I lied to myself for years. Sometimes, I still do.
The lies manifest in different ways. “It’ll be fine,” in the midst of a disaster, which will most certainly not be anything close to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word “fine” (“Of very high quality; very good of its kind,” in case you were wondering – which, to me, makes the use of the word “fine” as something of a pessimistic “good” in many situations all the more galling).
I’ll tell myself “You don’t feel anxious,” in the midst of pins and needles running through my hands. This is an obvious lie. A big one. As I think “You don’t feel anxious,” it tends to reverberate through my head at a similar pace and intonation to someone who wanders down Wabash Street, sputtering every thought aloud, sans control.
This, as you may guess, makes any existing anxiety much worse.
There’s also the classic – very classic, in my case – “Nah, that’s not an extra 10 pounds.” It’s important to note that when this thought pops up, I suck in my belly. The sucking-in became as automatic as the moistening of Pavlov’s dogs’s tongues. This is the lie that has burdened me for years. In fact, it’s had me proverbially – and my stomach literally – pinned down since I was in my early teens.
Let me repeat that: I’ve sucked in my stomach for approximately 20 years. The process of letting it go, letting it hang out so to speak, only began within the past two years. It has come as a relief, in many ways, and a lightning rod of anxiety in other ways. I still catch myself lying, pulling my adipose fat tissue tight against my abdomen, saving the confrontation of self v. self for another day.
This, of course, is not a good thing. Sucking in weakens certain muscles (lower back and transverse abdominus, in my case), hurts posture, and means taking in less oxygen. It also made me a tense motherfucker, as long-term holding of any muscle would likely do. Flex your bicep right now and leave it that way for five to 10 seconds. That was my belly. Sucks, right? Yeah. You see what I did there.
The sucking-in has led to a lot of pain, so much that I consider a two-year stretch at the end of my 20s to be something of a solo sojourn into a dark forest. (That’s a topic for another day, one I still haven’t been able to express how I’d like to. I’ve tried.)
Call this sucking-in what you want: A self-confidence issue. A body image issue. Wanting to be something I’m not. Paranoia. Taking a short cut. All of these reasons could be true. They’re all part of some great lie that I’ve been repeating to myself: “not good enough.”
Unfortunately, this self-deception juts out in all directions, obscuring truth and allowing a twisted form of self-deprecation to take control. Compliments don’t land. “You look good today” is received as sardonic. Of course I don’t fucking look good! was the classic thought response that auger-bitted its way through my consciousness, its exit wound forming a tight smile. A compliment was never just that, it was always a facade; here was some level of poking fun, something mendacious being said in the name of what the British call it “taking the piss.” My piss was taken thoroughly, albeit only in my own head.
The lies also blunt that which should feel good, even great. I could never answer questions like, “So, are you excited?” with the vigor requested by the inquirer’s excited eyes. After having a modicum of success at work, a date, or a upcoming evening of fun, I wasn’t sure. “Yes, very,” I lied.
Sadly, the lies also seemed to obscure the very problem I was trying to defeat. A look in the mirror after a month or two of taking care of myself with good food and tough exercise was met with that same nagging thought: “not good enough.”
It made me quit. It turned me into a quitter. I write it now and I don’t believe it. I traded in genuine progress for a despondency that snuffed out any hope of charging on. I couldn’t countenance my own moderate success.
One of the best things I’ve realized over this past year is just how harmful lying can be, and not just to myself. White lies, big lies, cover-ups, and my self-lies all serve the purpose of clouding the truth. This allows truth to appear as a Picasso, twisted up and elongated in unexpected ways, or else frail and weak.
In late 2016, I swore off lying. Lying to myself, lying to others – even the lies that make people feel good. I was done. I am done, I hope. Sam Harris’s long-from essay the topic, aptly called Lying, was an interesting way to get the ball rolling. Nathaniel Branden’s Six Pillars of Self-Esteem has been another great look at how people (like me) fool themselves into thinking they’re better or worse than they are, feeding delusions with more delusion. The documentary (Dis)Honesty, which followed behavioral economist/psychologist Dan Ariely and his quest to study liars and lying, showed that I wasn’t nearly as bad as others; at least I didn’t lie to the tune of millions of dollars or a prison sentence.
These books and documentary aside, the physical document is what made me realize a change was needed. I was hiding from myself, hiding from others. My thoughts jumped to a worst-case scenario whenever eyes scanned downward toward my belly. Self-defeat was imminent; if I couldn’t be comfortable with myself, could I be comfortable with anyone? A resounding “no” was the answer, time and again. The same sense of shame with which I looked at myself was how I looked at certain others, and how I assumed certain others looked at me. In my mind, they sized me up and thought exactly what I thought to myself: “Not good enough.”
Now, I see myself on the path away from self-deception, or deception of any kind for that matter. No “it’s going to be OK” about an awful relationship or a shit situation. No “Well, that’s just their opinion” on cutting-but-true observations that I could use as genuine feedback. And “Not good enough” is saved for special occasions where I know I can affect change, not as present-tense cudgel.
My belly flops out, protruding just enough to make me wince when I catch my own reflection. Sometimes I rub it or pat it to remind myself it’s there, shaking my head and laughing a little. I’m still uneasy with my newly found comfort and still uncomfortable with my newly found gut, but it’s growing on me (hopefully only figuratively).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I haven’t felt this at-ease with myself and who I am since I was a young boy, playing freely, shooting airballs or backboard-denters, and truly not giving much of a fuck about the negative thoughts others trotted out. Sure, I’d still like to get rid of my belly; it’s not healthy and it’ll cut my life short if it sticks around long enough. But now I can put myself on the right track and see, month-by-month, that I’m fucking doing it; I’m on the right track and that is good enough.
To start a lie is easy. As I’ve found, ending a lie can be a mess.
As a writer, one of my aims is to be the voice that says what only rattles through the starry distance of the thoughts of others; the inklings of an idea brought to life, the suspicion of a situation, the fascination with a falsehood. How can I do that if I can’t even tell the truth about myself?
It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer every day, of late. I hope to keep answering it, skipping the lies and going right for the painful truth. That’s good enough.