True hypocrisy is a stressful, full-time job


A Wave reader in Millville writes:

Dear Dr. Hurd,

I strive to live up to the ideals you promote in your articles. I proudly quote some of your expressions about lying, overeating, rudeness, boundaries, keeping promises, and the like. But, when nobody’s looking (this is why I ask you to withhold my name), I still, at times, lie, stuff myself, snap at waiters, violate my friends’ boundaries, and fail to keep promises. Furthermore, I don’t think I am alone. People self-righteously say one thing, but then turn around and do another. Newspaper headlines confirm this almost daily. Are we all big fat hypocrites?


Dear Reader,

Nobody likes to admit it, but people engage in hypocrisy all the time. Small-scale hypocrisy means occasionally saying one thing and doing another. But, to be truly called a ‘hypocrite,’ you engage in this behavior on a large scale and make it a way of life.

Hypocrisy is not consciously chosen. It’s the consequence of a psychological problem known as ‘rationalization.’ Rationalization makes something sound good to the point where you believe it—even though it’s not true. It’s a sophisticated way of lying to yourself; doing such a good job that you buy it without question. When you rationalize, you secretly rely on nobody else noticing or caring enough to comment. You admit in your letter that you pick up on others’ rationalizations. Well, it works both ways.

‘I’m going on a diet tomorrow,’ the overeater will say, truly believing it as he scarfs his fourth slice of pizza. This little ‘mini-promise’ he makes to himself lowers (for the moment) his anxiety over facing the difficult task ahead. There’s nothing wrong with lowering anxiety, but if it’s based on a lie, it’s neither effective nor mentally healthy. It only works ’til the pizza runs out.

Other rationalizations abound: ‘I’m going to study later. Not now, but later.’ ‘I want to learn to control my anger. I’ll start in the new year.’ Or, ‘Maybe I should think about not sending inappropriate text messages to Congressional Pages.’ Oops.

Rationalization is curable. The treatment is powerful, if honestly and consistently applied. It’s called ‘introspection.’ Introspection, or self-reflection, is sort of a conversation you have with yourself, perhaps with the help of a loved one or professional counselor. You examine your motives and look for contradictions between what you’re saying and what you’re doing. The overeater might tell himself, ‘I keep saying I’ll go on a diet, but I never do. When am I finally going to take some action and put my words into practice?’

There’s no mystery or magic to introspection, any more than there is to psychotherapy and counseling. Somebody once asked me, ‘What’s the point of going into therapy?’ I thought about it for a minute and replied, ‘To make sure you stay honest with yourself.’ We all need to be willing and ready to call ourselves on contradictions between our statements and our behaviors. It’s hard to be impartial about yourself. This is the whole point of having another person—a friend, loved one or counselor—who can be objective about your inconsistencies.

Hypocrisy involves a total breach between the conclusions of your mind (theory) and your actual behaviors (practice). The great majority of psychological disorders and/or character flaws develop from this fundamental problem. It’s not easy to immediately be aware that you have a “breach between theory and practice.” This is why I encourage regular introspection for everyone—counseling, journal-keeping, regular self-reflection time—whatever it takes. When you’re honest with yourself about everything you’re feeling, you’re forced to identify any emerging breaches between your thoughts and actions. When you do, challenge yourself: “Are my ideas wrong? Am I advocating something that’s easier to preach than practice? Do I need to change my ideas to fit reality?”

Sometimes, without consciously realizing it, hypocrites are trying to solve their problems. Consider the scandals we hear about from the media, especially in religion and politics (both fertile ground for fabrication and deception—sometimes on an amazingly brazen scale). Probably the most common reason for this is that the hypocrite, in piously preaching to others, is trying to wish his or her own problems out of existence. ‘If I can just oppose this behavior loudly and sanctimoniously enough, then maybe my own flaws will disappear.’ Because the hypocrite refuses to introspect or accept criticism, the focus is deflected onto other people, even as his own internal problems become worse and worse.

It might sound like I’m talking about ethics and morality here. They are, of course, relevant, but what I’m mainly focusing on is your own, personal mental health. It just isn’t healthy to be a hypocrite! Saying one thing and doing another is hard on your psyche, because you still have to live with yourself. It takes lots of rationalization, evasion and procrastination to prop up fraud and keep track of distortions. A hypocrite is on a collision course with reality as he becomes increasingly aware of the conflict between what he claims to believe and what he actually does. Instead of owning up to it—learning and being better for it—he stays emotionally frozen in time, blissfully unaware of the approaching clash with the real world.

Most of us will never be guilty of the magnitude of hypocrisy we read about in the papers today. But the emotional effect of even the smallest breach between thoughts and action will slowly, but surely, chip away at the peace of mind we try so hard to achieve.