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Why do we lie to ourselves?


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 02/17/20

The 7 harms of self-deception.

Who is wronged by lies?

Well, it is clear that God is offended, as seen in the commandment against “bearing false witness.” (Exodus 20:16)

It is also clear that one’s neighbor is wronged by lies, as so eloquently expressed by essayist Michel de Montaigne:

Lying is indeed an accursed vice. We are men, and we have relations with one another only by speech. If we recognized the horror and gravity of an untruth, we should more justifiably punish it with fire than any other crime.

A less-often considered victim of lying is our own selves. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, offers a properly dreadful account of the harm one does to one’s own soul should one acquire the habit of lying to ourselves:

The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offence, isn’t it?  A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill — he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offence, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness.

This passage is actually a description of a chain of events that is forged (no pun intended) when one becomes accustomed to lying to oneself:

  1. Truth cannot be found;
  2. Absent truth, goodness cannot be found;
  3. Absent goodness, there can be no love;
  4. Absent love, one’s heart turns to selfish vices;
  5. Corrupted by vice, there can be no empathy;
  6. Absent empathy, only the emotions of spite and hatred remain;
  7. The malice of spite and hatred move one to diminish and destroy others.

This twisted logic is, I believe, the logic of Hell. The demons have endless desire met with endless dissatisfaction, which prompts endless rage and malice. (Something to bear in mind as we prepare for Lent!) Great art and literature, as well as a careful study of history, confirm again and again this pattern of annihilation that flares outward when one makes a choice to lie to oneself. 

Read more:
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So, why do we do it? Why do we enter upon a process that will evacuate love from our lives and the lives of others? (Not to mention offending God!) Of course, it is not rational. If it were simply a matter of reason, and we ourselves were simply reasonable, it could be explained to us just once: “Don’t lie to yourself! Here’s why …” Sadly, we know it does not work that way. Why not?

It doesn’t work that way because we are not entirely rational—by which I mean that there are non-rational (in contrast to irrational) elements in human nature. We have heart, emotion, appetite, desire. If we set out on the destructive course of lying to ourselves, that indicates we did not simply make a mistake (like adding a column of numbers incorrectly).

The problem is not so much a matter of reason as a matter of heart. In other words, lying to ourselves is an act of idolatry—we love something more than we love the living God who is all truth, all goodness, all beauty, all love. Yes, we need to know the truth—we also need to love the truth. Loving the truth will move us to arrange our lives to be in harmony with love, with what is true, good and beautiful.

That change of heart is not something we can achieve on our own. We have to invoke the power and mercy of the righteous God, as we see in Psalm 51: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin … You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart … Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me…”

Let’s admit our fault, our need and our incompleteness. Let’s rejoice that there is mercy offered to those who repent. And let’s all go to confession faithfully and frequently!


Read more:
“When there’s a lie, there cannot be love,” says Pope Francis

When I write next, I will talk about preparing for Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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