This insightful guide is an exploration of how and why people undermine their happiness and lose touch with their "best" selves. Counterproductive self-deception, a universal behavior, is a habit that can be broken. People keep themselves from having what they want, a phenomenon known as "self-handicapping."
Offering poignant examples, innovative tools, and a compassionate perspective, Dan Neuharth reveals how to vanquish self-imposed roadblocks and avoid unnecessary losses in order to embrace and share the best in oneself.
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Dan Neuharth, Ph.D. is the author of the national bestseller, If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. He has appeared on national broadcast media, including Oprah, Good Morning America, and CNN's Talkback Live. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area.
Secrets You Keep from Yourself
PART ONEThe Secrets We KeepThe discovery of a deceiving principle, a lying activity within us, can furnish an absolutely new view of all conscious life.--JACQUES RIVIÈRE
This book will address the three components to reducing your unnecessary losses and increasing your happiness and fulfillment:1. Recognizing when you are at risk for self-inflicted losses (Parts One and Two)2. Understanding the self-undermining influences in your life and learning how to transcend them (Part Three)3. Motivating yourself to choose the healthiest paths (Parts Four and Five)1WHO ARE YOU WHEN YOU'RE NOT BEING YOURSELF?We are so used to disguising ourselves from others that we end up disguising ourselves from ourselves.--FRANÇOIS DE LA ROUCHEFOUCAULD, DUC DE LA ROUCHEFOUCAULD
We want to know and be known for our very best. One way we identify this is to look for the best in others. You probably have known rare individuals who seem to craft their lives moment-by-moment with deliberate, positive actions. People like Morrie Schwartz of Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom's book about the seventy-eight-year-old former sociology professor who met his terminal illness with inspiring dignity and grace. How do people like Morrie live exceptional lives? What can we learn from such people about cultivating the exceptional in ourselves?Perhaps you feel at your best when you "follow your bliss," as Joseph Campbell wrote. Who or what within you recognizes your bliss and leads you to it? Pause for a moment and recall a time when you felt deeply content. Perhaps you experienced an epiphany about your life's goals, felt at peace with the world, or intuitively knew the right choice in difficult circumstances. Think of your most intimate relationship or closest friendship, and recall an exceptionally satisfying moment. Perhaps you felt deeply connected, seen, and heard. What was the source of these moments? What made them end? How might you create them more often?The answers on how to cultivate and express the exceptional within you are found to a large extent in how you define yourself. You have the ability to define who you are at any moment. For example, surveys have reported that:· 25 percent of high school students rated themselves in the top 1 percent in leadership ability· 80 percent of drivers rated themselves as better than average· 83 percent of college students thought themselves more generous than other people· 94 percent of university professors ranked themselves better than average at their jobs· 85 percent of people rate their own manners as good or excellent, but only 23 percent give the same marks to others· Individual investors at one conference confidently predicted, on average, that their own retirement savings would be twice the average size of the savings of all other investors in attendanceFlattering self-definitions like these are benign. Self-images exist on a continuum from helpful to harmful. You can view yourself as small or big, dumb or smart, unworthy or worthy, loser or winner. When you define yourself as small, dumb, unworthy, or a loser--even when you do so without awareness and are none of these--your attitudes, emotions, and actions move in accordance with this negative self-view. You can mentally negate years of love or work with a single thought. You can look at a twenty-year marriage and see only what is missing. You can look at a career of overcoming challenges and contributing to others and think, "So what?" Of course, the goodness in your marriage isn't actually lost and your career accomplishments don't actually vanish. But when you feel small, it is as though what you do counts for nothing.The vast array of ways we define ourselves without knowing we're doing so is astounding. A fleeting first impression, when acted upon, sets in motion one course of events and excludes a universe of possible others. A doubt, once you run with it, can dictate your actions and moods. You might take a moment and recall a time when you lost an opportunity, a cherished connection, financial wealth, or happiness because you were behaving in accord with a negative self-image. Simply because of a definition.You've probably seen this happen to loved ones. At times, they may have chosen to quit, even when you knew they could have kept going and succeeded. At other times, they may have chosen to believe in themselves, perhaps with your help, and kept going instead.The irony is that every time you undermine yourself with a negative or inaccurate self-image, you provide evidence of your extraordinarypower. You possess an innate ability to make a convincing case for your worth, or the lack of it. You can foster your dreams as well as neglect them. You can act from self-confidence or be overtaken by worry or guilt. Most important of all, you have the ability to forget who chose one self-image over another.How Self-deception WorksHow can you deceive yourself? It seems a contradiction in terms. One analogy for how self-deception works, offered by philosophy scholar Herbert Fingarette, is to that of falling asleep. Each night you go to bed and eventually sleep overtakes you. When you awaken, you may recall what your last thoughts were prior to falling asleep, or remember your first dream of the night, but it is impossible to remember the exact moment you fell asleep. In this shift from awake to asleep, even though you are the one doing it, sleep descends upon you.Self-deception is similar. Just as we are unaware of what is happening at the moment of falling asleep, we are unaware of the moment we enter into self-deception. Denial, like falling asleep, is experienced as happening to you. If you're aware of falling asleep, you're not yet asleep. When you see your denial at work, you're no longer fully in denial.During sleep, magical events happen. You dream. Your attention is selective. You may stir at the sound of your infant crying, but pay no attention to city sirens or country crickets. Similarly, with self-deception, you see what you want and ignore what's in plain sight. Self-deception lives in a world of alternate realities based on "what-if" or "if-only" premises. Social psychology researchers call this phenomenon counterfactual thinking. It is, quite literally, thinking and perceiving contrary to the facts.Counterfactualizing has benefits, or we wouldn't do it. It can give feelings of mastery, explain mysterious or upsetting events, and soothe or console by allowing you to shift blame or justify your own or others' actions. But your alternate realities may also drop roadblocks in your path.When I began researching this book and told others that I was investigating how and why people subtly mislead themselves and unwittingly sabotage their dreams and plans, the most common response I received was, "Oh, I know someone like that." Self-sabotaging behavioris often easier to see in others than in ourselves. When we view others' self-sabotage or lack of self-awareness, we often rubberneck as if passing a car wreck. It's distressing to see but fascinating to watch. We can't believe what they're doing. We're glad it's not us. We'd shudder to think of ourselves as similarly clueless, inept, or self-destructive. We wonder why they can't see it. We may try to warn them but it often seems as if they can't or won't listen.For example, perhaps you've noticed friends, family, neighbors, or coworkers who:· Repeatedly enter into inappropriate romantic relationships, each time vowing that this one will be different· Spend more time fantasizing about improbable financial windfalls, like winning the lottery, than working· Overbook and overpromise so often that you no longer trust what they say· Work hard to lose twenty pounds through various diets, then quickly regain the lost weight and then some· Dwell on regrets or resentments and can't seem to move on· Endlessly take care of others' needs ahead of their own but, in a candid moment, tell you how unappreciated they feel· Procrastinate by submitting a job application late after hours of hard work, only to find the job filled· Make major decisions without considering the consequences· Automatically shun advice or a helping hand· Ignore a romantic partner's mistreatment, or stay in an unhealthy relationship even after deciding to leave· Overspend wildly, but get a steady stream of new credit card applications· Yearn to have children, but choose potential mates who clearly signal they aren't interested in being a parentEverybody Keeps SecretsSelf-sabotaging denial is universal even among the famous and powerful. Two presidents faced impeachment after sabotaging themselves. Richard Nixon tried to cover up Watergate. Bill Clinton tried to cover up the Monica Lewinsky affair. Despite each man's strengths and accomplishments, their presidencies descended into embarrassment not only because they tried to keep secrets from the public, but because they kept secrets from themselves.Nixon audiotaped the Oval Office, then proceeded to repeatedly break the law and incriminate himself with the tapes running. What was he thinking? In wanting a record for posterity, he tied his own noose. Call it denial, a tragic flaw, or karma, Nixon engineered his march to the brink of impeachment and subsequent resignation.Clinton had an affair, but steadfastly denied it to a grand jury, friends, and the public. Then he admitted it. How could a man so intelligent use such poor judgment in his personal behavior, lie about it, then fail to take into account the damage that would ensue when his lie was exposed?Both Nixon and Clinton were in denial. Despite the immense power and responsibility of the office, the men who have been president and the women and men who will be president are just like you and me. They mislead, distract, and undermine themselves.What drives this phenomenon that has brought down presidents, kings, and the rich and powerful? Self-defeating denial has the power to hurt you and those you love in ways large and small. Most of us put a premium on not hurting others. Yet we hurt ourselves with a vast array of self-defeating behaviors.One reason it can be difficult always to act in your best interests is that behavior occurs along a continuum of awareness. At one end, you have little or no awareness of your actions or their negative consequences until afterward. At the opposite end, you know full well that what you're doing isn't in your best interests, but you do it anyway. In between, your awareness may be diffuse, for example an inkling or vague concern. It may be fleeting--a mental warning that passes quickly. You may know what to do but can't summon the motivation to act. Or you have competing motivations and can't choose.The following table illustrates this continuum.No matter where you find yourself on the continuum of awareness, denial plays a role. When you have no clue that you're getting in your way, your denial is total. You have little chance of avoiding unnecessary losses and no choice about the outcome. At best, you get lucky. Yet even when it seems as though you see the complete picture, something may be overlooked. Denial clouds your ability to see what you are doing, why you're doing it, and the negative consequences. As with the moment of falling asleep, something goes unwitnessed. It may be something you're distracting yourself from, pretending about, or bringing selective inattention to. Perhaps you lack a full recognition of the risks. Perhaps you silently abandon your values.Counterproductive efforts to sidestep loss:1. Tend to be reactive rather than chosen2. Are more likely to arise when you don't see all your optionsThe remedy for both is greater self-awareness.Self-deception Takes Many FormsOur secrets can be difficult to spot because they take so many forms. One of the most subtle ways of undermining ourselves is what social scientists sometimes term "self-handicapping."Steven, now a distinguished and able engineer, nearly failed his licensing exam. He initially answered the multiple-choice test on scrap paper rather than on the exam sheet. He finished with a half hour to spare and began reviewing his answers, after which he intended to transfer the answers to the official scanner-ready sheet. The next thing he knew, the exam proctor announced, "Time is up, pencils down." Steven stared in shock at his empty answer sheet alongside his answers on scrap paper.A sympathetic proctor allowed him to fill in the answer sheet under the proctor's scrutiny, and an appeal to the licensing board eventually allowed his score, which was significantly higher than average, to count.
During the test, Steven felt that he was acting with good intentions. He wanted to be as certain of his answers as possible and hand in a pristine answer sheet without erasures or smudges. Afterward, his near-miss shook him. "I still don't know what I was thinking. If I were going to be all psychological about it, I suspect that my trial-run answer sheet might have to do with being nervous about making a final commitment to each answer," Steven says.Why would Steven fear commitments? One possibility is that he feared the blow to his self-esteem that a failure would trigger. Another possibility is that self-handicapping like Steven's can be an indirect way of protesting against authority when we feel we cannot directly or openly say no. In addition, self-handicapping covertly carries the potential to turn daunting situations into no-lose enterprises. If you put obstacles in your way and still triumph, your victory is all that much greater. Should you fail, you have ready-made explanations to excuse or mitigate your loss.There's nothing sinister or premeditated in self-handicapping. It happens when you haven't yet brought sufficient awareness to recognize and understand your counterproductive patterns.Judy, a smart and competent attorney, nearly missed her shot at law school because she forgot to accept an offer of admission by the deadline. She was in her senior year of college and routinely met deadlines for her term papers and tests. She even submitted her law school financial aid package paperwork on time. But at 8 P.M. on May 15 she realized that she'd missed the law school's May 15 deadline for accepting admission offers. Only after a breakneck trip to a large city post of fice 100 miles away was Judy able to get her acceptance form postmarked before midnight to secure her admission to law school.
Sometimes self-handicapping like Judy's is an attempt to resolve the dissonance between promising circumstances and a poor self-image.Judy grew up doubting her worth and abilities. In high school she wasn't part of the "in crowd" and didn't feel particularly attractive. Although Judy ranked twenty-third in a class of 350, in her way of thinking she was undeserving of being in the same league with the very top students. Yet here she was applyin...
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