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The Transformative Power of Lying to Yourself

Sarah Rugheimer is a truly amazing person who I've had the great privilege of getting to know better since moving to Harvard. She climbs mountains, collects pond water to teach kids about astrobiology, performs traditional Irish dance, and she also happens to be an outstanding graduate student in the Harvard Astronomy Department working on the remote detection of biomarkers in terrestrial exoplanets. Outside of the department, she is the Director of Communications and Senior Editor of the blog. We recently had a conversation about the power of the brain to fool itself into going beyond its limitations, and I asked her to write her experiences with this for a guest post. 

I hated my hornpipe dance. I hated everything about it. I hated its music. I hated its rhythm. I hated the dance choreography. But I had to dance it at the qualifier in eight months for the World Irish dance championships. But even the most passionate hate can be transformed to love and success…by lying. This is the story of how I lied to myself long enough to eventually fall in love with my hornpipe. And how I learned lying to oneself is a powerful psychological tool that can lead to success in pursuits far removed from Irish dance, like, for instance, academia.

Similar to getting your PhD where you learn more and more about less and less, in Irish dance you specialize in fewer dances at the upper levels. As I moved up through the ranks of Irish dance competition, no longer did I have the luxury of choosing which dances to do in the major competitions. For the Worlds qualifier and the North American Dance Championships two of four possible dances were chosen for each age category. I had escaped dancing the hornpipe for the first few years by sheer luck. But this year they drew—you guessed it—the hornpipe. My chest tightened when I learned about the choice.  At age 17, my competitive career would be doomed.  How could I ever dance such a horrible dance? The music, rather nasally and slow (see video below), did not inspire me. It was longer than the other dances, and had a peculiar beat, which challenged my rhythm, something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I hated the hornpipe!

One day at my mentor’s house, I was moping about this as only an emotional teenager can. She just looked at me and said with a big smile, “You love your hornpipe!”

I said, “No, really, I don’t.”

She pushed, “Say it with me, you love your hornpipe!”

Through gritted teeth, I said, “I love my hornpipe.” All the while knowing to the core of my being, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I really hated it. Deep down. The hornpipe and I were not friends.

My mentor made me say it every day for the next several months. She made me say it every time I started to practice the hornpipe. I didn’t fall for the lie. I knew I hated it, I was never going to like it, no matter how many times I repeated the lie. I only said: “I love my hornpipe” to appease her, invariably gritting my teeth, adding the internal rebuttal, No, I don’t!

Image credit:
But something started to happen. Day after day, I practiced my hornpipe, each time lying to myself that I loved this dance. After maybe 3 or 4 months, I could tolerate my hornpipe. It wasn’t my favorite, certainly not compared to the other dances I loved. But I finally began to see there were some redeeming qualities.

Eight months later and without realizing it, I really enjoyed dancing my hornpipe. Not long after, I began to love it. It became my favorite dance. I started to win the hornpipe in dance competitions. In fact, it is still my favorite dance. Before writing this blog post, I danced it for ol’ times sake and it brought a big grin to my face. It is my hornpipe! The rhythm is quirky and the music brings joy to my heart.

The mind is a powerful tool.  Lying to myself about loving the hornpipe became my touchstone for the power of positive thinking. We all find ourselves in positions where we must do something we hate in order to achieve a laudable goal, be it writing a proposal, debugging a code, believing you not an impostor, working out, or even eating more kale. It doesn’t really matter what your hornpipe is, if you can convince yourself you love the task, you will be rewarded with success.

We humans have a weird (and sometimes scary) ability to lie to ourselves, and to eventually believe the lie. Often this is used for ill in this world, or we do it unintentionally and delude ourselves with unfortunate consequences.

But I say let us reclaim this superpower for good. Lie to yourself (with intension) about what you want to become or accomplish. Repeat it day after day, month after month, even for a year if necessary. Set a Google calendar reminder if it helps, or print out a mantra on a sheet of paper that you say out loud upon waking. Eventually, you might just look back and realize you no longer hate your hornpipe and wonder how you ever could have hated such a beautiful thing.

For more, here's a press release in the Wall Street Journal about some research relating to self-deception and its positive and negative effects. 


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