It’s good to have illusions about yourself
Positive illusions about our own strengths can help in difficult personal situations
The cat is looking at his funny reflection in the mirror at home. It sees a tiger there.
If you listened carefully enough towards the end of March you could hear the sound of accountants laughing in the distance. The laughter was triggered by self-employed people like me declaring that this year we would get our tax returns done months early during the time the lockdown would free up for us.
Needless to say, our spreadsheets remain un-besmirched by ink or pixels.
We are not alone. By now it’s a cliché that we all developed to-do lists for the lockdown that are still in a pristine condition with little or nothing ticked off on them.
It was all an illusion. Yet I am not downcast. Reflecting on it, I find I have grown fond of my illusions. Even though they led me up the garden path, I would rather have them than not have them.
I quite like having had the illusion that, given a sudden gift of time, I would put my financial affairs in order, read difficult books like Finnegans Wake, do courses (Modern Art, The Science of Well-being and The Brain and Space all await my log-in), and clear away the clutter of years – no, decades.
We think we are more clear-seeing, less given to bias or ideological distortions, than the average man or woman
It turned out that I was unexpectedly busy during the lockdown but that’s not why I neglected the to-do list. Not getting things done is less a question of time than of unwillingness to do them in the first place, as my dynamic, illusory self is fond of telling me.
In this challenging world would you really want to be without your illusions?
Research – a lot of it – tells us we think we are more intelligent, competent and caring than others. Indeed, a subset of the world’s incompetents is said to be made up of people who are too incompetent to know how incompetent they are. I imagine their illusion of competence is comforting for them – just don’t let them fly a plane or run, say, one of the most powerful countries in the world.
We also think we are more clear-seeing, less given to bias or ideological distortions, than the average man or woman.
We think we are less likely to get divorced than the statistics suggest. (Well, would anybody walk up the aisle without the rosy glow of illusion?).
See how much of the flavour of life we would miss out on without our illusions?
The novelist Henry Fielding wrote three centuries ago that everybody, no matter how high or low in rank, can point to somebody who is above them and somebody who is below them. In a hierarchical world the illusion that you are always “above” somebody contributes to a certain contentedness.
It contributes to self-esteem too without costing very much. Admittedly, research shows that some people have high self-esteem without having illusions but I’m not sure I’d be inviting them along on a fun night out.
Positive illusions about our own strengths can help us in tackling illnesses, in doing exams and in other situations
Taken too far illusions, like everything else, can lead us astray. We might fail to put in the hard work to achieve something we imagine we already have, or put too much hard work into something we can never have because we haven’t the talent for it. It can make us sad if we turn our illusions into impossible demands and sometimes cutting those demands down to size is an aim of counselling. And if we throw money into the illusion that our un-researched business idea is a guaranteed success, we can fall into a pit of debt.
For most of us, though, our illusions are not too exaggerated, and we adjust our expectations downward fairly easily when confronted with reality. And positive illusions about our own strengths can help us in tackling illnesses, in doing exams and in other situations, various studies suggest.
As for those tax returns, a warning shot fired into my inbox by the Revenue Commissioners recently tells me that if I file them on ROS, I have until the 12th of November to get them in. That will be no trouble, sir. No trouble at all. In fact, I’d say I will get them done by the end of the week. Yes.
Padraig O’Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, @PadraigOMorain