“O, wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It would frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.”
– Robert Burns
When I look at myself in the mirror, it is always from the same perspective: standing directly in front of it, chest out, stomach in. I look pretty good that way. Reasonably trim and muscular for a man my age. But every now and then I accidently catch myself in a sideways pose. That is less pleasant. I look thick, almost apelike.
I suppose I could slim down by losing 20 pounds, but it’s easier to look at myself from a flattering angle.
We are told that being honest about ourselves is a virtue. And perhaps it is. But we also know that people that have unrealistically positive self-images are happier than people that don’t.
I have many faults. And for the most part I don’t like admitting them. I prefer to view my behavior from a perspective that is flattering, an angle that hides these blemishes from my sight.
Yes, we can learn to turn a blind eye to our shortcomings. And that can protect us from the mental self-flagellation we might otherwise endure. But making a habit of this has consequences. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “A man who lies to himself… comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anyone around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.”
And self-delusion can last only so long. Sooner or later, we will be forced to see our actions bluntly – the way others see them – and this can be painful. It can lead to anxiety and even depression.
So do we have to choose? Is life an ongoing struggle between the stress of playing blind and the pain of being forced to see? Are we locked into the tragic choice between hamartia and agnagnorisis?
AJ is one of the most brilliant marketing minds on the planet. We became acquainted almost 40 years ago when my boss at the time got into a joint venture with him.
The deal made both of them a lot of money, but it ended badly when they argued about dividing the spoils. AJ’s behavior after that was reprehensible. I was so disturbed by it that once, at an industry event, I actually challenged him to a duel. He declined.
Years later, we reconnected. I was still angry with him – but before I had a chance to bring it up, he said, very casually, “But of course I’m a hypocrite and a scoundrel.”
The moment he said that, I forgave him.
A big lesson for me. One I’m still trying to learn.
I’ve been wondering why I like to hide my shortcomings. It’s not because I want to hide them from others. I know that’s not possible. They see them more quickly and more clearly than I can.
No, the reason I don’t admit to them is because I don’t want to give friends and colleagues an opportunity to acknowledge them. I don’t want to hear them saying, “Yes, Mark. You really are an arrogant, insensitive asshole.”
Of course, if they are already thinking that, I am not avoiding their condescension or disappointment or antipathy. I am simply making it more difficult for them to voice those feelings.
And that’s why AJ’s strategy was so brilliant. In admitting his faults, he was not evincing guilt or shame. He was only being honest about the effect his behavior had on others. And the reason he didn’t display guilt or shame is because before admitting his shortcomings, he had already faced them, and acknowledged them, and forgiven himself for them.
Another way of putting this is that guilt or shame, however justified, is a burden – one that can only be removed by the person that feels it.
Ben Franklin said that self-deception is much more common than falling victim to the deceptions of others.
So here’s the question: What are you fooling yourself about?