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The Lies You Tell Yourself Are Surprisingly Convincing

After I lost my virginity, I told my closest friend that I’d lasted for 10 minutes. By the following week, I’d told a variation of that same story to at least a dozen other friends. Years later, I ran into the woman at a party. At some point, our conversation turned to reminiscing about that first night. When I asked her what she remembered most, she flashed a hesitant smile and said, “I don’t know, it was all very quick.”

As it turns out, I’d lasted closer to 60 seconds than 10 minutes.

At some point we’ve all added a bit of garnish to the truth. After all, study after study after study has made it clear that some self-deception can be advantageous. But is there a threshold for how many times someone has to tell the same lie for this lie to harden into an alternative truth? Had I told two friends instead of 12, would I still have believed my exaggerated version of that night?

“The more people you tell, the harder it will be for you to admit that your version of the story isn’t true. It elevates the consequences,” says Cortney Warren, a clinical psychologist whose work focuses on unhealthy eating behaviors and negative body images.

We’re often lying to ourselves as well. That is, once information arrives in our brains, it’s usually distorted to our conscious minds. “We repress painful memories, create false ones, rationalize immoral behavior and jack up our self-esteem,” explains Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist at Rutgers University.

Warren believes the main reason for this is that either we can’t tolerate reality or we need reality to fit a certain view of ourselves and/or the world. “The lies you tell yourself most frequently are the things you wish were most true,” says Warren.

External factors are at play here, too. “The cultural environment massively influences how you lie to yourself, since culture will influence who you think you should be and how you want to be,” Warren explains. “Once you internalize those values, you apply them to create your own version of reality. None of this happens in a conscious way.”

Similarly, self-deception isn’t really lying — no matter what you’re telling yourself. “Lying is intentional,” says Warren. “It’s intended to deceive and not give the whole truth. Self-deception is much more subconscious; you aren’t usually aware you’re doing it. If you’re lying to yourself about your first sexual experience, you pass that along as your version of reality not because you’re trying to deceive other people, but because you’re just not being honest with yourself.”

As for me, on that night of nights, my subconscious decided that a few thrusts and 17 years of pent-up sexual energy should be measured in minutes, not seconds. And from there, I did what any teen boy does — round up.