How Self-Betrayal Sabotages Your Leadership

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leadership and Self-Deception" by The Arbinger Institute. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does self-betrayal box you in? How does the main character in the story Leadership and Self-Deception betray himself?

In Leadership and Self-Deception, Tom’s manager Bud told him how self-betrayal almost destroyed his marriage. After hearing Bud’s story, Tom started to realize that he was going down the same road.

Keep reading to learn more about self-betrayal in the Arbinger Institute’s book.

Self-Betrayal Boxes You In

The way you get into a box, or become trapped by self-deception, is by betraying yourself. You betray yourself when you choose not to do what you know you should do or actually want to do—for instance, not holding an elevator for someone or feeling that you should apologize to someone but not doing so.

Once you’ve betrayed yourself, you act in destructive ways to justify or rationalize it:

  • You exaggerate other people’s faults.
  • You exaggerate your own virtue or rightness.
  • You overstate the importance of factors that justify your self-betrayal.
  • You blame others for your feelings.

Over time, certain behaviors and justifications can become habitual for you and you apply them (carry your box with you) in many situations.

The Story: How Self-Betrayal Works

As he walked back to the meeting room feeling frustrated, Tom encountered the company CEO, Kate Stenarude, who had succeeded Lou Herbert as president. She was on the way to join their meeting. 

Kate asked how it was going, and Tom said he had learned he was in the box. She replied that everyone found themselves in the box occasionally—the key for individuals and the company was not perfection but to operate outside the box as much as possible. Doing so was critical to providing the kind of leadership that set the company apart.

They joined Bud in the office to continue the meeting, focusing next on how people end up trapped by distorted thinking. Bud started with a story that illustrated the stages of self-betrayal. He was awakened one night by his infant’s crying. His first thought was to get up and take care of the baby so his wife Nancy could sleep. But he didn’t act on it.

Here’s how the self-betrayal process played out in Bud’s example:

1) By not getting up when he knew he should have to take care of the baby, Bud betrayed himself.

2) He started seeing things in a way that justified his choice: Since Nancy didn’t immediately get up either, he started to feel she was being lazy, inconsiderate, or even faking sleep to force him to get up. In reality, Nancy wasn’t nearly as bad as Bud made her out to be. In fact, he’d never noticed any flaws until he needed to exaggerate them to justify his own behavior. 

3) His view of reality became distorted. As Bud began seeing Nancy as an inadequate wife and mother, he began seeing himself as the victim. He was hardworking and important; he had to get up early in the morning, so he deserved uninterrupted sleep. He exaggerated his own virtues—he saw himself as a good husband and father when his behavior demonstrated the opposite.

4) Bud’s distortions and justifications could become habitual (he would carry his box with him) if, the next time the baby cried, he felt no sense that he should respond. 

Tom’s Life in the Box

As he listened to Bud and Kate discuss the crying baby story, Tom couldn’t see how it applied to his relationship with Laura.

He felt resentful toward Laura, but believed his feelings were justified. She seemed to always find fault with him—for instance, complaining that he buried himself in his work and was no longer interested in her. It was true that they seemed to be living separate lives, but that was her fault as much as his. 

He couldn’t have betrayed himself by choosing to ignore her needs—because he didn’t have a sense of something he should do for her in the first place.

However, Bud pointed out that If you’re already in the box, or have a distorted attitude toward someone, you won’t have an impulse to help them—and not having a desire to help someone is a sign you’re in the box.

So after an initial act of self-betrayal that he couldn’t remember, Tom’s pattern of blame and justification in interacting with Laura had become a habit—he carried his box with him. He felt she was being ungrateful for all he did for her whenever she accused him of not caring for her or his son Todd. By continuously exaggerating her faults, Tom could justify not taking her complaints of neglect seriously.

Bud added that many positive self-images are a good thing when you’re out of the box, but become twisted or inaccurate when you’re in the box.

For example if you think of yourself as a good husband but are in the box and you justify not spending time with your wife, then you’re the opposite of what a good husband should be. Outside the box, however, thinking of yourself as a good husband might lead you to do positive things for your wife.

As another example, an in-the-box feeling of being right or always knowing the answer can cause you to make mistakes due to not listening to others. Outside the box, a feeling that you’re knowledgeable can give you the confidence to make difficult decisions.

Generally, you create self-justifying images because you’re concerned about how you look.

Tom began to understand that he was “carrying boxes” or maintaining self-justifying images that determined how he interacted with his wife. While he was angry at Laura for being in the box, he himself was in the box toward her, and he wasn’t seeing her a person with needs on a par with his own.

He began to think that while she had problems, he had problems too. Being open to the possibility that he had a problem was freeing because it meant he could create a better future.

How Self-Betrayal Sabotages Your Leadership

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of The Arbinger Institute's "Leadership and Self-Deception" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Leadership and Self-Deception summary:

  • How self-deception derails personal and professional relationships
  • How to get "out of the box" of distorted thinking
  • Why you need to stop seeing others as obstacles or threats

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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