Self-deception and Addiction
The temple to Apollo at Delphi has the inscription, “know thyself.” To the ancient Greek philosophers, knowing yourself is a matter of knowing your moral virtues, values, and character. It is understanding your commitments along with your aspirations. This sort of self-knowledge is necessary for living the best possible life, which is described by Aristotle has happiness or flourishing.
Achieving self-knowledge is no easy matter. This may be especially true for people struggling with addiction because they operate under a strong influence of self-deception. Self-deception seems emblematic of the lived experiences of addiction, which means it is appropriate to explore some of its dimensions.
I offer the following definition of self-deception in the hopes of identifying its characteristic dynamics and dimensions. Armed with definition, it may become easier to identify the less familiar but no less potentially devastating forms of self-deception that accompany if not fuel an addiction. So long as self-deception runs rampant, self-knowledge will be severely compromised thereby limiting how much a person can flourish. Self-deception is:
A set of practices and attitudes that hinders a person from making a reliable assessment of their own situation. As a consequence, they are unable to appropriately recognize the effects that are produced by their own behaviour and often fail to grasp what is or isn’t their rightful responsibility.
A person who suffers from self-deception has a lack of perspective and knowledge, which affects their ability and willingness to act and take proper responsibility for those actions. Self-deception erodes autonomy. The person who suffers from too much self-deception really cannot be free because their actions neither will be guided by knowledge nor voluntarily chosen. This entails that it will be difficult for a person to choose to address their addiction.
Easily Identified Forms Self-Deception
Denial, minimization, and rationalisation are different versions of self-deception. They’re well known and as a consequence, more easily identified.
Denial is wilful ignorance not to recognize a state of affairs as real or actual.
Minimization involves the reduction of the seriousness or extent of that state of affairs.
Rationalisation creates justifications excusing a person from having contributed to that state of affairs.
Each of these forms individually aims to absolve a person from responsibility for that state of affairs. Taken together, their compounding effects can be devastating.
Additional Forms of Self-Deception
Now on to some less familiar – but just as powerful – forms of self-deception.
Doublethink is a form of self-deception that involves the ability to believe and live contradictory beliefs. The term “doublethink” comes from George Orwell’s great novel, 1984. Simply put; doublethink is being able to tell deliberate lies while still believing them and forgetting any facts that are inconvenient. Doublethink isn’t just believing a contradiction (which never can be true) but having that contradiction drive actions and behaviour. All of these tactics become necessary for living, according to Orwell. How are these tactics necessary for living with an addiction? Firstly, they help to manufacture a reality in which one’s use is not disordered or addictive. Even if on some level a person believes that they are becoming addicted, they can appeal to the always ready at hand belief that they are “just fine”. They can make a claim that they know that they’re fine. They can overinflate that claim to knowledge so that it maintains dominance in their perception of themselves; that knowledge will override any wish to change. Without a wish to change, there will be no willingness. On the basis of their claim to knowledge, they can further claim that since there is nothing wrong with them, they have no responsibility to themselves or to others to change. Doublethink is not just limited to people struggling with their own use. People who love, live, or work with struggling addicts engage in doublethink as well. They may either be drafted or enlist themselves in the manufacture of a shared reality.
Perfectionism is a form of self-deception that provides enormous cover for a person because it is often praised or admired. A perfectionist is someone who demands the best from themselves and from others. “Good enough,” is a heretical thought for a perfectionist; what is good enough for others may be abject failure for a perfectionist. A perfectionist believes not only that they should but actually are capable of meeting a standard that is unattainable. A perfectionist cannot make an accurate assessment of themselves and what’s possible. Perfectionists are people who continue to improve, polish, and hone such that they have an extraordinarily hard time letting go of something. This has an impact on actions which are supposed to bring a particular outcome; a perfectionist most surely is acting and being highly industrious yet the final product rarely fully makes its appearance. A perfectionist offloads responsibility for the present by promising something better in the future. The perfectionist who is moving down the spectrum of a substance use disorder always faces a ruthless judge of their actions and character; they face themselves 24/7. Since they hold themselves to an unattainable expectation all the while believing that they should meet it, they will always fall short. The verdict is always “guilty.” Constantly falling short and thereby failing themselves and others may be an accelerant for their use. Even in recovery, perfectionism can run rampant if a person believes that they should never have cravings or thoughts about using again. The harsh judge is still in the building.
Procrastination – the first cousin of perfectionism – is one of the least recognised forms of self-deception. Procrastination is the attitude and behaviour a person embodies when they postpone actions, they know they should take now. they may promise themselves or others that they will take action a minute, hour, day, month, or year. In that moment of hesitation right now, a gorge open between what a person knows they wants to do and what they will be doing. In the absence of willingness, their knowledge is not sufficient to motivate themselves. Like perfectionism, procrastination may involve a busyness masquerading as productive process. One easy case of procrastination is the person who knows they need to make changes in their use of alcohol or drugs and needs to find help. They may get quite busy exploring various treatment options, which is a completely appropriate and responsible thing to do. They need to believe that have undertaken the most exhaustive search so that they can make The Right Choice. This is a strain of perfectionism. However, looking at all the various treatment options without ever trying one is a form of procrastination. They do not take the action – to get help – that they know they need to take. In other words, they don’t take full responsibility. They make a lot of commotion but makes no forward progress. The philosopher Kierkegaard compares procrastination to sewing without tying a knot at the end of the thread. All the motions of sewing are there, but none of the sewing.
Evaluating the Grip of Self-Deception
Self-deception is a major hindrance to self-knowledge, which entails that it is a major hindrance to treatment and recovery and a flourishing life. But how does a person begin to overcome self-deception? Some might wonder if a person can ever accurately assess whether still self-deceived. Their judgment that they are self-deception free may itself be a product of self-deception. This sounds like a clever argument a philosopher might make or a catch-22 situation. There may be a little something to this in one very special set of circumstances, namely when a person is completely isolated from others and has no people in their life to provide a reality check. But these circumstances are not realistic for the vast majority of people. For most people, there are others in their lives who provide a reality check and counterbalance.
Overcoming self-deception and coming to have genuine knowledge are best done in the company of the right others, Aristotle might claim. Who those “right others” might be for people struggling with addiction will depend on each individual person and their circumstances.