play in motivation. When we can say “This is what I stand for” with strength and conviction, we have the power to keep moving forward through challenges and difficulties. When our values are not clearly defined or strongly held, we will falter in our commitments and struggle with motivation.
Here is the hard truth: Personal growth is not our only motivation. We have a strong desire for comfort. More specifically, we want to feel good and look good, which is often much more important to us than doing what is good and in line with our values.
When we set expectations for ourselves that are unrealistic, it is driven in part by our desire to look good. We love the idea of self-improvement, success, and accomplishment. We picture others cheering us on and being proud of our accomplishments. Approval feeds our egos and helps us keep up the pretense that we are going to start a business, write a book, or run a half-marathon.
How to Spot Self-Deception
- The weather cancels your plans. When you take a stand for something truly important, a little bit of rain is not going to stop you. Neither will heat, cold, snow, wind, or humidity. You are lying to yourself if your plans need to be canceled by something that is mildly inconvenient, like the weather.
- You have no plan. This should be obvious, but it often is not. Losing weight, getting in shape, writing a book, or starting a business don’t just happen. Nor does getting an education or rebuilding a broken marriage. You must have a plan. Even better than a plan is to have a coach who guides you with a plan that has been proven successful.
- You don’t know yourself. Do you know what kind of stories your mind is telling you about who you are? Your mind creates a collection of narratives that tell you who you were, who you are, and who you are going to become. Here is the thing—none of these narratives are useful. For the most part, these narratives help excuse your struggles and protect your ego. We need to catch these automatic thoughts and focus our attention on the person we need to become and the direction we want to head.
- You have a weak choice muscle. If you had the choice between one doughnut now, or two doughnuts much later, you would pick the doughnut in front of you every time. This piece of wisdom from the 1970s Stanford University research still stands true today. People who make the conscious choice to delay gratification are more successful in pretty much everything thing they do in life. Delaying gratification, like everything else in life, is a skill you can learn.
- You don’t see your options. One of the struggles we have with choices is not seeing them. We automatically move away from discomfort, usually in ways that are not helpful or healthy in the long run. To reduce our distress, we distract ourselves, opt out of doing things, battle with our negative thoughts, try to control our feelings, and use substances like food, alcohol, drugs, and medication to feel better, or at least less bad. We often do not realize that we have another possible choice, one other than moving away from our distress. We can accept our thoughts and feelings by making room for them in our lives. Doing this requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. What is the worst that will happen if you are hungry for a few hours, are tired when you are working out, or are unmotivated when you write? You are more than your momentary states.
- You lack accountability. The people who follow through with commitments make their commitments and plans public. More than that, they invite people into their lives to help with the change process. They live authentically in a community of supportive people who know when they struggle and need help. One of the best things you can do to keep yourself going is to join others who are on the same journey.
How to Get Started
If you are ready to stop making yourself promises you cannot keep, here is a place to begin. Be willing to make a commitment and break a commitment, and then start again.
There is no rule that you must follow that says just because you broke your commitment several times in a row, you are hopeless. You are never hopeless. The “I am hopeless” story is just one of the many narratives your mind likes to use when you struggle. You are not defined by your past, but by the direction you are heading.
The struggle to grow requires a great deal of self-compassion. We are hard on ourselves, blame ourselves for our lack of drive and motivation, and underestimate how unhelpful our minds can be when we try to do something new. Take a deep breath, look kindly and with compassion on your struggle, and start again.