Sally and John have already ‘broken up’ and have been on a ‘break’ several times. Most interactions between the two are negative, leading to crying, yelling, blame, and feelings of guilt. The relationship between Sally and John has leaked into all aspects of both of their lives; they have isolated friends and family, abandoned hobbies and commitments, and appear distracted and unproductive. Sally and John are angry or depressed as a direct result of this relationship. To the pair’s friends, families, and any outside observer, this relationship is unhealthy.
What would you tell either of the two hypothetical parties in this situation?
Of course, you would tell them to end the relationship. It’s clearly not working and creating more negative output than positive. It’s obvious to everyone else that Sally and John need to break up for good, so why don’t they?
You might say that they are weak, naive, or just misguided. It would be easiest to brush it off as such, but let’s be honest with ourselves. I’m Sally or John, and so are you.
Maybe it’s not a relationship. Maybe you hate your job. You’re overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. You express your disdain to your best friend who advises, “Maybe you should start looking for another job.” Then you backpedal and rationalize: “Well, it’s actually not that bad. I need the money. It’s not going to be better anywhere else.”
Suddenly, it’s 2 years later and you’ve rationalized yourself into oblivion over that toxic workplace or relationship. You’re still unhappy, and your friends are sick of hearing you complain like a broken record.
There are inherent flaws in the first-person perspective that lead us to create our own problems. If you’re standing in a hedge maze, the walls are right in front of you, not the exit. You don’t have the aerial view to show that you’re circling.
It’s not exactly our fault that we get tunnel vision when it comes to our own lives. We’re subject to too many cognitive biases.
Fortunately, there are ways to counteract our self-deceptive biases and ultimately make healthier decisions. The first key is awareness.
Self-deceit in itself is not the problem. It’s essentially a defense mechanism – a survival instinct intended to keep us from hurling ourselves off of a cliff every time something bad happens to us. This comes in handy when, for example, you become paraplegic in an accident. As expected, your happiness after the event drops sharply. But over time, your psychological immune system brings you progressively closer to your neutral, pre-accident level of happiness.
When your brain’s emotional immune system kicks in to help you cope with an event outside of your control, it can keep you afloat in the wake of tragedy. The problem arises when your brain starts rationalizing negative life situations that are within your control. It can make you a victim of Stockholm Syndrome with unhealthy relationships and habits.
The second key to overcoming the self-deception that keeps us stuck in bad situations is to bypass ourselves when confronted with a decision (or lack thereof).
Write out, speak, or imagine a scenario using the objective facts of the situation in question. In Sally’s case, she might write about her experience in the third-person perspective, or even using a friend’s name. If Sally’s best friend is Lisa:
“Lisa was dating a boy for a year. They spent almost every day together. Despite this, things are different now. The couple has broken up and gotten back together twice. Lisa says that she still loves the boy, and that he still loves her. They argue a lot. People have told Lisa that they don’t want to hang out with her and the boy anymore because it ruins everyone’s fun. Lisa says that she likes being with him when things are good, but more of their time is spent arguing than enjoying each other’s company.”
Anyone reading this story about a friend would tell her that the relationship has run its course and that it should end. If we would tell somebody for whom we care that a situation is negative and that they need to get out, why should we tell ourselves anything different?
The most paradoxical and important relationship in your life is with yourself. You can cut other negative influencers out of your life, but what good does that do if you’re your own worst enemy?
Be a friend to yourself by laying out your situation objectively and offering advice unaffected by the emotional weight. Look at people in your life who have been through a similar experience. What did they do and are they better or worse off having done so? The key is to de-personalize in order to avoid the cognitive biases that crave the status quo.
Even if you make the “wrong” decision, your brain will rationalize it as part of your path anyway, so what’s the risk in trying?
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