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The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Ego and self-serving biases shape the life story we share with the world—and with ourselves. The good news: An internal reckoning will help us better comprehend who we truly are. e.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

Many cultures embrace the notion that a higher power maintains a complete record of our lives and, at key moments, reviews it to judge us and determine our fate. Each of us keeps a similar narrative in our mind, albeit not always with the impartiality or moral emphasis a higher power might bring to the task. Were we to compare our own narrative with that of an omniscient entity, how much would they overlap?

As we fashion a narrative of our lives, we’re at least as interested in creating a story about who we are as about what we’ve done. Research by psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University has examined the way life narratives—personal myths, really—can give life a sense of consistency and purpose. But they still may not match reality, especially when it comes to our personalities. “The stories we tell ourselves about our lives don’t just shape our personalities—they are our personalities,” McAdams has stated. But while some dispositional traits like neuroticism or extraversion may be with us from early childhood, other aspects of identity are less fixed than we may believe. Certain goals and values, for example, may have been clung to for decades as core planks of a life narrative, even if they don’t match our best interests or truest desires. Changing them is not easy: We filter the world through lenses that bend to accommodate our egos and diminish our self-perceived failures. Greater awareness of this natural tendency, though, can foster healthy skepticism and lead to concrete actions that help us see ourselves and our place in the world more clearly.

How You Shape Your Life Story

We’re always telling and retelling our life story. In the process, we may veer into myth-making.

By Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

How do you respond when people ask you to tell them about yourself? You might focus on facts, such as where you grew up and when you graduated from school. Or, if the situation demands, you might be more reflective and talk about what it was like growing up in your family or what factors led you to make your major life choices. Perhaps your answers have by now taken on an automatic quality, so you no longer even have to think about your response. As this stock self-narrative takes shape, the details may shift, but it will hold to a core theme or framework.

What Your Life Story Says About You

Your “life story” reflects a personal sense of self or identity. Some experiences you relate to others may have a solid basis in reality, like facts about your family and birthplace. Other elements, though, will reflect your interpretation of key events, as your identity, or at least your sense of it, comes to influence the narrative.

The prominent elements of your identity may emerge from characteristics like your gender, race or ethnicity, age, location, or social class. Their meaning may also be shaped by social norms or expectations. Prominent themes can also be based on the way you’ve come to define your own personality. For example, you may see yourself as an optimist, introvert, or procrastinator. But are those perceptions based on accurate self-reflections, or have they been formed through the myths you’ve created about yourself? In other words, are you really the introvert you believe you are? Research suggests our conclusions may not be as accurate as we imagine.

A study by University of California Riverside psychologist William Dunlop and colleagues examined “the lifeblood of narrative identity” by contrasting outside observers’ ratings of other people’s life stories with the personality ratings that the storytellers made of themselves. Key scenes in a personal narrative may be organized around the ways one’s self-perceived qualities—optimism, introversion, or procrastination—have led to critical outcomes. Because you’re such an “optimist,” for example, you were able to figure out a way to stay positive throughout pandemic lockdowns. Or, because you’re such an “introvert,” you spent much of your time in high school listening to music alone in your room. Such personal myths color the narrative you share with the world, but can other people discern your true personality from these stories?

The researchers asked subjects to provide descriptions of highs, lows, and turning points in their lives and analyzed those stories for prominent motivational themes, such as whether participants perceived themselves as in control of the events in their lives. The participants then rated their own personality traits using a measure based on such items as “I see myself as someone who is talkative” and ‘‘I see myself as someone who is moody.” Then, using the same personality measures, a small team of observers who didn’t know the participants rated their personalities, based only on the content of their stories.

Put yourself in the position of a participant in this study: What highs, lows, and turning points of your life would you share? And how closely do you think they reveal your true personality or, perhaps more to the point, how well do they portray your personality as you perceive it?

In the study, the strangers picked up on many personality traits fairly well; some, like neuroticism, were easy to detect. People who described themselves as high in openness to experience, on the other hand, were likely to tell stories that unintentionally disguised that trait. The raters found those participants’ tales to be unconventional, the researchers believe, because they didn’t jibe with their own life experiences. Busy making sense of the stories themselves, the listeners were less able to identify the personality trait that manifested within them.

Who Knows You Best?

Storytelling is “a ubiquitous feature” of our social interactions, as these researchers noted. We are always telling our story—not only to others but, significantly, to ourselves as well. And if personality truly shapes those stories, and even alters them, the question then becomes how closely the events as we recall them actually conform to the experiences as they played out in real life.

Consider the story you might tell about the day you met your partner. You may believe that you were the one who initiated the contact that eventually led to your forming a relationship—after all, you’re the extravert in the pair. But how does your partner describe those first moments together? With an understanding that your life story may have been powerfully shaped by your vision of your own personality, it’s possible you could come to realize and accept that the situation was actually the opposite of the tale you’ve adopted. With a better sense of how myths about your personality can shape the way you see yourself and the events in your life, you can achieve greater clarity about your identity.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

The Pros and Cons of Self-Reflection

Dwelling on failure can bring you down. Ruminating on success can make you insufferable.

By Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

Alex Trebek once advised, “Take your job seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.” You can probably think of people who could benefit from this wisdom, individuals so convinced of their superiority that they insist on having their own way, offer unsolicited advice, and let you know that you couldn’t possibly measure up to them. They’re not especially manipulative or insensitive, so you wouldn’t necessarily consider them to be narcissistic, but they can be insufferably grandiose just the same. Is there a way to get them to rein in their overly expansive view of themselves?

To do that, it helps to understand how grandiosity emerges. Research by French psychologists Catherine Bortolon and Stéphane Raffard suggests that a specific type of rumination may be an important driver of inflated ego. Chronic absorption in one’s own thoughts is typically, and correctly, seen as a key component of depressive disorders, but these researchers maintain that rumination can also take a positively focused direction, sometimes helping people work harder toward achieving their goals. For example, if you’re struggling with a project and fixate on it for a full afternoon, your eventual discovery of a solution would make you feel that all the time and effort were worth it. The experience becomes a memory you can draw on when facing similar challenges in the future.

The problem that can arise from positive rumination, however, is that we can allow our thoughts to drift only to times when our efforts resulted in success. If you reflect over and over on the moments when people showered you with admiration and made you feel special, you could enter a kind of upward spiral of thought in which you come to feel invincible. It is from this vantage point, the researchers suggest, that grandiosity emerges.

Ruminative Grandiosity

The researchers sought to induce a state of grandiosity by asking their study participants to “recall a past experience in which they felt special, important, and/or superior to most people.” This memory needed to be precise and specific to a given time and place. With that memory primed, participants were asked to spend two minutes noticing what they “thought and felt at that moment.”

Next, one group of the participants was shown a series of slides prompting them to think in greater detail about elements of that positive moment, while the other group was shown slides meant to distract them from thinking further about the experience. Finally, all participants completed a questionnaire measuring grandiosity: for example, “Do you ever think you are more talented or gifted than other people?” As the team expected, those who’d been prompted to ruminate on their past success scored significantly higher on the measure of grandiosity. The team concluded that this trait can in fact perpetuate itself in people who find themselves reflecting only on moments in which they shone.

These results may help us understand the path to self-importance that leads some people to become convinced of their own greatness. With their ruminative tendencies focused on successes and accomplishments, they may ignore “data” from experiences in which things didn’t work out as well. You may want to try to use distraction to break their cycle of rumination by talking about…anything that won’t feed their arrogance. Such an approach, the researchers suggest, could help individuals “develop a sense of self-esteem based on facts rather than their grandiose delusions.”

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

The Case for Being Skeptical of Yourself

Why we always think we’re right, and why that’s so wrong.

By Mark Leary, Ph.D.

A few years ago, I posed this question to an online sample of several hundred American adults: Think about all of the disagreements that you have with other people–from minor quarrels about relatively unimportant things to major battles about important matters. In what percentage of these disagreements that you have had with others do you think that you were the one who was correct?

Think about your own answer: When you have disagreements with other people, what percentage of the time are you the one who is right? The true answer, when averaged across all people, is probably no greater than 50 percent. After all, if one person is right and one person is wrong in every disagreement, someone is wrong at least 50 percent of the time. In fact, you and I could disagree with each other and yet both be wrong.

But most people don’t see it that way. In response to my question, over 80 percent of respondents said that, in disagreements with others, they are right more than 50 percent of the time. In fact, the average response was about two-thirds of the time, and 15 percent of respondents said that they were right more than 80 percent of the time. Clearly, most of us have an inflated view of the accuracy of our beliefs and viewpoints.

Contrary to how it seems, none of us sees the world as it “really” is. Our perceptions, including of other people and ourselves, are always some blend of objective reality and personal interpretations of reality. We are unable to see the world from any perspective other than our own or fully escape the tendency to perceive the world through the filter of our own self-interest. Each of us is naturally, inherently, and incontrovertibly egocentric.

Of course, it usually seems that we are seeing things clearly and that our reactions are responses to actual events in the real world. But we always play a role in construing the world we perceive. The real world and our interpretations of it are fused so tightly that we rarely realize how deeply our perceptions of reality are tainted by our beliefs, self-views, perspectives, and life experiences. Even when we do recognize that our views may be contaminated by our narrow, egocentric perspective, we have extreme difficulty separating our interpretations of reality from reality itself.

Overestimating the accuracy of our views of the world creates a number of problems. It leads us to make bad decisions based on incorrect information, to engage in unnecessary conflicts with other people over differences of opinion, and to limit our interest in negotiation and compromise. Why should I negotiate or compromise with you if I’m right and you’re wrong?

We can never escape the egocentrism trap completely, but one partial solution is to develop a healthy sense of ego-skepticism—to question our own viewpoints and interpretations of events. We can’t all be right, and it would be rather odd if your, or my, personal views were consistently more objective, unbiased, and accurate than other people’s. We must recognize that each of us has a narrow, one-sided view of things, even when we think we don’t, and that our views are, on average, just about as wrong as anyone else’s.

Some people worry that ego-skepticism, if taken too far, could result in paralyzing uncertainty: If we can’t trust our own view of reality, won’t we become riddled with doubt, unable to know what to believe or how to behave? If we insist on having certainty in life before deciding what to believe or how to behave, the answer is probably yes.

But healthy ego-skepticism does not involve being paralyzed by doubts or assuming that all of our beliefs and perceptions are probably wrong. After all, many of our beliefs and perceptions actually are right on target, and most of our decisions work out just fine. Rather, ego-skepticism involves reminding ourselves that our views are sometimes biased by our unavoidable egocentrism and that we should hold onto our viewpoints less strongly than we usually do, especially when contrary evidence or disagreements arise.

If we can act on the basis of our best judgments, even while knowing that our views might be wrong, we will generally manage life just fine. And we will avoid the overconfidence and conflict with other people that arises when we fail to recognize our egocentricity.

Mark Leary, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and the author of The Curse of the Self.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

Why Purpose Is the Antidote to Self-Deception

The importance of a life review.

By William Damon, Ph.D.

The development of purpose in life, which I define as an active commitment to accomplish aims that are meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self, is future-oriented by nature. Purposeful people look ahead to goals they seek to accomplish over the long haul. The psychological benefits of purpose lie in strengths that forward-looking commitments bring: motivation, energy, achievement, hope, and resilience. In every age cohort I have studied, from adolescents to the elderly, purpose stands out as a key to positive living.

As a helping profession, psychology has always sought ways to counsel people on self-discovery, personal growth, and coping with distress. The field’s cognitive revolution in the latter half of the 20th century directed attention away from people’s past and toward their present mode of experiencing the world. Cognitive psychologists became uncomfortable with the idea that people are chained to their past and driven by events that they can’t even remember. They believe that if people could be encouraged to think about their lives in more rational, stable, and positive ways, they would become better able to cope with problems and seize opportunities.

Most recently, psychology’s focus has shifted to the influence of future aspirations on identity and self-development. The theoretical foundations for this approach were established by the writings of Martin Seligman and Roy Baumeister on “prospective thinking,” which suggest that by imagining hopeful future prospects we can shape our development in more agentic and adaptive ways than we could by dwelling on our past problems.

Still, the past does matter—especially in how we think about it. A capacity for looking forward, with renewed commitments to life-fulfilling purposes, requires looking backward in an open and receptive way. This was brought home to me by a revelation late in my life that changed my understanding of how I came to be the person I am. I discovered that my father, who I had assumed was killed or “missing” in World War II, had a substantial career abroad after he abandoned my mother and me. Not only did this discovery shake up my sense of identity, it uncovered a host of regrets, resentments, and confusions that long unsettled my emotional state.

My prior work on purpose development was not sufficient for the self-examination I felt compelled to carry out. For that task, I adopted the personal narrative approach known as “the life review.” A life review is a structured procedure for reconstructing our past in a manner that can provide three personal benefits we need as we grow older:

  1. An acceptance of the events and choices that shaped our lives, reflecting gratitude for the life we’ve been given rather than self-doubt and regret.
  2. A more authentic (and thus more robust) understanding of who we are and how we got to be that way, reflecting the highly developed, reassuring sense of self that psychologist Erik Erikson called “ego integrity.”
  3. A greater clarity in the direction our lives should take going forward, reflecting what we have learned from the experiences and the purposes that have given our lives meaning in the past.

The life review was pioneered by psychiatrist Robert Butler, who was concerned with the problem of increased depression in aging patients. He believed these depressive symptoms stemmed from the aimless way patients remembered their pasts. But by finding positive benefits in these experiences—even ones that appeared unfortunate at the time—people could affirm their values and chart a hopeful path forward.

Butler believed reflective life reviews could promote intellectual and personal growth and wisdom throughout the lifespan. Among the psychological benefits he noted were the resolution of old conflicts; an optimistic view of the future; “a sense of serenity and pride in accomplishment”; a “feeling of having done one’s best”; a capacity to enjoy such present pleasures as humor, love, nature, and contemplation; and “a comfortable acceptance of the life cycle, the universe, and the generations.” This, of course, is a compelling list of the main pillars of psychological health.

My take on the life review has two paradoxes regarding psychological development in the adult years of life:

  1. The capacity for looking forward in a positive way requires looking backward in an open, undefended, and honest way, with past memories structured by one’s present values and future aspirations.
  2. Autobiographical discovery deepens a person’s understanding of self while also broadening knowledge of others who have influenced the formation of one's self, often in previously unrecognized ways.

The search for purpose never ceases. As we age, we entertain new aspirations and take on new commitments. In doing so, we draw on interests and capacities developed earlier in life. The accomplishments of our early years can set the stage for a later life of meaning, fulfillment, and contribution to the common good. A life review can bring all of this into focus.

Purpose is a lifelong need. When we look forward as young people, we may imagine it will be a straight line, but later, when we look back, we see it as more evolving and meandering—and less predictable: Our purposes change as we adapt to changing circumstances. A life review offers us a way to look back and connect the dots. It can help us recall the purposes we’ve had, integrate them with our present circumstances, and envision future opportunities.

Our past matters, and all of the times of our lives, from remembered origins to imagined futures, provide us with material for self-definition and potential growth. It is up to us to actively search through this material and integrate what we find into a coherent, authentic, and gratifying vision of who we have been, who we are, and who we aim to be.

William Damon, Ph.D., is a professor at Stanford University, the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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