Archive for Discipline

Why do we lie to ourselves?

Deceitful behaviour is common in both humans and other animals. The temptation is apparent. I could write an article detailing the drawbacks of such dishonesty, but instead I wish to focus on a more specific issue: why do we lie to ourselves?

Although most people do this on a regular basis, the behaviour is quite insane. Whereas lying to others is selfish, lying to ourselves is plain stupid. How is it even possible to fool ourselves? How can we be both the deceiver and the deceived?

We may not initially recognize how much we do lie to ourselves. It is an easy thing to deny because there is no solid evidence that we do so. We do not utter the lie aloud, and no-one is there to hold us accountable. Thus, it is easy to pretend that it never happened (thereby lying to ourselves yet again).

The reason that we lie is to stop ourselves being hurt, usually to protect our self-esteem. There are thoughts that we find unacceptable, and thus we simply refuse to think them. We hope that soon the reality will change and that the lie will be inconsequential. For example, we may deny that we are depressed, hoping that soon the depression will go away. Our reasoning is that if it does go away then our lie will no longer matter, and we will have avoided dealing with a painful reality. However, it is never a good idea to sacrifice our integrity, and it is never a good idea to lose touch with truth. Just as lying to others will lose their trust, so does lying to ourselves compromise our own trust. We lose the ability to understand ourselves clearly and to be sure about what is true and what is not. The result is the insanity that currently pervades society.

In an effort to stop lying, it is worth asking ourselves what thoughts we find so unacceptable, and why. This tells us what issues we must work on to cease this harmful habit. We should also make sure that we talk to people who will tell us the truth, instead of those whom we know will support or believe our lies. Other people are valuable for telling us the truth about ourselves. Their view is warped through a lack of information, but our own view is warped through self-deception. We can assume that the reality lies somewhere in between.

At the end of the day, regardless of why we lie to ourselves, we must stop. Although understanding the reasons for our self-deception is helpful, we can still break this habit through sheer willpower alone. When we find ourselves blaming others for our own problems, or talking about ourselves in an effort to sway their opinion of us, we can be sure that self-deception is taking place. This is our cue to stop. In the words of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”

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The benefits of focusing

On first consideration, it might seem that intently focusing on an activity would be an exhausting or stressful experience. However, research using indicators such as skin conductance and peripheral temperature has shown that engaging in focused activity actually induces relaxation. A popular example used to illustrate this is crossword puzzles, but the same results have been shown for more serious activities such as solving difficult mathematics problems.

Although it may seem that focusing harder would use up more energy, this is not actually true. When we focus on something, our mental activity is reduced. We are not wasting energy thinking about tonight’s dinner, replaying an argument with our spouse, or cursing how busy we are. As a result, focused activity is an energizing and refreshing experience.

As an example, the principle behind most forms of meditation is that the mind focuses on a single object such as a mantra or the breath. By paying attention to this, and not being carried away by the usual hive of mental activity, the mind becomes very still. We would likely have a very different experience if we were a passenger in a long car journey. Here, in the absence of anything to focus on, the mind tends to wander all over the place. Thus by the end of the day we feel exhausted, despite having done nothing.

Ideally, we would spend most of our day in a state of focused activity. However, some jobs by their very nature involve multi-tasking, which may seem to preclude this opportunity. Yet even in these situations, we can make sure that we keep our minds calm and attentive to the tasks at hand, avoiding unnecessary thoughts such as what so-and-so thinks about us, or what is on TV later tonight. We can also be disciplined about avoiding common distractions, such as constantly checking e-mail or browsing the web.

Naturally, the more we enjoy something, the easier it is to focus on it. But the reverse is also true. Focusing on an activity increases our enjoyment of it, and at the end of the day we feel much happier and more fulfilled. Therefore, it is worth cultivating the ability to concentrate. The benefits are not just limited to an increase in productivity.

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