Gentle Art Of Self-deception

( Originally Published 1950 )

YOUR ALIBIS WILL make a negative and even a neurotic or psychotic personality out of you if you don't watch out. Man's capacity for fooling himself is almost limitless. His negative refusal to face facts squarely prompts the myriad excuses and alibis we all resort to from time to time, and if they become habitual, we are lost in a mist of self-deceit.

There are two classes of alibis. One is honest and legitimate. The other is dishonest and born out of unreality. If you sprain your wrist and offer that as an alibi for not bowling against the champion of the club, you are using an honest alibi. But if after the wrist is healed you still claim lameness as an excuse for avoiding a possible defeat or because you don't want to bowl for other reasons, your alibi is illegitimate.

The artful dodge, "I have papers to study and can't go to the movies tonight," rather than the flat statement, "You and the movies bore me stiff," may be the most tactful deceit and permissible perhaps if you know why you are escaping. But many negative persons have made the smooth alibi a habit to the point where it achieves aspects of reality and validity in their own minds.

I know a negative-minded, maladjusted man who has literally made a career of self-deception. He is an unhappy individual. His only intimates, with perhaps one or two exceptions, are those who feed on the crumbs that fall from his financial table. He has, however, kidded himself that the group that swarms around him is drawn to him by his personal charm. He has imposed on many of them and rationalized his acts. He might have had a brilliant career except for his genius at self-deception. He inherited a fortune and a distinguished business. His financial status permitted him to simply pretend he managed the business and allowed him to alibi out of his consistent failures. The fortune is protected in trusts, so he couldn't lose that, but his business has faded to a shadow while he pretended to be its successful chief executive. He has convinced himself and some others that the business failure was completely the fault of his associates. His alibi? His management would have been perfect were it not for the fact he was so busy ( golfing and talking endlessly) he had to depend too much on others. His associates and competitors all know he was primarily to blame, but he doesn't even suspect that because he is a past master in the gentle, negative, comforting art of self-deception.

Alibis and excuses are the pills we use to deaden and conceal the pain of our shortcomings, failures, and frustrations. It behooves us not to become too adept at rationalizing. To paraphrase J. P. Morgan, a man has two reasons for doing or failing to do a thing: one that sounds good, and a real one.

Let's examine at random a few of our more or less. stock false excuses:

ALIBI: The light was green when I started to cross the intersection.

TRUTH: It was switching. You were in a hurry and took a chance.

ALIBI: You have to have pull in our office, and so I didn't get the promotion.

TRUTH: You're not so "hot" on your present job and ignore the fact that most men and women workers get ahead without pull.

ALIBI: I don't read many good books. I'd like to, but I haven't time.

TRUTH: You find good books dull and greatly prefer "whodunits" and radio and television.

ALIBI: It was an unusual distribution of cards that set us three tricks.

TRUTH: It was an obvious mistake on your part to bid five spades without proper support.

ALIBI: I didn't know that the shotgun was loaded.

TRUTH: You were careless and at fault but won't admit it even to yourself.

ALIBI: It will protect the family interests if I make a soft job for my dull in-law in my business.

TRUTH: He can't carry his own weight, but the in-laws have nagged you into it. Besides you know you can overpay him at the expense of stockholders and the government and get him off your personal dole list.

ALIBI: Men are all heels, and I'm too intelligent and discriminating to kid them along and pet as other girls do, just to be popular.

TRUTH: You are self-centered, shy, afraid of men, and deeply jealous of popular girls.

ALIBI: I won't go to church Sunday because I had an overdose as a child, the minister annoys me, they're always asking for money, and too many hypocrites attend.

TRUTH: You can't be bothered, you're lazy and intend to sleep Sunday morning, and also you feel uncomfortable in church surroundings.

ALIBI: All my husband thinks about is sex, and I'm above that sort of thing. I'm a good mother, good cook, and a good housekeeper. What more is he entitled to?

TRUTH: You want your home primarily for yourself and your children and your own comfort. You are a poor wife and a swindler to expect your husband to be just a checkbook.

ALIBI: I hoist drinks because I have to for business reasons.

TRUTH: You love liquor.

ALIBI: The light got in my eyes, or I'd have knocked out a home run.

TRUTH: You missed by a mile because you aren't very good at it.

ALIBI: Well you see, boss, Frank rushed me for other reports, and I didn't have time to. . • •

TRUTH: You forgot, you lug!

ALIBI: The bookkeeper gave me the wrong figures, so I couldn't help it that my estimate was incorrect.

TRUTH: You didn't bother to check the figures and didn't even sense the errors involved.

ALIBI: I'd have been on the boat, but the train was late.

TRUTH: You missed the boat because you didn't start in time.

ALIBI: I really must do something about my figure, but I starve and starve, and besides I have to eat to have strength for my work. It must be my glands.

TRUTH: Aw, you eat too much! You are a food drunkard and want to be fat more than you want to be slim.

ALIBI: I'd really like to save some money, but my barest needs take every penny.

TRUTH: You want to have money but refuse to save it.

ALIBI: I haven't the time for the many things I want to do.

TRUTH: You have twenty-four hours every day.

ALIBI: My book is the best in its field, fine reviews, would have been a best seller if the publishers had promoted it properly.

TRUTH: The book wasn't very good. It had ample initial promotion and would have had more if the book had merited the expenditure.

ALIBI: Write down some of your own pet excuses and those of folk you know.

TRUTH: Examine those alibis realistically, and expose. the sneaky little evaders for what they are.

Many men and women put in more time and good thought in order to make an alibi than it would take them to make good. Alibi Ike and Alibi Kate are negative souls and fool some folk sometimes but more frequently fool only themselves.

The art of the alibi may be carried to a point where an individual is on the border line of neuroticism and moving toward a psychotic state. We can deceive ourselves by failing to realize that the mental images we. have of ourselves may be radically different from what others see.

The psychiatrists tell us the neurotic is completely unaware that he is building up a fictitious image of himself. The facts may be perfectly obvious to any observant lay person, but the neurotic in no way challenges the validity of the mental picture he has of himself. He doesn't realize he has fooled himself into a static worship of a false, clay image of self-esteem, which he has erected as a mental substitute for genuine self-confidence and genuine accomplishment.

These neurotic mental gymnastics of unreality were seen by Freud as the ego ideal, narcissism, and superego; by Adler as a striving for superiority; and by Homey as the idealized image that is often the only part of the patient that is real to him. "It may be," according to Dr. Karen Homey, "the only element that provides him with a kind of self-esteem and that keeps him from drowning in self-contempt."

It may well be clear that without being candidates for professional treatment we fool ourselves with alibis and rationalizations and try to fool others with false masks. We are reluctant to believe that others see us in personality pieces rather than in the complete image. One point of personality disfigurement may mar all the rest of the picture as it appears to others.

The Noble You as you see yourself and hope you appear to others might be roughly word-pictured thus:










Distinguished in appearance



Well! Downright noble, all in all, even great enough to admit faults such as being:

Too sensitive

Too forgiving

Too generous

Too kind

Quite exemplary are those faults turned to the word camera.

But wait a moment! The eyes of others reveal that at times:

You are mean—even sadistic

You are prejudiced

You even want to kill

You envy

You would do bodily harm if you could get away with it

You belittle

You hate

You are easily angered

You are selfish

You do shameful things

You are unreasonable

You are narrow-minded

You are sensual

You are suspicious

You are tricky

You are sure you aren't ever that way? Oh, well, probably not you and not me, but the other fellow! The psychologists assure us that these are all or mostly all somewhat natural facets of personality and bad primarily according to the degree. We may all see these ignoble flaws in the picture—but very dimly. And so we touch up the bad spots with the use of elastic words that mean just what we want them to mean. So, by linguistic legerdemain:

You are:

But the other fellow is

Wisely persistent




Entitled to your dues



Tricky (if he questions Generous your fine motives)

Resourceful Selfish (if he wants what you prize)

A fool for luck

Thus we fool ourselves by distorting the images of those we hate or fear, just as in reverse we ascribe virtues to those we adore—including ourselves.

Some folk have a naïve faith in words, just words. They feel that there is a certain magic whereby words and phrases repeated often enough can change or substitute for reality. They fail to realize that vague and dishonest use of words indicates maladjustment, that a characteristic of the insane is that they are unable to express clearly what is the matter with them.

It is quite well known that there are some primitive peoples who simply cannot distinguish fact from fancy. It isn't so well known that there are many college graduates in your community and mine who today have that same primitive fuzziness of mind that lets fancy substitute for fact. They include the dilettantes, the four-flushers, the snobs, the pretenders indulging in a life game of "lees pretend."

The better adjusted and more intelligent and positive-minded a man is, the more accurate and precise is he in the use of words. The more you fool yourself and vainly attempt to delude others with the misuse of words, the more you hurt yourself and others and the more you reveal your negative inadequacies.

Let us examine a few more or less commonplace examples of false statements, which, oft repeated, assume the proportions of reality for persons who should know better:

"Isn't little Jennie a beautiful child—look at her now —just beautiful," exclaims the doting mother. She has used the phrases so often she believes them. You look and see a cross-eyed, stringy-haired, snub-nosed lass with buckteeth who by any generally accepted standards is downright commonplace in appearance, even homely. Only a mother, deceiving herself, could call the child beautiful to look upon. The mother is using words over and over again to try to change or conceal reality even from herself, and if she voices the beauty statements often enough, she may well come to believe that the words have changed the reality. She is hurting the child by delaying the fitting of glasses for the eyes and braces for the teeth.

"Johnny is brilliant—he's one of the smartest boys in town," says Pop, and Mom is quick to concur. In chorus they say, "Those teachers are dumb, or Johnny would get passing grades." They have said it so often they come to believe it, despite the fact that Johnny has a hard time trying to just hang on without being retarded a grade or two. Almost any public-school teacher can testify that their sharpest, loudest, and most persistent critics are the parents of the dumbest children in the class. The schools can't change Johnny's genetic inheritance and family background. And the parents, try as they may, can't change it with words. But the repeated words and phrases help them to believe what they want to believe, instead of taking positive steps to give Johnny the kind of training he really needs in some vocation.

"I value loyalty more highly than any other quality," says the business executive, time and time again. I shudder when I hear anyone use the word "loyalty" more than two or three times. I knew a business executive who was constantly using the word and the phrase above. That man was disloyal to his beautiful wife and to a lovely only child. He was disloyal to the brother who paid him the highest salary he had ever had, in addition to giving him valuable company stock. He robbed the brother of cash; he swindled the brother with side ventures dependent on the company; he gambled in the pit with company funds, but for his personal account. A few days before one Christmas he flatly ordered the discharge without notice of a loyal employee, the latter with several dependents. He was disloyal to friends and associates and to himself as well. He seemed to use this prating about loyalty as a smoke screen, and I am convinced that he truly believed in his conscious mind that he was a loyal and much misunderstood man.

"Greed is a vice, and the greedy ask for a little more and a little more until they lose all," is the oft-repeated preachment of the greediest individual I have ever known. He is an egocentric of the first water whose voracious greed for cash and limelight and attention constantly blackballs him and makes him the city's best known butt for quips and more or less tolerant laughs. He mesmerizes himself with words and apparently has convinced himself that he is the very soul of generosity.

"I'm tremendously independent, you see . . ." repeats an oververbalized young man nearing thirty who has yet to earn enough to support himself without subsidy. He quit job after job secured by father and friends in efforts to put him to useful work. He's "tremendously independent," you see!

We are all familiar with the self-deceiver with the grasshopper mind. He mistakes activity for positive progress, like a puppy chasing its own tail. He resembles the baseball pitcher who spits on his mitt, dusts his hand, toys with the ball, and is forever winding up but never really throws the ball.

You must easily recognize those oververbalized, frequently neurotic men and women of your own acquaintance. They talk yak-yak-yak-yak-yak-yak and obviously as well as audibly kid themselves that talk-talk-talk-talktalk-talk-talking about something is the equivalent of doing something about it.

The dilettante is an adept at oververbalizing. Writers, especially the unsuccessful and would-be variety, kid themselves by talking and talking and talking. The ineffectuals of your daily life are frequently the ones who talk too much, too rapidly, too avidly about things they know little about.

Some of these word drunkards fear silence as nature abhors a vacuum. Others undam a spate of words to build up their self-esteem and attempt to force approval of others. There are others who simply talk on and on in a verbal search for something they can be sure of and because they simply do not know what is relevant. They rarely actually see their problems, rarely solve any problem, but conceal and rationalize, effectively sealing off reality with a wall of words.

And so these negative personalities go through life defrauding themselves and others with a spurious coinage of words and deceiving themselves in these and many other ways. They are frustrated, frustrating ineffectuals. Their positive-minded friends, however, check and evaluate and face the realities and facts of life. The positive avoid the verbal mists and mazes, fogs and bogs. The positive march forward through sunshine and storms, while their negative comrades grope blindly in circles in the darkness.

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