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A psychologist explains why we’re probably all delusional and how to fix it

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Reflecting more doesn’t make us more self-aware

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Photo: Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Every once in a while, a friend attends therapy for the first time and starts breathlessly reporting all the revelations she’s learned. In many of these circumstances, it’s all I can do to stop myself from yelling that I, or any of her other friends, could just as easily have told her these same “discoveries.”

But I shouldn’t throw stones. When I announced that I finally realized I wanted to report on science, my best friend rolled her eyes at this obvious (to her) fact.

Almost nobody is self-aware, says psychologist Tasha Eurich in her new book Insight. So many of us are obsessed with “knowing ourselves” and spend hours contemplating who we are and how we appear to others. But few truly know either our own desires and goals (what she calls “internal self-awareness”) or how others see us (or “external self-awareness.”) The Verge spoke to Eurich about myths about self-awareness, how we can fix our delusion, and whether we even want to know the truth.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo: Elena Seibert

Is it always better to know? You’ve said that, even though it might be somewhat painful, being self-aware is ultimately helpful. But why is that true? I feel like there’s been a body of literature on how a bit of positive delusion can get us through life more easily.

What I found in my research is that when we are self-aware, we’re happier, we make better decisions at work and at home, we raise more mature children, the list goes on. Leaders who are more self-aware even lead more profitable companies.

There is a body for research from the 1980s that said little bit of self-delusion is a good thing. The unfortunate reality is that in the 1990s and onward, most of that research was sort of exposed as being not very empirically true. Not to say they were being intentionally misleading, but there is work showing that if people have rose-colored glasses, they might feel good in some sense, but they also tend to be less happy, less successful and, equally importantly, the people around them tend to view them pretty negatively, which has bad effects.

Why are they more unhappy? Is it because they realize on some level that they’re deluding themselves?

They’re not necessarily more unhappy because they secretly know the truth. Here’s an example: somebody is super deluded about their singing ability. They’re a pre-med student and going to quit their pre-med program to audition for The Voice, but they don’t make it past the first round. They feel horrible. They’ve changed the course of their life for this and it wasn’t a good choice.

It’s a silly example, but when we don’t have a clear understanding of who we are, we tend to make choices that aren’t in our best interest. We go for things that we’re not going to succeed at, or a path that we’re not suited for. When we’re delusional about ourselves, we frustrate and alienate the people around us too.

I have a question about language. If someone thinks they’re good at something when they’re not, we say they’re “not self-aware.” But if they’re deluded in the other direction and think they’re worse than they are, we don’t say they’re “not self-aware,” we say they’re “insecure.” Why the difference? Are the insecure people also not self-aware?

Just as being overly proud about what we bring to the table is bad, it’s bad to under-appreciate what our gifts are. I wouldn’t call either of those self-awareness.

Being self-aware doesn’t mean that we hate ourselves. People who see themselves clearly are more forgiving and they’re gentle and compassionate toward both themselves and others. People who are self-aware are higher in empathy and perspective-taking. It kind of does make sense because part of truly being self-aware is understanding how you come across to other people and the impact you have on them. And to be able to do that you kind of have to put yourself in their shoes.

One thing you emphasize is that the people who introspect the most aren’t any more self-aware than others. Why is this?

I found in my data that people who reported spending large amounts of time in self-reflection—everything from their thinking about their thoughts to their emotions to what they want out of life— were not only less self-aware, but were also less happy, more anxious, less satisfied with their lives and relationships. I was just floored.

It’s not that self-reflection is categorically ineffective, it’s just that so many of us fall into these hidden pitfalls. Probably the easiest way to explain this is to, as many psychologists do, blame Sigmund Freud. He was completely correct that there is an an unconscious self, with certain thoughts and feelings and emotions that we don’t have conscious access to. But where he was wrong was in thinking through psychoanalysis or anything else that we can access those parts of ourselves. No matter what we do, we can’t access a lot of these unconscious thoughts. So what people try to do when they’re self-reflecting, they say for example, why do I keep sabotaging my relationship? And inevitably that question leads you down to a path in your childhood and your most fundamental relationships and you realize you felt abandoned by your parents.

We think we find the answer because it feels right but more often than not, we’re wrong. We feel proud of ourselves for concluding that the root of all our relationship issues is something in our childhood. But even if it’s right, it doesn’t do anything to help us move forward in a productive way.

We definitely should be spending time self-reflecting. It’s just that we need to change how we’re doing it. One takeaway is to start asking ourselves “what” questions instead of “why” questions. Instead of “why am I like this, why am I sabotaging my relationships?” I can say, “ What am I going to do about it? What do I want out of this relationship?” When we do that it starts to focus on what we can control. It focuses on the future. It focuses us on action, that’s where there really has been a lot of evidence that we can get a lot of insight.

Some people like to introspect just because it’s interesting. But some people are really scared of not being self-aware and analyze all these things to try to get there. Is this still futile?

Obsessive thinking, or rumination, is one of the kind of insidious tricks that we play on ourselves. When we ruminate, it feels like we’re doing that so we can be more self-aware. You know, if I remember this conversation over and over, surely I’ll figure out a way to do it differently in the future. When we do that, there are certain parts of our brains that are activated that prevent us from being cool and detached and curious and instead they rile us up and get us upset. So one of the biggest mistakes people make, especially self-conscious and self-critical people, is believing that type of thinking is good for them or beneficial in some way. It’s actually truly one of the worst things.

Photo: Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Are there any group of people who are more likely to be self-deluded? Young or old, male or female, and so on?

There was absolutely no demographic pattern in who was self-aware and who wasn’t. Men and women were equally likely and unlikely, age was not associated with increased self-awareness. It didn’t matter what your job type was or where you grew up in the world or your level of education. At first I was scratching my head but what I came away with was a sense of hope and optimism that it sort of doesn’t matter where you start off, everyone is equally likely to build that level of self-awareness. But by the same token, everyone is equally likely to be delusional if they’re not working to prevent that.

What are some ways to become more self-aware?

I wish it was as simple as saying if you do this one thing, but to keep it super simple, here are two. The first one is the five-minute daily check-in. I think that’s so powerful because it sort of prevents us from overthinking things. We say, I’m going to spend no more than five minutes at the end of every day checking in. It allows us to get that quick hit of insight without falling into any of those traps of self-examination.

I also something as simple as asking your friends, why are you friends with me? We know that people hate giving any sort of feedback and often even don’t tell us the positive effects even, so why wouldn’t you ask that?

I’ve personally done that exercise a couple times recently and I’ve been shocked at what I learned. Somebody said I was “brave and courageous” and I see myself as one of the most risk-averse people on the planet. The next level is to say, what is it that I do that is most annoying? It doesn’t mean it’s an indictment and it doesn’t need to be something we decide to work on, but it’s good information to have.

You say that one thing that’s necessary for self-awareness is, paradoxically, letting go of the truth for absolute truth, and if we keep searching for that, it won’t help us. Why not?

It goes back a lot to the Freud stuff. His belief and his practice sort of assumes that there was one singular simple explanation for everything that we do and the reality is those answers simply don’t exist.

If you get in a fight, it’s just as likely that that day you were exhausted and you had low blood sugar than that there was some neat, clear explanation. The people who are the most self-aware don’t force themselves into those simple kind of absolute truths. They’re willing to acknowledge that it’s messy.

And to be perfectly honest, no one will ever become completely self-aware. One of the really self-aware people explained it by saying that the process of self-exploration is like exploring space: there’s so much we don’t know, and that’s what makes it so exciting. They sort of remove the pressure off of themselves, and paradoxically in doing that, it helps them have a deeper, more complex appreciation of who they are.