Overcoming Deception

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5)

THERE IS A FUNNY LITTLE story about a man who went to the doctor for a checkup. After the doctor did a very thorough examination on him, the doctor asked the nurse to send in the man’s wife so that he could talk to her. The wife said, “Well, doctor, how is he?” And he replied, “I’m afraid it’s bad news. He might pass away, but I think there is a way we might be able to save him.” She looked hopeful and said, “Well, what can we do?” The doctor said, “You need to fix him three meals a day for the next three months and take care of all his needs—whatever that may be.” When the wife and her husband got in the car, her husband looked at her and said, “Well, what did the doctor say?” His wife looked at him with a straight face and said, “Honey, you’re going to die.”

Deception. Duplicity. Double-dealing. Fraud. Cheating. Trickery. Underhandedness. Lying. Pretense. Artifice. Slyness. Cunning. Deviousness. Bluffing.

Psychology Today published a recent article on Deception. In answer to the critical but important question What is deception, the article refers to any act—big or small, cruel or kind—that causes someone to believe something that is untrue. Even the most honest people practice deception. Some studies indicate that the average person lies several times a day. Some lies are big (“No, I have not been drinking!”), but more often they are so-called little white lies (“That dress looks fine.”) we use to avoid uncomfortable situations or spare someone’s feelings. I had an addictions counselor tell me (in group therapy) that the main reason we lie is to hide something we’ve done or how we feel about a situation.

Lying is a common human trait. Essentially, it is making an untrue statement with intent to deceive. Deception, however, isn’t always a bold-faced lie. There are also the lies people (including me) tell themselves for reasons ranging from fear to self-esteem issues. Some people lie due to serious delusions beyond their control. Researchers have long searched for methods of effectively detecting when a person is not telling the truth. An example would be the polygraph test. The good old “lie detector.” Not surprisingly, certain psychiatric disorders, such as depression, borderline personality disorder, substance use disorder, and antisocial personality disorder, feature deception.

Pathological lying is a contentious topic. This habit is characterized by a long history of frequent and repeated lying for which no apparent psychological motive or external benefit can be discerned. Pathological lying must be differentiated from other psychiatric orders associated with deception. Differential diagnosis can be tricky given that lying behaviors often mimic pathological lying in certain personality disorders. While ordinary lies are goal-directed and are told to obtain external benefit or to avoid punishment, pathological lies often appear purposeless. In some cases, they might be self-incriminating or damaging, which makes the behavior even more incomprehensible.

Do you practice deception?

Paul tells us in Galatians 5:21, “…envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (NASB) [italics mine]. The phrase in the King James Version is “…that they which do such things…” The Greek word used for “do” is prasso, a primary verb, meaning “to practice,” i.e. “perform repeatedly or habitually.”  According to the Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, “do” in this instance means “to do, make, [or] perform in general, expressing an action as continued or not yet completed, what one does repeatedly, continually, habitually, like poieo, which we find in John 3:20 (‘everyone who does evil,’ NIV)” [italics mine].

The Dake Annotated Reference Bible notes that Galatians 5:21 is the “…first N.T. prophecy… no man who commits these sins will ever inherit the kingdom of God unless he confesses and puts them out of his life… lest any man claim that he can be saved and yet live in these sins and the judgment will decide whether he or Paul is right.” Relative to verse 21, to practice deception means to habitually deceive others. We can only get at the root of this type of persistent lying by examining ourselves. Paul is fairly blunt about this, saying we can only know if we’re in the faith by looking at our behavior. Not sure about you, but I don’t generally like examining myself. One of the worst walls I smacked up against during recovery from addiction was the dreaded Fourth Step: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Indeed, it takes a great deal of courage to honestly examine our behavior and our motives.

“Examine,” in the Greek, means “to prove or test under fire.”
What about me?

My father called me a “pathological liar” many times during my life. He said, “You lie so well you believe your own lies.” As we saw above, pathological lying is more accurately a psychological disorder and typically involves lying about everything; even things you don’t need to lie about. It is, essentially, a compulsion. Someone with the diagnosis cannot help but lie. About whatever. Thus, the label “pathological liar” was inaccurate. I will admit, however, that I (unfortunately) became an “accomplished” liar. I chose to use deception as a form of manipulation. I was basically adapting or changing the truth about a circumstance, person, or situation, and (at times) even facts and figures, to suit my purpose or advantage. Even if it was at the expense of someone’s feelings.

How do we overcome deception?

For me, the first step in overcoming deception is dealing with my poor self-image and a nearly chronic sense of fear—especially fear of rejection. The most likely underlying factor is pride. Whenever I “need help” from someone, even a family member, I typically hide the need or, worse, shoot from the hip and do whatever it takes to get out of the situation. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, It’s easier to apologize later than seek permission now. This has been a mantra of mine for decades. Trust me, it is not something to be proud of. As you might imagine, however, it is quite difficult to rewire your modus operandi. Like any habit, such deep-seated behaviors become rote.

Recent events in my life have allowed me to fully acknowledge my tendency to fib rather than fess up. This is not an easy confession. I’m a Christian in recovery who has been through numerous bouts of counseling—for addiction, emotional turmoil, and spiritual growth. I just completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Colorado Christian University in December, and I’m currently enrolled in their master’s degree in Biblical Studies and Theology. I found the undergraduate curriculum to be exceptional, and I expect nothing less from their graduate program. The emphasis was always on Christian worldview and doctrine—which was incorporated into every course whether it be psychology, statistics, ethics, church history, or mathematics. My academic work as an undergraduate at a Christian college has literally changed me. It’s made me a better man, and a better Christian.

About the Apostle Paul

It is fascinating to me that we can want to do good, yet fail to do so. In Romans 7:15-20, Paul says, “

What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time (MSG).

I respond most strongly to the comment, “I obviously need help!” I realize that, like Paul, I don’t have what it takes. These words came from Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, who wrote thirteen books of the New Testament. The Dake Annotated Study Bible states in a footnote that verse 15 could be interpreted as Paul saying, “I do not approve of my slavery to sin.” Looking back to the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul writes, “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (6:20-22, NIV).

So now what?

There is only one answer to this dilemma. Whatever the habit, no matter the attitude, without any regard to the seriousness of the sin, we cannot stop being a slave to sin simply because we recited a prayer, joined a church, or underwent water baptism. Our freedom from the practice of sin comes only by going beyond Jesus the Messiah; we must recognize the Lordship of Jesus. Paul speaks of the Christian life as one of slavery. He notes that before we accepted Christ we were slaves to sin and the flesh. We had no truly effective “cure” for sinful behavior. It is, despite what atheists and humanists and pluralists say, impossible to change your character—your innate, sinful tendency—without becoming a slave to the righteousness of Christ. The claims of most atheists and humanists nothwithstanding, mankind does not possess the necessary tools to override the powerful lure of sin and the flesh.

Fortunately, at some point, maybe years later, you might make the decision to truly dedicate your life to Christ. That’s when things “get serious.” It involves recognizing Jesus as Lord of your life. At last, you finally submit your life to Him and only then become His slave. It’s simply a second work of grace; a new level of commitment to Jesus Christ. The moment you are converted to Christ, you are released from one slavery (sin and the flesh) and immediately transformed into a new slavery (that of being the slave of Jesus Christ and His Righteousness). When looking at Romans 6, verses 20 and 21 describe the slaves we once were, whereas verse 22 looks at our new life in Christ.

Looking once again at the concept of “examining ourselves,” (which in the Greek means “to prove or to test under fire”), we cannot shy away from the difficult questions. Our examination must be fearless and complete. We need to scrutinize our relationship with Jesus. Are we really close to Him? Are we growing spiritually? Do we still wrestle with habitual sin? How much time to we spend in the Scriptures? How is our prayer life? Whose interest do we serve first?  Paul tells us, “But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31, NIV).

Indeed, we must examine everything by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Live The Truth (Or Die From The Lie)

The origins of self-deception run deep. We have to unravel our web of lies if we are ever to find our way back to the people we were put on this earth to be. We all tell ourselves lies; we all have buried the truth from time to time. Our lives become more and more inauthentic. Human beings have a reflex reaction to psychological pain not much different from reaction to physical pain. We withdraw from it. Indeed, we use many “defense mechanisms” to distance us from bitter reality. We repress our emotions, we rationalize our behaviors, we distort the memory of past events. Chief among these mechanisms is denial, in which we unconsciously ignore distressing facts about ourselves or others.

I studied psychology at the University of Scranton. Life interrupted my education after three semesters, and I am returning to school next September to complete my studies. I noticed during some of my earlier college classes that many psych patients were asking for Zoloft or Paxil or Effexor or some other anti-depressant drug almost immediately upon beginning therapy. Some of those patients were searching for a way to cover up or gloss over the trouble they were having in their lives instead of working to get to the bottom of it. The impulse to keep our truth and our pain hidden is among the most common, powerful and toxic elements of human nature.

So how do we get the tapes playing inside us to stop? You know, that pesky rambling in our mind that tries to convince us of how unworthy we are. For example, to find the self-esteem we need in order to live full lives, we have to look back to when and how we were first deprived of it. Today’s symptoms are usually being fueled by earlier chapters in our life’s story that we are unwilling to read. If we do not open them and learn what set the stage for suffering, no medicine will be powerful enough to keep our anxiety or depression away for ever. That is something that’s just not doable. Please note that the function of pain is to tell us there is something we must do. Living a “medicated” life will not yield permanent results. This is true about drugs as well as alcohol.

The examined life is worth living. Ignoring the facts of one’s life, especially the painful ones, only puts the negative patterns unconsciously fed by these issues more in command of one’s future. As Carl Jung wrote, “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our life as fate.” You can’t outdistance the past. The truth always wins. Digging deeper for the truth begins like this: You start by identifying what trouble needs healing in your life right now, then you journey back into your life story to see the early conflicts that set the stage for it. Your vision will be clear only if you look directly and deeply into your pain. Never away from it.

This is a big part of why alcoholics and addicts cannot get sober without putting down the drink or the drug. It’s impossible to see clearly. Too much fog. Too many compromised memories. Getting drunk takes away one’s ability to see with any clarity the resulting consequences of alcoholism. Heavy drinking doesn’t only make your face go numb. It dulls your senses, seemingly insulates you from fallout, and compromises your judgment and reaction time.

How this really works is you must identify what you need to address at this moment in order to live a more powerful life. Identify what part of your past you need to look at more closely. Edit out the fiction. Remember, the biggest thing that stands between you and your buried past is fear. It is because of this fear that we tend to live behind shields. Problem is, if we keep trying to dodge the truth, it gets harder and harder to avoid the day when that truth surfaces and slaps you hard in the face. If you keep hiding behind your coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, excesive eating, or too much sex, you’re going to get blindsided.

Emotional defenses we use to obscure the truth end up obscuring the miraculous qualities that lie beneath those defenses. Qualities such as God-given courage, compassion, empathy, devotion, trust, and (most importantly) the capacity to love. We build impenetrable walls that keep emotional pain at bay. Common to all these walls is the fact that they cover up the truth. Here’s the kicker! Guess who’s standing behind these walls holding them in place? You are, of course. And the walls get heavier with each passing day. Holding up these walls saps your energy. It steals your focus. As long as you’re holding up these shields, you’re living in fear.

I had to think about what some of these walls might be that I’m holding up? Overeating, especially comfort foods. Overspending, usually so I can Look the Part. Perfectionism or obsessing. Abusing drugs and alcohol. Physical pain. Internet pornography. Of course, these walls always mask my deeper pain. They prevent me from addressing core problems from the past that are actually fueling my need to erect walls all around me. Living the truth starts with simply paying attention to your wall-building strategies more than you have in the past. Ask yourself how often you use them. Then, begin to resist them.

It’s helpful to look back at your coping strategies and write down specific plans you can commit to in order to help you see yourself for the first time. As you might have guessed, you can use certain anti-wall-building strategies. Some of mine are cutting comfort foods by fifty percent, being thankful for the material things I do have (rather than being in a mad dash to buy more stuff), go for a fifteen-minute walk every day alone, continue a plan of abstaining from alcohol and mood-altering drugs, address my concerns of physical pain in my low back and take the medical advice given to me by my doctors.

Here’s something to think about. The fact that you will feel anxious or depressed or irritable while limiting your exposure to these things is a sign that you are detoxing from them. In order to anticipate, identify, and overcome your use of these walled strategies (whether old or new), you will need to keep track of them in a journal or notebook. Please remember, as you work to rid yourself of your walls, they will try to reassert themselves through fear. As you free yourself from the burden of holding up all these walls, the self-defeating half-truths and untruths you have told yourself (or others have told you) about your life will lose their footing in your soul.

Perhaps no fear is more universal (and more denied) than the fear of death. We refuse to feel the pain of being mortal. We act as though we have unlimited time to pursue our dreams or tell those we love exactly how we feel, or make amends to those we’ve hurt, or make peace with those from whom we are estranged. Most of all, we act as though there is no urgency to unravel the mysteries of our own life stories; to live examined lives. We have the chance to identify our real talents, pursue our real goals, experience well-being, and find real love. Just know this: We don’t have forever.

No matter how much we try to shield ourselves from painful events and themes in our lives, or to create fictional histories for ourselves, there’s one important fact to remember: The pain does not go away. Emotional pain is symptomatic of an original, underlying problem. Repressed emotional pain and interpersonal conflicts will color our communications with one another. Unfortunately, we bring to each moment every significant experience and relationship we have ever had. These experiences and relationships grow powerful underground roots and tend to contaminate our attempts to build new relationships. When our own history is not clear to us, we have little capacity to separate the present from the past. An unexamined life leads ultimately to chronic conflict.

We tend to automatically introduce our unresolved guilt, anger, fear, sadness, disappointments, jealousies and doubts into our new relationships. It takes being comfortable with conflict, not being drawn to it or afraid of it, to minimize its role in our lives.

Being willing to confront the truth about your life story, to face your pain and express what you feel about yourself, can not only change your life, but can literally save it. Some people are so determined to run for the hills rather than face their pain. They often resort to a variety of behaviors designed to distract themselves from it. If they don’t, they will literally anesthetize themselves.

Perhaps the most common failed coping strategy to avoid pain is to begin abusing alcohol or drugs. Alcoholics and addicts demonstrate a marked inability or unwillingness to confront the reality of their true life story, and explore its most painful chapters. They are literally choosing to use drugs or alcohol on a frequent, often daily, basis in order to escape the past and not feel. The toll this type of running from pain will take on the individual is simply not predictable.

The attempt to keep your pain buried deep within you will lead you to eventually resurrect it in one form or another. Again and again. Nothing can compete energetically with the demons we have stored away since childhood; we remember them, after all, with a child’s heart and mind. The toxic dynamics we have buried with them will retain some of the magnetic force many years after we dig them up again. Recognizing them as the old, burned-out demons they are is key to resisting them.

We can own our futures instead of being owned by our past. Learning from our pain, from which we’ve tried so hard to run, is indeed a true source of power. All psychological suffering, even when it comes with a label such as “bipolar disorder” or “OCD,” has meaning which is rooted somewhere in our personal history.

The human impulse to avoid painful emotional realities seems to be hard-wired into our nervous system. Running away now becomes a neurological reflex reaction based on suffering we endured in our past. People show the same avoidance of emotional pain. No surprise there. Of course, this deprives us of learning that the world can offer us as adults much more than what it did when we were children.

One reason it takes work to fight against this is that the human brain seems anatomically equipped to bury specific memories of what caused us pain in childhood, while “remembering” and reproducing the techniques we used to avoid it. Our entire being, our brain, our gut, our heart, and our five senses, are all trained by what we have lived through. We screen out certain events and perceptions, and screen in others. What we respond to and how we respond to it depends neurologically on what we have concluded about the world in the past.

There is no excuse for raping a woman, hurting your wife, beating your kids, being cruel to your family pet. The people who are most “together” in life may be the ones in the most denial about where they’ve been in their past. The person who hasn’t been willing to “forget” about what happened may be the one who is most obviously struggling with shifting moods, more prone to anger at others, or who is shunned by others entirely. All the anger, sadness and anxiety you may experience  has been inside you all along, kept buried by unconscious psychological stress and hurt that distracts you in present day. Coping mechanisms can be anything from drug or alcohol abuse, troubled or repeated relationships that never tend to go anywhere, compulsive eating, gambling, literally anything that takes your attention away from any bad feelings or disconnect you may be experiencing in your current life.

Of course, this is where I tell you that forgiveness and letting go is possible. It truly doesn’t matter how deep the cut you’ve experienced. Everyone has something in their past they thought would truly crush them. For me, it was ending up in county prison on a one-year-old bench warrant. Perfect! Icing on the cake. I was one week from being homeless when the state police picked me up, getting high every day, and starting to drink Vodka again. Twenty months of sobriety gone in one swallow. No way I’m going to live through this crap again. I was sitting in my cell, eyeing up the bare light bulb, and just about to take it out of the socket, break it, and slit my throat.

Then I called out for the guard. “Hey, C.O!” He came up to the cell door. “I feel like I’m going to kill myself.” He looked at me for what seemed like half-an-hour, then sighed. “Do you realize the amount of paperwork you’re gonna cause me now that you’ve said that?”

“Sorry.”

“What sort of future is coming up from behind, I don’t really know. But the past, spread out ahead, dominates everything in sight.” (Robert Pirsig, from “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.)

 

 

Self-Deception

The origins of self-deception run deep within us. As we mature, small lies we tell ourselves about the past build into an impenetrable web of denial and fantasy that conceals our pain. This web has to be unraveled if we are ever to find our way back to the people we were meant to be. We all tell ourselves lies; we all have buried truths. Most of us fear revealing them, even to ourselves. So we leave them buried and do whatever it takes to keep them there. Our lives become more and more inauthentic.

One of the ways we can learn to live the truth is by example. When we hear of someone who has shown the courage to look honestly at the most difficult part of his or her life story we can be inspired to do the same. Empathy is a big part of that inspiration. Listening to someone talk about the toughest parts of their life triggers an internal barometer of truth in us. A part of the soul that resonates only with being genuine. We get courage by observing and listening to stories of courage. That’s a kind of miracle.

Interestingly, human beings have a reflex reaction to psychological pain no different from their reaction to physical pain. We withdraw from it. We try to avoid thinking about not only the painful aspects of our lives today, but those in the past, all the way back to childhood. This should come as no surprise. No one wants to feel bad. So the mind uses numerous “defense mechanisms” to distance us from bitter realities. Chief among these mechanisms is denial, in which we unconsciously ignore distressing facts about ourselves or others. Denial can make us look the other way in the face of evidence that our spouse is unfaithful or our children are using drugs. It can make us unable to hear feedback from friends and loved ones.

The impulse to keep one’s truth — especially one’s pain — secret is the most common, powerful and toxic elements of human nature. But when you are willing to hurt in order to heal, people respond to your bravery and honesty. Your pain becomes your power.  All too often, however, patients (and their doctors) are much too willing to settle for drugs instead of exploring the roots of their problem. In fact, many patients go to the doctor already convinced that they need a pill. For some reason, people today are discouraged from doing the right thing: digging down deep into their life story to learn what they can from every chapter.

Carl Jung has said, “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.” We need to stop believing that the examined life is not worth living. We need to stop hiding from ourselves. We cannot outrun the past. It always catches up with us. Digging deeper for the truth starts with identifying what trouble needs healing in your life right now. Then you journey back into your life story to see the early conflicts that set the stage for it. This can only be accomplished by looking directly and deeply into your pain, never away from it. Obviously, living in denial or diminishing your feelings with medication involves looking away from your pain.

The comforting distractions in your life are depriving you of the personal riches that are the proper rewards of genuine self-knowledge. The authenticity that comes with editing out the fiction from your existence will make you a better parent, spouse or friend. It can utterly transform your life. If you’re like most people, the biggest thing that stands between you and your buried past is fear. In other words, living in fear can completely stunt your emotional growth. This is because the emotional defenses we use to obscure our personal truths end up obscuring the miraculous qualities that lie beneath those defenses. Our God-given courage, compassion, devotion, trust and capacity to love.

Our emotional vulnerability is in itself a rare gift. Because without being vulnerable to sadness and disappointment and doubt, we would have no ability to truly experience and fully feel their opposites: joy, celebration and reassurance. Living in truth involves paying attention to our defense mechanisms and the range of our feelings, seeing where we are hiding out and trying to avoid our emotions. It is critical that we recognize where fear stops us from personal growth. Where we are denying how we really feel. Self-deception can keep us from facing the things we need to face in order to change and grow into our true potential. And this is the saddest way there is to live.