Seeing Clearly in a Delusional World


Most of us have what I like to call “Uncle Rico” or “Al Bundy” stories. The person who insists, like those two fictional characters, that if only they hadn’t gotten hurt, or had gotten that first audition, or had someone listen to their mixtape, that they, too, would have made it. You may even have experienced this ‘if only’ moment yourself. For the most part, it’s an innocent quirk of our brain, a sort of protective mechanism that makes sure that our failed goals, hopes, and dreams don’t harm our sense of self too much. The same delusion doesn’t just occur in personal pursuits, but in our beliefs and values too. For example, you might find yourself down the rabbit hole of believing in the latest conspiracy theory or rejecting established and well-tread science. You gradually become a flat-earther, firmly entrenched in the idea that established facts and observations are wrong.

We have a check on this inner delusion, though. Something that keeps many of us from going off the rails. Most of us can’t walk around thinking we are the best artist or football player in the world if we never made it past high school football or art class. Our identities, and the strongly held beliefs that come with them, need to be validated in order to be retained. If those around us don’t reciprocate our world view, it is much harder to walk around with such delusions.

According to identity negotiation theory, we go through a process of exploring our sense of self in the greater context of the world. A student might have a budding interest in writing, for instance. If she gets an A on her major writing assignment, that identity is validated. It becomes a little more important. She starts to derive meaning from that pursuit. And if validated over and over again, she may even start to see herself as a writer. Instead, if she got F after F, goodbye validation; time to explore a new identity. The same thing occurs with our deeply held beliefs that become critical to how we see ourselves.

It is very hard to be a flat-earther by yourself. You need friends.

When a group of researchers studied those suffering from anorexia who had come together in online communities that were “pro-anorexia,” some very harmful trends occurred. The individuals had created their own norms, their own rules, their own way of validating each other’s thoughts, feelings, and sense of self. They insulated themselves in an online world where being severely underweight was a good, decent, and perhaps even desirable thing to do. They were able to validate their sense of self.

Let’s now bring it away from the world of mental illness and into our everyday lives.

A decade or two ago, if you had a crazy pet theory, or if you started spouting off about how a terrorist attack was an inside job by the government, there was little to no validation to be had. First, you were scared to do so, because deep down you knew those ideas might ostracize you from your circle of friends and family members. And even if you brought them up, chances are there wasn’t a person in your neighborhood who would validate them.

If you said something a bit off the rocker, your neighbor Jill wasn’t going to reciprocate. And because that affirmation didn’t come easy, out-there ideas dissipated, they were reduced to a tiny smolder that could be kept at bay for all but the intrepid who sought out some fringe group or part of society where they could have their ideas and identity validated. We all have bad and crazy ideas, but in the past, many of them simply dissipated.

Fast forward to today. Our feedback methods have changed. We have billions of people at our fingertips. With specialized groups, chats, and societies on the internet for just about every belief one could have. Validation of the crazy is easy. With a simple search, we can find a community that not only supports our pet theory or random wondering but also has gobbles of so-called “research” to validate it. Thanks to the ingenuity and intelligence of humans, it often looks well-researched, well-written, and accurate. We can find complex, sciency sounding explanations for just about anything. It’s harder to separate the quacks from reality. And to make matters worse, once we get validation, we can insulate ourselves in these weird internet echo-chambers.

In other words, we become like the group of people experiencing eating disorders. We have our own language, our own rules, our own handshakes, signs, and symbols to tell us that we belong, that our ideas are valid, that our sense of self that is wrapped up in this thing is perfectly okay. That our delusion is, in fact, anything but. That it’s everyone else who is delusional.

It happens in politics, religion, exercise, diet, and just about anything one could be a part of.

There is no easy solution. But I’m convinced that we can no longer rely on the passive process that we have had for so many years, in which we could count on our wise old grandmother to keep us in check, or the neighbor we walk our dogs with to give us that facial expression that signals “what in the world are you talking about” when we bring up an out-there idea.

Checking one’s delusions is now an active process. One that requires self-reflection and the cultivation of friendships with people who will call you on your crazy. It means surrounding yourself with people who will check your delusions. People who will prevent you from getting lost on the internet, where just about anything and everything can be validated.

It also means holding our group identities a bit more loosely. Trying a keto diet may be worthwhile, but being part of the Keto diet diehard community is probably a recipe for disaster. Having a sense of community in your church may be fantastic, but if the entire congregation starts screaming political aimed rhetoric instead of the values for which your beliefs are based, it’s a good sign to leave.

We all have that tendency toward delusion. In our modern world, we need to work harder than ever to keep it in check.


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