Do I really know myself at all?
September 30, 2010 9:38 AM   Subscribe

How do you know if you are being honest with yourself? What's the difference between making excuses/rationalizing and being honest about the positive/negative of a situation?

Often times, answers to questions about life's great mysteries (or small ones) are "be honest with yourself."

Well, how do you know when you are being honest with yourself? How do you know if you are rationalizing or simply being rational?

How do you know if you are talking yourself into or out of something? Or if you are digging deeper, asking "what is the seed of this discontent/motivation/etc?" how do you know if you are truly finding the seed and not just blather?

This isn't about something specific, but many times I go to post a question to askme and after searching, realize that the only answer is going to be me "being honest with myself."

When/how can you tell the difference between telling yourself things to make yourself feel better (or worse) about decisions and whether those things are actually true? Are you just trying to insulate yourself from being hurt (work, relationship, anything) or are you just trying to take an easy way out or what?

Before anyone recommends the David Burns book, I have it. I am in therapy. I know about cognitive behavioral therapy. I think I'm looking for things/situations people have experienced that allowed to separate out those voices in our head and find the honest, confident one. I've gotten better at the exercises in the Feeling Good book over the last year or so, but now I'm at harder repeating thoughts, and it's more difficult when the "where's the evidence?" etc aren't convincing me.
posted by sio42 to Human Relations (28 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I know I'm being honest with myself if it makes me want to cringe.

Put another way, if it's something you would tell someone without hesitation, then it's probably not the true motivation.
posted by ErikaB at 9:41 AM on September 30, 2010

but aren't there times that being honest with yourself should feel good?
i can't believe that being honest with oneself should always be cringe-worthy.
posted by sio42 at 9:47 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Use the scientific method, homeslice.

Break your motivations down to the SMALLEST POSSIBLE LEVEL. Give weight to all external, confounding factors. Think about what you hope to achieve - now, ten minutes from now, in ten years.

This has helped me when making parenting choices... there are many things I've taken a stand on which, upon reflection, I really DO NOT CARE ABOUT (cursing? Eating nothing but yogurt and grapes?)... I just hadn't been sufficiently honest with myself regarding it.
posted by julthumbscrew at 9:51 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

It boils down to two words: Emotional honestly. The voices and internal arguments aren't really a good barometer for me-I have to go with my gut and feel my feelings.
posted by Nixy at 10:03 AM on September 30, 2010

I agree that being honest with yourself will not always make you feel bad. That implies that everything true about our thoughts, feelings, and motivations is negative, which I definitely don't believe.

I've struggled with this question as well and it's something I'm still working on. For me, I find that not focusing on the specific question so much, but trying instead to get "centered" and "grounded" inside myself, helps. This usually means getting more inside my body by doing things like yoga, meditative walks, meditation, free-association writing (doing this for three-pages every morning really helped), etc. Just doing these things once or twice might not do the trick; having a regular-ish practice is more likely to help.

When you say "yourself," who/what are you referring to, exactly? Your soul, or what others might call your heart, or the deepest part of yourself? Because a definition of "self" isn't clear or simple or the same for everyone, and because the You that is writing this question is also a part of Yourself, I don't believe this kind of thing can be analyzed or rationalized into clarity. That's why I suggest somatic (body) work. Learn to listen to what your body is saying to you. Does it feel calm? Fluttery? Nervous? Sick? Try to tap into your body sensations to get a better sense of if you're being honest or not. Maybe that will help...?
posted by tacoma1 at 10:06 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a wonderful therapist who gave me many excellent pieces of advice--one that seems appropriate here is, "Be an anthropologist in your life." What that means is try to step back and observe the facts of a situation. I have a habit of assuming I know what others are thinking/feeling or what the "real story" is in a situation. By sitting back and assessing the observable facts, I often get clarity.

So, when I'm making myself crazy about a relationship issue or work issue, I sit down and and make a list of what I know, not what I think. For example, I can get very paranoid about certain folks here at work because they have done duplicitous things. So I find myself getting paralyzed when working with them on a project because I'm trying to figure out what they really mean, or what the subtext is. When I get into that state, I stop myself and ask--What did she say she wanted me to do? What did I agree to? Then I do that thing, make sure the process is documented in some way, that I have done my best work and go on about my business.
posted by agatha_magatha at 10:06 AM on September 30, 2010 [14 favorites]

I don't always feel bad if I'm honest with myself. However, one of my tells, I think, is if I keep trying to rationalize something in my head, over and over, to resolve emotional tension or guilty feelings. Often, but no always, this is a clue that I might be wanting something to be true, rather than it actually being true. It requires a deeper analysis than this, but it's definitely given a lot of weight in the process.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:25 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, close friends and family can often give us insight where we have blind spots regarding our motives and feelings. Talking this through with trusted people can be very helpful; not only for that insight, but because by simply talking, we get more clarity.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:31 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I believe that an objective reality exists and that we exist to color that reality a particular way. Honesty is seeing exactly how you are coloring reality, this very moment.
posted by Dmenet at 10:42 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some of those repeating thoughts aren't real even though they feel so, so real.

Plus the thoughts might be true but the consquences aren't. For example, say you have a facial scar. You can't say it isn't there. But often we are overestimating the effect of the scar on others or our overall prospects.

Also, you aren't doing that book right unless you are doing charts and exercises every day or nearly every day.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:52 AM on September 30, 2010

One potential trick to try is the 5 Whys. It's used to uncover root causes, which I assume you mean by "the seed of this discontent/motivation/etc."

A made up example:

I'm overweight. Why?
I don't exercise enough. Why?
I don't have enough time. Why?
I do a lot for other people in my life. Why?
Other people need help more than I do. Why?
Because I am not as valuable as other people. <- Root cause with emotional truth to it.

From The Big Chill:

Michael: I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex.
Sam Weber: Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex.
Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?
posted by acheekymonkey at 11:07 AM on September 30, 2010 [22 favorites]

see, my problem is that i question that "root cause."

am i saying that because it's actually true? do i actually feel that way? is that really the cause?

no one can tell me if it is or isn't, not my therapist, not my lovely and understanding friends. so i have to figure out when i know it's true for me.

am i really struggling with self-doubt, or do i know what i think and feel but it's inconvenient right now?

i also overthink, obviously, but i'm trying to get answers out of myself. it's one thing to overcome my automatic thoughts of worthlessness, it's another when going around and around on big life decisions. even the flip a coin thing doesn't work for me (flip a coin and you'll know what you really want to do based on how you feel about the coin flip.)
posted by sio42 at 11:20 AM on September 30, 2010

This is an interesting and complicated question, which goes into all sorts of but how do we know we know what we know stuff, but let’s skip the philosophy for now and get down to instinct and emotion, because that’s the only practical way to answer something like this.

I think this mostly comes down to “does what you’re telling yourself you feel about this situation match up with how you’re actually acting in this situation?” Being honest with yourself usually means trying to view your own actions as an outsider would. Sometimes it helps to imagine what your bluntest friend or relative would say about how you’re acting in a given situation. We can think ourselves into all kinds of knots, tell ourselves all kinds of things, but if we can stop for a minute and ask, “what would I think of someone who acted this way,” then we can usually attain a clearer perspective on what’s motivating us. Like, I tell myself I care about my health, but yesterday I had chicken fingers for lunch and handful of mixed nuts and some chocolate truffles for dinner. This is not the path to becoming the female Jack LaLane, n’est-ce pas? If I really want to take better care of myself, I have to stop doing shit like that. And I think it’s the same with a lot of things. Like, you tell yourself you’re incredibly compatible and he’s such a great guy, but if there were several occasions last week when you could have called him up and instead you stayed home and watched TV…you know?

I don’t think there’s a perfect way to do this, to always know when you’re being honest and when you’re in denial. But there is often an instinctive recognition, just as when you realize you acted like an ass or that kid in fifth period totally had a crush on you.
posted by Diablevert at 11:22 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have found The Work of Byron Katie invaluable for exploring what's true.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:01 PM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

You know you are rationalizing when "other people" weigh heavily in the blame for whatever has happened to you in adulthood. If you track back in your mind and take responsibility for every step (good and bad), then you are probably being honest.
posted by marimeko at 12:05 PM on September 30, 2010

thank you everyone. these are good answers.

i'm not marking any as best yet, but i will come back and do so.

The Work of Byron Katie looks interesting. seems to deal a lot with the "should" statements Feeling Good talks about.

marimeko- i know you what you mean. i did that a lot when i was first in therapy. it's hard to find that balance between understanding that someone you should have trusted as a child really screwed your wiring but that you can move on from it.
posted by sio42 at 12:48 PM on September 30, 2010


Since we're trapped inside our own contexts, we can never know for sure if we're honest with ourselves. But there are tricks and techniques that can help:

-- keep a list of your emotional buttons. I recommend really writing them down, over a long period of time (keep a running list). Different hot-button subjects will occur to you at different times. For instance, I am emotional about school and education. That would go on my list. I don't think I'm irrational every time I talk about school, but I'm much more likely to be so then when I'm, say, talking about World War II (an emotional button for my dad). Knowing that, I'm on guard against myself when I talk about school. I know that I may have to work harder to be honest with myself.

-- notice when other people are lying to themselves. Most of us have an easier time seeing other-people's self-deception than our own. But we're not that different from each other. If your friend lies to himself about his parents, maybe that's something you do, too. So maybe make another list of generally scary or off-putting subjects.

-- really LEARN the list of cognitive biases. Don't just read over the list and forget about it. Memorize it. Come up with examples, real or fictional. Most of us think of cognitive biases as mistakes that other people make. Well, we're human just like "other people," so we make them, too. Good books on the subject include "Predictably Irrational" and "Stumbling on Happiness."

-- play devil's advocate to yourself. I do this daily. For instance, I'm an atheist. But what I found out that God exists? What would this mean for me intellectually, emotionally and socially (e.g. would I have trouble admitting to my friends that I've been wrong all this time?) Make a list of your most confident assertions and question every one of them. And do this often. Don't do it once, conclude that "Yup, God exists!" And then never question again.

Note that I am an atheist, not an agnostic. I am confident that God doesn't exist. However, I DO question that confidence at least once a week. Do the same for your politics, your aesthetics, your relationships, etc.

-- read as much philosophy and science as you can. These are fields that are about rigor.

-- read history. Most things have happened before. You start to see trends.

-- find an "editor." Writers need editors, even to correct simple typos. It's hard to see your own mistakes. Find someone you trust and ask him to gently point them out to you.

my problem is that i question that "root cause."

Everything we believe is based on axioms, which is another word for unprovable assumptions or articles of faith. This tends to be particularly hard for rational types (atheists, skeptics, etc.) to swallow, but it's true. It's NOT turtles all the way down. Somewhere at the bottom is a question mark. What came before the Big Bang? (If "before" even makes any sense in that context.)

Why was I born? Because my parents conceived me? Why were they born? Because they were conceived by their parents, etc. Where did the first person come from? People evolved from "simpler" creatures. Where did the first creature come from? Life probably arose via a chemical/electrical process... At some point you're going to get to a "I don't know" or "because it just DID" point. That's just the way it is. But that has nothing to do with being honest with oneself, unless you pretend you do know when you don't know.

Here's another befuddling question: does causality exist? We say that cigarettes "cause" cancer. What does that mean? We know that many, many people who smoke get cancer. And we can drill down lower than that. We know, for instance, that cigarettes contain carcinogens. And we know that when carcinogens are in the body, certain (bad) things happen. So that means there's a CORRELATION between carcinogens and bodily changes. But causation? It's seems to be a ghost in the machine.

I take causation as an axiom, as an article of faith. What is it really? I don't know. Why do I assume it exists when I can't prove it or even say exactly what it is? Because doing do is very, very useful. But I admit it's an axiom.
posted by grumblebee at 12:53 PM on September 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

For me, a good barometer as to how I honestly feel about something, is
1)I focus on physical sensations more than mental thoughts, but use both. When I think of someone, some place, some thing, some event, what physical sensation (usually in the chest or extremeties) arises. Mind you, they can feel sometimes similar (a good feeling, excitement can be confused with bad feeling, anxiety), so it can take some practice, but it allows me to differentiate more often than not how I honestly feel about something.

2)Just as important is to not be too logical. On some level we all have our points of view that our logical selves don't necessarily agree with. On some things I am a child, and couching things in rationale is lying to myself. When I am thinking "I feel x way about so and so, but it's not a right or politically correct way to think" I will start lying to myself to reconcile the childish or immature way of thinking with my logical self.

3)Fear. I have 4 basic fears: Fear of what I might lose, fear of what I might not get, fear of what your opinion is of me, and fear of what you would think of me if you only knew what I was thinking.

I try not to make decisions based upon those fears.
posted by Debaser626 at 12:53 PM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

-- RESPECT emotions without using them as pointers to truth claims about the world. I don't know how this happened, but we've developed this really ugly, really dangerous dichotomy about emotions: what we feel is TRUE vs. what we feel is "just a feeling."

Feelings are TERRIBLE indicators of facts about the external world. If you FEEL like a friend hates you (but can't say why you get that feeling), maybe you're right and maybe you're wrong. Without other evidence, who knows.

But there's nothing "just" about feelings. Feelings are AMAZING indicators of your internal state. And, as humans, our internal states are deeply important to us. So our feelings are -- and should be -- very important to us.

So learn to say, "It's a feeling, and I don't know if it's connected to reality 'out there,' but it's not unimportant: it's not 'just' a feeling."
posted by grumblebee at 12:57 PM on September 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

Debaser626 - thank you for sharing your 4 fears. off the cuff, i would say i share those same basic 4 fears.

grumblebee - thank you for that. i like your idea of listing emotional hot button issues. that is a very good idea. might help sort out when i'm acting based on emotions.

i'm going to have to print this out before i leave work so i spend some time parsing wisdom of mefites :) i'm just glad to know i'm not off my rocker (too much!).
posted by sio42 at 1:13 PM on September 30, 2010

I find it helpful to write it out and then putting yourself in a skeptical reader's shoes. It's too easy when you're just thinking to turn away from certain thoughts and questions, but when the lie is right there in black and white it's harder to ignore. (This is why writing out the Feeling Good exercises works so much better, at least for me, than trying to do them in my head.)

It's also helpful to bounce thoughts off another person.

Be wary of going too far in the other direction, though. It's easy to imagine ulterior motives for any true belief we have as well.

I know I'm being honest with myself if it makes me want to cringe.

I don't agree with this. Various dishonest thoughts make me want to cringe. ("I'm not good enough. Everybody hates me. I'm really an awful human being.")
posted by callmejay at 1:17 PM on September 30, 2010

In pretty much any scenario it is difficult to tease out any single overarching reason “why” we want this or that, or how we really feel about it once we have it, because there are upsides and downsides to just about everything, and our motives and feelings about any life situation are almost always mixed anyway.

At some point after you’ve weighed your options, analyzed your motivations and still aren’t quite sure what to do, you have to just make a leap of faith and do what seems best even if you are not sure. Ask yourself “what’s the worst that’s likely to happen?” If the answer is “this departmental transfer I’m considering will have me working under someone who is known to be a credit-stealing backstabbing sociopath ” or “this man might hit me and cheat on me just like he did to his last wife” then that’s a pretty clear sign you need to take one of the other options, whether it’s what your heart thinks it wants or not.

If the worst that’s likely to happen is “this new relationship/job I’m considering might not work out and I’ll regret having left my current boyfriend/job” then that’s one of those leap of faith choices. Just pick an option and realize that you’ll be pretty much ok no matter what happens. Good and bad experiences will be had, regrets will be lived with, consequences will be handled, new and different choices and perhaps better opportunities will present themselves down the line.

Sometimes there is a fairly obvious wrong choice--dating a married person, getting involved with someone you know to be abusive/crazy/dishonest, marrying a person who adamantly doesn’t want kids when all you’ve ever dreamed about is being a parent, going to medical school for your parents’ sake when you know that what you really want to do is be a forest ranger--but in those cases, it’s generally not that difficult to figure out what you really want, or really should do. (You can certainly make it difficult, by convincing yourself that your special snowflake details have magically changed an obvious bad choice into a dilemma, but that right there is often a warning sign in and of itself.)

But when faced with a choice of situations that seem pretty much equally ok, or equally blah, then it really doesn’t matter all that much what you choose, to be honest. Just pick an option and roll with whatever changes result.

Also, you might find the concept of maximizers vs. satisficers to be relevant to your question.

p.s. I over-analyze and agonize a lot over decisions too, which is why I've thought about the above quite a bit. It's not like I've got my shit together or anything. In case I happen to sound like I think I do or something.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:14 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have to echo others on the being more in touch with your embodiedness thing. Also, know your own tricks. I tend to over intellectualize, so I know that if I'm running around in my hand about something, I have to calm down and just deal with my 'irrational' emotions.

Someone told me once that when you tell the truth you light up. I know it sounds hokey, but I think there is a truth to it. When I am honest I feel lighter in a sense. Dishonesty with myself feels like drowning. I know it's ambiguous and hard to communicate these types of self-perceptions, but thought I'd add my two cents.
posted by abirdinthehand at 3:14 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

abirdinhand - i totally get what you are saying. it DOES feel lighter, even if it's a hard decision or a realizing a bad truth. but being down on myself for no reason does feel like drowning.

i'll have to remember this as i try to sort thru things.

Serene Empress Dork - i can totally relate to the maximizers. i will often end up not buying something (book, dinner, pants) because i can't be sure that's it absolutely totally perfect. i've gotten better at just walking away rather than letting myself stew tho. but i still do it about stuff and it's probably my problem with trying to figure out what my "truth" is - i'm trying to see it from all possible sides and i just have to pick one.
posted by sio42 at 3:25 PM on September 30, 2010

Here's why I said what I did. You're not asking for how to identify any root cause, just the ones which are likely to engender rationalizations.

Why do we create rationalizations? Because we don't want to admit - to ourselves, or to others - the real cause.

If you're trying to winnow through your own rationalizations, then clearly you're in a situation where you're rationalizing things to yourself. And when that is the case, the ultimate underlying truth is never something like, "Because I'm so selfless" or "Because I love him so much."

I'm not saying that's a bad thing. I make no value judgment. This is all part of what makes us human - good and bad.

It may feel good to finally admit something to yourself. Keeping up the rationalizations involves a huge amount of effort. It can feel great to set down that burden and finally face the truth.

But the truth itself, when you hit it, will be cringe-worthy at the very least. I gua-ron-tee.
posted by ErikaB at 5:04 PM on September 30, 2010

You know you are rationalizing when "other people" weigh heavily in the blame for whatever has happened to you in adulthood.

Yeah, one thing that occurs to me about my own patterns is that I know I am hiding something from myself usually when I am blaming someone else for my own misery. This is not to say that, sometimes, other people need to be held accountable for their actions, and it's also not to say that sometimes others can cause us a lot of suffering (although in my life, so far, this hasn't been true). I just know that, often, if I am particularly angry at someone in my life and haven't been able to shake it—this especially is a flag, if I'm ruminating about this person and a particular interaction endlessly—often there is something I'm not acknowledging about my own behavior or way of thinking.

For me, when I can acknowledge what the truth is, which more often than not involves admitting I was at least in part to blame for a situation, then I have that feeling of lightness. This is enough for me to feel like I've reached "the truth." It's an emotional truth, at the very least.
posted by dubitable at 6:51 PM on September 30, 2010

To me, the real issue here stems from you having severe self-esteem issues. You are in a mobius strip of not being able to trust your judgment because you do not appear to be able to take yourself seriously. As a result, you second guess yourself, and your "gut" or your "instinct" has never developed. You KNOW when you are lying to yourself. You know. If you are finding yourself constantly questioning your motives, perhaps the best thing is to abstain from the thing that is causing you to constantly question yourself until some such time when you can really assess it all scientifically.

Has your therapist done any exercises with you to train your brain into developing a stronger "gut feeling"?

What happens when you just GO with a "root cause" and stick with it?
posted by patronuscharms at 8:14 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another trick is to pretend that instead of looking at your own issues, that you are talking to your identical twin or friend with the same issues. What would you say to them? It helps to imagine them in front of you. It helps to close your eyes too.

Often we are quite rational or honest with others but not with ourselves.

A made up example:

Imagine you were kicking yourself for doing poorly in school and you suspect you might not be rational about it. If your twin was in that situation what would you say to them? Maybe you would be less judgmental:

I see that you didn't do that well on the exam. I know you studied, I saw you. You're not stupid because you have made it this far. Perhaps you had a bad day? I wouldn't quit just yet. Maybe get some extra help from a tutor?

Or you might be more judgmental and give them a wake up call, etc. The trick is to pretend that it is someone else, still knowing all the facts of the situation (from your perspective.)
posted by acheekymonkey at 9:19 AM on October 1, 2010

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