Self-Delusion or Reality?

Reading The Total Perspective Vortex by Christopher S. Putnam at Damn Interesting produced some insights into life and the personal development industry as a whole.

The basic premise of the article is that people who are “Mentally Disordered” may actually be more grounded than those that are “Normal.”

Psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown state that the average “Normal” person is quite self-deluded in three areas.

a) viewing themselves in unrealistically positive terms; b) believing they have more control over their environment than they actually do; and c) holding views about the future that are more positive than the evidence can justify

As many of you know, I’ve been working a self improvement/personal development program for several years.

So as I look back at life, I see three distinct mindsets which produced negative consequences, and they are the polar opposites of psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown’s “Normal” delusions.

  1. Negative self-image: A basic belief that you are bad, unquilified, and incompetent.
  2. Belief that life happens to you, instead of believing you actively influence it: This is a basic victim mindset, which says, since you have no control over your environment, you are a victim of fate. I believed most wealthy people became wealthy by luck or exploitation. This negative belief is directly countered in personal-development circles by teaching the Law of Attraction.
  3. Pessimism: I was raised in a highly restrictive religion – Seventh Day Adventism, which based it’s teachings on the end times. Just to give you a clue – the Branch Davidians were an offshoot. As a child during the cold war, I believed the world would end in a nuclear holocaust. I also spent half my adult life believing the economy would collapse and we’d enter second great deperession. You get the picture, right?

So imagine, you are a young man going through life believing you are a worthless incompetent, have no control over your life, and everything’s going to collapse anyway. Don’t misunderstand; these mindsets aren’t conscious but subconscious, so you aren’t aware of them.

Can you see why you might have a problem with the “normal” people who view themselves in positive terms, believe they have control over their environment, and are optimistic about the future? Optimistic people used to really piss me off. I thought they were completely unrealistic.

Experience tells me that many people in the personal development niche went through some degree of what I just described. Many of the gurus were homeless, drug addicted, criminal, or destitute.

So let’s say psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown are right – that high self-image, in control, optimists are self-deluded.

So the personal development work I’ve done is delusional? What about my net worth, my career, my health, my relationships, and my weight. Are they delusions as well? Unless I’m dreaming, my delusions are creating positive results in reality.

Someone once told my brother, “They’re just brainwashing you with all that self-help crap.” To which he replied, “Maybe I needed to be brainwashed.”

I pray “Normal” society never becomes grounded in Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown’s reality. I’ve been there and it sucks. I’ll take self-deluded any day.

23 thoughts on “Self-Delusion or Reality?”

  1. I agree with the premise that there’s delusion involved in everything. You can be either optimistic or pessimistic, and either view can be totally justified. Belief is a choice.

    Personally, I’d rather believe that I can control my own destiny and that I’m capable of doing extraordinary things. It might be a delusion, but I think you need to be a bit delusional to change the world.

  2. I agree with John – belief is a choice. It is far easier for people to believe that they are victims, because then it isn’t their fault if their life isn’t what they want it to be.

    As I’m sure many, many people can attest to, personal development is hard work. Being a victim – although it sucks – is easy. I’ll take the delusional hard road, please and thank you.

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  4. I think you may be missing the article’s point. The truth of this seeming paradox has been known for quite a while.

    It is really quite simple. Depressed people see reality as it is – not as it can be. Happier people see things as they can be – and are deluded in thinking they can easily make it so. Who is more valuable and successful? The deluded person of course. They think they have more control than they do. But they often have to solve the control problem when they get down to brass tax to make it match.

    Movers and shakers refuse to accept the world as it is. And they do everything in their power to bridge the gap and bring reality in line with their delusions.

    Depressed people never even try – to them everything makes sense. People with exaggerated senses of self worth are constantly trying to “fix” the real world to bring it in line with the one they believe in.

    There are many kinds of delusions. Those who contradict proven reality are crazy. The who are convinced that anything is possible are deluded. Crazy is bad. Deluded in this sense is essential.

  5. No Steve,

    I didn’t miss the point of the article. Maybe I didn’t convey my sarcasm clearly. I understand clearly… I’d rather be deluded and happy than grounded in reality and anti-social. But I’m still not sure I agree with the article. The people they are calling deluded are creating a better reality, and the people grounded in reality are continualy creating the ugly reality they accept. So in reality they are both grounded in reality only the deluded people believe they can change it. So who is really deluded?

  6. Again,
    If some people are deluded into thinking they have more control over reality than they really do, how do these deluded people keep changing the world?

    Maybe they aren’t as deluded as the shrinks say.

    Does that make sense?

  7. As silly as it sounds the depressed people will be right more often. This keeps them from trying. In the few cases where they are wrong and they can change things – they are wrong about something extremely important.

    Successful/happy people are wrong all the time. They take this in stride as part of learning. The few times they are right off the bat are extremely important and put the world in a better place. Successful/happy people fail far more often than non-successful people. The also end up with far more wins.

    The model I like best is “flow”. When you are in “flow” you are passionate about something. You don’t ask whether or not you are sure of success. You simply try to get there. This is both not deluded and often successful. You size up a potential goal and see it as merely possible. At that point you explore to see if you can get there. If someone asks whether you will succeed you simply answer, “We’re going to find out. And have a good time doing so.”:)

  8. I’m interested in the value judgements shown, or apparently shown, by the choice of words here and in the article you refer to, Steve – delusion, realistic, unrealistic, self-deception, objective.

    One study cited, for example, describes ‘depressive realism’ as a rational response. I have a hard time thinking of self-destruction as rational. To put it psycho-jargon, it would seem to me that ‘normal’, ‘pessimistic’, and ‘optimistic’ responses to a given stimuli and all subjective responses engendered by a general cognitive bias (overall set of beliefs).

  9. The bottom line is that if nothing changes, then nothing changes.

    Whether you want to use labels such as “deluded,” “crazy,” or simply “misled,” if someone is trying to make positive changes in the world, then they are better off than the person who just sits around thinking about how the whole thing sucks and there is nothing they can do about it.

    Consequently, these deluded, crazy, and misled people ARE making positive changes in the world, so if I may be so bold as to get back to what I think the original point of this post was; people DO have power to create change, and that power is not just some imagined falsehood.

    It just is. In fact, it always has been.

  10. Rick,
    I understand. Pessimism didn’t build rome, but complancency allowed it to burn. I find life far more enjoyable with an optimistc outlook. I still float back and forth, but I get nothing positive done in a pessimistic mindset.

    You’re right. That was my original point. We do have the power to change and I don’t believe the changes I’ve seen manifest in my life are delusions, but if they are, I’m happily deluded. It beats the hell out of the realisim I’ve experienced in the past. In short, I think the shrinks in the article are dead wrong. We have tremendous power over our reality, most of us just can’t or won’t accept it. I don’t agree that believing I have power over reality is truly delusional.

  11. I just wanted to say that positive thinking and rational realism are not mutually exclusive. When something is not the way I want it to be, for example, my emergency fund is too small, I think about how not-so-cool it is. I analyze my expenses, see what I can cut down, etc. That is being realistic. I then envision how much I want to save. Say $12,000 in 3 years. Then I use whatever I can come up with to motivate myself to trim my spending so that I can save buy a car by writing a check, or just the knowledge that I can rely on myself if things go wrong. I write these down as if they have happened or they will happen… to keep the momentum going. That is imagination. May be it is delusional. My point is, you can do/have both.
    In Chess, there are times when you do psychological things, like play your move confidently in a lost position and leave the table. Your opponent may think that you saw something that he missed and not make the best/obvious move. Here, again, you have assessed the reality. You have decided how you want to act (as if things are better than they really are) in the hope of improving things. The two thought processes are not mutually exclusive.

  12. I love the Ben Franklin quote: “If you expect nothing, you won’t be disappointed.” I used to see the one side of it, the “Poor Richard” self-improvement angle. But to me it’s almost Zen – it’s true as a self-improvement motto, but it also works as a statement about non-attachment. Sly fellow, Ben.

    I used to work for two entrepreneurs. I used to think “how is it that they can wade through s**t and only smell the rosebushes up ahead?” Fact is, you need people like that to start new ventures. I’d be so busy looking at the potential downsides that I’d never be motivated enough to do what it takes to get a company going.

    Like you, Steve, I’ve been working to pull myself away from my life-long negative mindset. Your childhood sounds harsher than mine, but my parents were still kind of negative and cynical. I’m grateful for that inasmuch as I’m not gullible. But changing my outlook for the better does bring good into my life.

    Charles Tart’s description of “consensus trance” has influenced me deeply – to him, the optimist and the pessimist are both deeply enmeshed in the group-consensus mind… they’re just staking out different parts of the same campground. I’ll try inserting a link:

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  14. As the great philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “The problem with the world is that the stupid are cocksure, and the intelligent are full of doubt”. I think that sums up a lot of the depression comments in the responses. The key is to keep the big picture from paralyzing you. You can believe in Spinoza’s deterministic world and still go through life as if you’re in control. There’s nothing wrong with that. Too little self-delusion paralyzes you, too much turns you into a politician.

    Oh, and Steve O, thanks for stopping by my new blog and leaving a comment, I appreciate it.

  15. Dan,

    No problem, I’ll try to stop by more, I like what I saw…

    I hear what you are saying…
    Balance grasshopper balance 🙂

  16. Wow, great article and comments…

    Why is it that we assume that the “depressing” things about life are more prevalent than the “happy” things? If we take the conclusion that depressed people are more grounded in reality, then wouldn’t that mean that the depressing things are more real? We hear that all the time: “Keep it Real”. OK, I’ll keep it real:

    1.) I have a wife who (whom?) I adore, and who adores me right back.
    2.) The sun rose today.
    3.) I’m breathing.
    4.) My income has doubled over the past couple of years.
    5.) I’ve found my passion and I’m pursuing it vigorously.

    or I could keep it real this way…

    1.) My wife has severe coronary artery disease at a very early time in her life.
    2.) It was over 100 degrees today.
    3.) I can’t seem to quit smoking.
    4.) My income is still in the lower middle class range.
    5.) My material success at pursuing my passions is next to nil.

    Which of these sets of circumstances is real?

    They both are.

    And my “depressed” or “not depressed” has a lot to do with which I’m looking at.

    I’ll keep looking at the first set, even if others call it deluded that I’m not looking at the second set, any day.

  17. Nice article.
    True. No matter what we think, different people have different perspective. A few may share the same ideas but it doesn’t prove that they have the same decisions.

  18. I agree. Some people may look normal to us but delusional to others. We all have different views at how things work and we can’t blame them for having a different belief.

  19. Loved “life happens to you” a lot!! You know, i like the idea of treating life as ordinary subject and shapinng it vs accepting everytihng that happens to me. I like the idea of anticipating, adjusting myself accordingly and changing. Gives me illusion i control my life. But you never can actually check it 🙂 anyway the idea is cool.

  20. Alot of people misinterpret the word ” Delusion ” . So what is delusion ?. in it says ” A fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact”.There are many types of delusion but in this article it says having good self image, being optimistic is unrealistic (delusional) ? And pessimism and negative self image is realistic ? Let me tell u something when u were a kid u didnt think u were a worthless and incompetent piece of crap!!! When u see a kid playing with his toy and then some other kid takes it away …wat does the kid do ? … Does he think to himself he is a worthless piece of crap and doesnt deserve toys then throw all away ? or does he shout and attack the kid and take it back ? …. Well i remember when i was a kid i kicked the other kid in his stomach nd took it back … nd the next day the kids mom comes and accuse me of hitting his child !!! After that i never fought back for my own toy !!!! Why ? … because that experience installed a unreal and negative impression about myself in my mind which isnt true…. afterall how can it be bad to fyt for ur own rights ryt?…If u were brought up being abused then ur more likely to form this negative mindset about u!! So now u tell me how is being optimistic and having good self image delusional when u were born with it ? … And u see all the succesfull people out there are optimistic and have a good self esteem/image !! So people who r negative are being delusional of thinking something they are not!!!! But yes if u r a normal person and think urself as Jesus Christ and u r gonna be crucified then thats delusional !!! But if u think tmrw is gonna be a good day, its not delusional… its just a good expectation and u r born with this mindset !!! Its just culture and other events that make u develop this delusional mindset !!!

    i love this quote ” Life is not whats happening to u , its what u do with it “

  21. I am a philospher king – vagabond – drop out – cynic – realist. Culture is siad to define reality. The mainstream culture is toxic, creating a toxic reality. All the monkeys in the toxic culture are delusional (99%). They are coping with reality using delusion and addiction and denial.

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