Newly divorced, Eleanor Bain thought she’d finally met the man of her dreams. She was in a new city, looking for a new job and starting a new life with her two daughters, when she fell in love, or so she thought.
It’s like a boomerang, when you suddenly realise that this is not so peachy
But along with the positives of shared interests, there were plenty of negatives. Sometimes the pair ended up screaming at each other for hours on end.
Looking back, Bain says she was in denial about the relationship. “It’s not that you don’t want to see it,” says Bain. “You don’t see it at all.” She wouldn’t hear it when friends hinted something might not be working. “I did everything to convince them that he was the man of my life.”
Why do we do it? Self-deception is a tool for protecting yourself from painful facts. It’s why we claim to be honest but break the rules anyway; tell ourselves we want something like a financially secure retirement but consciously construct the opposite, or stick with a company even when we’ve been passed over for a promotion at work.
Delusion may make day-to-day living easier, but it usually comes at a price, according to Cam Caldwell, a visiting professor of management at Purdue University North Central, Indiana in the US, who has been researching identity, self-awareness and self-deception for decades. He defines self-deception as “the holding of two conflicting ideas without acknowledging the conflict.”
The price for deceiving yourself includes the risk of alienation, when you lose your ability to connect with others because your devotion to your own view of reality is greater than your interest in the truth, Caldwell writes in an academic paper, citing American psychiatrist M Scott Peck.
For those who want to avoid burying their heads in the sand, ask yourself this question: What’s worse – a little bad news about your actual situation, or a ‘business as usual’ approach that leads to a train wreck for your partnership, your money or your career? While facing up to denial can be a struggle when it comes to matters of the heart, not tackling the problems can affect all aspects of your life.
When it doesn’t add up
Most of us are guilty of denial at some stage in our life. Consider your finances. You’d assume numbers on paper are facts that aren’t open for interpretation. But when self-deception and wishful thinking come into play, that’s not always the case, said Kathleen Gurney, the CEO of Financial Psychology Corporation, based in Sarasota, Florida.
She has even seen financial advisors unable to see the plain truth, despite the depth of their technical knowledge about money management. She mentioned one advisor unable to see the risk of losing his house due to missed mortgage payments. Other clients have refused to see the impact of credit-card debt strung out over years, Gurney said.
Self-deception has distinct stages and can become chronic.
“Self-deception has distinct stages and can become chronic,” Gurney said. The first is simple denial of unpleasant facts, like you are bouncing cheques or are regularly late on bills.
A second form of denial is minimisation. In this stage, the person admits the fact, but claims it’s OK and rationalises the action. “It’s true (this is happening), but as long as I keep enough money in there, I’m not going to bounce any cheques.”
A third form of denial is projection. This is when you admit the problem but shift responsibility for it. “I know, but it’s really not my fault because I’m so busy and I have several jobs…”
Gurney’s advice: Consult with a friend or a professional to analyse what’s working in your finances and what’s not. “Keep asking the questions to yourself until you come up with answers.” Another idea is to take a psychological evaluation to determine your money personality to give you greater insight into your own behaviour.
More ideas: Make a chart that juxtaposes what you say you want versus what you actually do, or as Gurney suggests, write down emotions you have about your finances on cards, pile them up and see if you can spot a trend.
The writing on the wall
Self-deception is not limited to finances and relationships. It also plagues many people throughout their careers. Here again, it’s quite easy to let wishful thinking replace a sound assessment of the facts. That’s what happened to a client of Nadine Gimbel, a career coach in Frankfurt who is sales manager for RF/F Raum Fuer Fuehrung, a consultancy which supports organisations and management with change processes.
Life includes change, and we often hold on to things because we’re afraid. Usually we only regret the steps we didn’t take.
One woman she helped was a mid-level executive at a major German bank who complained about not being promoted, despite long hours and hard work. The woman, in her early 40s, had only a vague idea of where she wanted to go and why she wanted to go there. She was also waiting around for someone to notice that she was doing a great job. This self-imposed blindness had kept her career stagnant.
“She was fooling herself by thinking that someone else had to discover her,” said Gimbel, who worked with the woman on articulating what she wanted and communicating that to her boss. “She did this and the boss realised where she was coming from.”
Gimbel’s suggestion to those who are avoiding the writing on the wall at work is to first get clarity on what you really want. Then take responsibility by taking the necessary actions, such as communicating what you want or leaving a job that’s not working. “Life includes change, and we often hold on to things because we’re afraid,” Gimbel said. “Usually we only regret the steps we didn’t take, or the changes we didn’t make. We don’t know where we would have gone if we hadn’t been afraid.”
Of course, seeing truths about yourself and acting on them requires courage and steadfastness. For Bain, the tipping point in her personal relationship came when she saw her new partner criticise her daughters.
“It’s like a boomerang, when you suddenly realise that this is not so peachy,” said Bain, who added she felt “acute pain” and wanted to “run for her life” when she finally understood the denial she had been living in.
“It felt like the curtain suddenly opened and you can see what the reality is.”
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.