This leads us to the nub of what we can learn from tackling this particular mental block. Defense mechanisms and all other kinds of self-delusion are basically different ways for us to ensure our comfort and security. They keep us in the status quo, nice and cozy, where nothing ever changes.
As useful as they are at this job, defense mechanisms simultaneously keep us away from change, growth, development, learning, understanding and insight. To put it bluntly, they keep us from living.
Here’s the truth: self-deception feels good. It’s convenient, it doesn't challenge us and it’s nice and comfortable. Many of us get trapped in self-deception simply because it offers such a comforting alternative to reality! Another truth is that sometimes, we are forced out of our comfort zones rather than electing to leave them of our own accord. In other words, our self-deception no longer holds, or an external disruption compels us to look honestly at things we’d rather not.
When the pain of staying as you are is greater than the pain of changing, you’ll change. When the rewards of developing and growing are greater than the rewards of staying just as you are, you’ll take the leap. But wouldn’t it be great if you consciously stepped outside of your own comfort zone before it got to this point?
Self-deception may feel good, but we need to be honest with ourselves: growth and comfort are mutually exclusive. We can grow and develop and achieve all the goals we want to for ourselves, or we can stay nice and safe and comfortable. But we can’t do both at the same time.
The price of comfort is stagnation. It’s deliberately leaving some potential on the table, unfulfilled. It’s the easy way out.
The price of striving for your dreams, however, is hard work. It’s the effort required to face your fears, and to keep going even when you’re lazy or unsure or scared. It’s the hard way—but it’s so, so much more rewarding.
When you prioritize safety and comfort, you’re playing to not lose the game of life. You are hedging your bets, playing small, avoiding risk and challenge, and shying away from the tough questions. But in trying to avoid negativity, the cruel irony is that we also end up avoiding all the positivity that comes with it: the satisfaction of achievement, the pride at building something, at facing fears, growing in wisdom and courage.
When we prioritize growth, we are playing to win. It’s an entirely different attitude. This is a positive, proactive, conscious and purpose-driven approach to a life that has the courage to intentionally pursue or create what is important.
Life is a package deal: the rough always comes with the smooth. When our strategy is to avoid bad emotion, we actually end up avoiding all emotion, good and bad. To shut ourselves off from pain is to shut ourselves off from life itself, from learning opportunities, from the gift of “failing,” improving, experiencing, living. There is no easy, comfortable life—this is an illusion.
So, what is the solution? Cold, unflinching honesty 100 percent of the time? Relentlessly pursuing big-ticket goals, no matter if it nearly kills you to do so?
Balance is key. And the only way to achieve balance is to turn up to the task of creating your life with deliberate, conscious intention and a commitment to honesty. Decide that you will not let unconscious forces direct and control your life—that job is reserved for your aware, purpose-driven self.
Consciously embrace your vulnerabilities
You can hold yourself accountable while still being kind to yourself. You can be honest but still understanding. You can seek to be somewhere better while still appreciating where you are right now, and all you’ve been through to get there. It’s simple. Here’s a practical method you can try right now.
First, as always, become aware. Ask, “Where am I right now?”
Look at your life, your situation, the facts around you, both general and specific. Notice if you’re blaming others (your horrible parents, your boss, the government, God himself…) or complaining passively. Observe what behaviors you are defaulting to. Notice the stories you’re telling yourself, and the emotional core behind those stories.
Next, ask yourself, with as much compassion as you can muster, “How is this working for me?” Become curious about the results you’re achieving by thinking/believing/behaving in the ways you’ve identified. If you noticed a defense mechanism at work, ask honestly, even if it is keeping you “safe,” is it bringing you any closer to being the kind of person you want to be?
The final question naturally follows: given that you’ve identified a way of being that simply isn’t congruent with your values or the goals you want to achieve, ask, “How can I change, right now?” What actions would you like to take instead, acknowledging that this path may well be more challenging?
You don’t have to make quantum leaps. In fact, you can make significant changes by simply asking what small thing you can do right now, that moves you closer to what matters, and away from an unconscious, passive, fearful frame of mind.
The women in our example can start small: by admitting to herself how she really feels, and deciding that she will no longer lie to herself, nor judge herself for what’s already happened in the past. She can make a promise to herself to stop criticizing and judging other women; instead, when she notices this impulse, she can turn inward and remind herself that it’s OK to make a mistake, and that she is always able to choose purpose-driven action instead.