I lie to myself everyday. It’s okay. Actually, it’s probably one of the best things I do. You should do it too. Trust me, it’s worth it. Let me explain what I’m talking about.
I recently heard Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist and the “Dear Therapist” column writer for The Atlantic, on Dax Shepherd’s Armchair Expert podcast talking about change. She said, “we can’t have change without loss, which is why, so often, people say they want change but nonetheless stay exactly the same.” At first, the idea of change as a function of loss didn’t make sense to me, but she went on to explain that even positive change, change that we are striving for, comes at a cost. At some point, you have to lose the former version of yourself in order for that change to take place. And you have to be willing to accept the loss long term for the change to stick. If loss hurts and change is just another variation of loss, then yeah, it makes sense that change is painful, no matter what kind of change it is.
Gottlieb went on to explain that we continually create narratives about the future while existing in the present. We make promises to our future self without any action. “Tomorrow, I am going to start eating better.” “This week, I will go to the gym at least 3 times.” “I will write a weekly blog.”
These types of stories make us feel good. We attach to them. They give us a sense of being a better version of ourselves without actually having to do any of the work. Gottlieb says, “we tend to think of the future as happening later, but we’re creating it in our minds every day. When the present falls apart, so does the future we had associated with it.” So if we live in the present, but we are telling stories about the future, and it’s these future stories that make our present fall apart, why do we do it?
Future narratives gives us a sense of agency without the messiness of actually having to act. Unfortunately, if we only live in the future, and that narrative of ourselves never has any chance of coming true, then we set ourselves up for perpetual feelings of loss. Gottlieb suggests that “part of getting to know yourself is to un-know yourself—to let go of the limiting stories you’ve told yourself about who you are so that you aren’t trapped by them, so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.”
I like Gottlieb’s advice of letting go but I also know that nature abhors a vacuum. I’d love to think that if I “let go of my limiting stories” that I will instantly feel better. But then I also realize that I will just fill the hole in my head with other stories.
Let me tell you a story. Elite swimmers are generally pretty tall. I am not tall. Therefore, I never developed into an elite swimmer. Trust me, the math works out. Luckily, I had a swimming coach who quickly recognized that I was not going to be tall. My mother is 5-foot-nothin’ and my father will tell you that he is 5’10” but he’s not. Sadly, no matter how much I hung from the rafters on the pool deck, I was not going to stretch my 5’6” frame to the requisite 6’+. I would argue that my arms are now abnormally long because of all that hanging, but that’s probably not true either. Bottom line, elite swimmers are tall. It’s basic physics. So my coach gave me a mantra. He told me that you might not be tall but you can swim tall. Everything I did in the water, I did tall. In the middle of a long set as I got tired, I would say, “reach tall.” Coming into the wall for a flip turn, I would think, “turn tall.” As I made my way past the final set of flags in those last few strokes of a race, I would scream in my head, “finish tall!”
I wish this magically made me an elite swimmer, it didn’t. What it did do was push me to win some pretty important races throughout my high school swimming career by less than a second. That’s not an accident. Somewhere deep down, my body believed that, when in the water, I could be just a few millimeters taller than my competition and that made a difference.
But it was also a lie. I am not tall. On the pool deck, the lie didn’t fit. In the water, it did. The context of the lie mattered more than some arbitrary sense of its truth or fiction. Lies are stories. And stories have as much power as we want to give them. In the end, I think that’s what Gottlieb is asking: how much power do you want to give the stories you are telling yourself?
Over the course of my life, the strategy I learned in the pool stuck. Today, if I am struggling to curb a bad habit or make some kind of lasting change, I lie to myself, just a little bit. The trick is the new story needs to be believable. I need to pay attention to the setting. Make it small, personal, real. And, for it to be successful, it needs to focus on just one thing.
This blog is a perfect example. Writing a weekly post has not stuck as a habit yet, so I lie to myself. I tell myself it will be easy. Keep it low stakes. Just open the computer and start typing. The words and ideas will come and I have permission to write a lot of crap. Inside, I don’t feel like I have anything to say, but if I leave the weekly post open as a tab on my computer, it’s already there so I trust my lie and I just start typing. Eventually, the lie fades into the background and the narrative develops. Over time, a slightly different version of me emerges. No big course shifts. No magic moment. That’s too hard. James Clear calls them atomic habits, small everyday changes that compound over time. For me, right now, the result is a weekly blog. Long term, who knows, but from what I hear, writers write so I keep writing.
If you are looking to change something in your life, start by telling yourself something different about who you think you are. If it feels really uncomfortable or overly weird, stop. That’s too big of a lie. If it feels relatively believable and you say, “yeah, I could see me being like that” then maybe it will stick. In her work Presence, the social psychologist Amy Cuddy says, “fake it until you make it until you become it.” It’s catchy and it works in her TED Talk but if the gap between making it and becoming it seems too vast, it won’t work. For me, that’s where the lies help.
But, hey, I get it if you don’t believe me. It’s hard. Change hurts. No one wants to lose who they think they are. And besides, I am a highly accomplished liar so I wouldn’t believe me either.
See you in the box.