We tell lies when we are afraid… afraid of what we don’t know, afraid of what others will think, afraid of what will be found out about us. But every time we tell a lie, the thing that we fear grows stronger.
From the time many of us are children, we start to or are unintentionally taught to lie. It is considered a normal part of development because it means that a child has reached a cognitive milestone of knowing what reality is, being able to differentiate between what they know and what others know and deceiving someone. Some children get good at lying.
The messages in my family about lying put me in a double bind. From one parent the message was “Lie for me” and from the other “Don’t lie to me.” Being a double bind, there was no way to win. If I obeyed one, I disobeyed the other.
Because of this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” stance in my childhood, I have a difficult time with lying and liars. The lies that bother me in a big way, are ones that intentionally distort reality, or obscure facts. Surprise parties, and the lies that surround them are the one group of lies that involves distorting reality, that I’m okay with, and I think it is because the liars eventually come clean. The other exception is if your life or physical safety is being threatened.
It seems to me that that our culture gives people the message of “be polite”. Where, being polite, may involve telling many white lies—your girlfriend is wearing a dress that accentuates rather than disguises the fat on her derriere. She asks if it makes her look fat. You think yes, and say “No.” You can’t stand your friend’s cooking. And you tell them you love it!
Right or wrong, people lie on issues like this because of cultural training. That is just one example of lies society condones.
Some people will not tolerate emotional honesty in communication. They would rather defend their dishonesty on the grounds that it might hurt others. Therefore, having rationalized their phoniness into nobility, they settle for superficial relationships.
One major reason we are taught to lie is to protect others feelings, and in the matter of dresses this does not necessarily seem like a huge deal. The intention is to spare the feelings, it doesn’t necessarily distort reality, “fatness” can be a subjective perception.
But if you think she is fat regardless of the dress, you run into questions like “Do I want her to know what my true aesthetic tastes are,” “Does it matter to me if she’s fat,” “Does it matter to her if I lie about this?” And maybe a few other dilemmas that have not occurred to me.
Another reason we are taught to lie is for immediate gratification. That may be as simple as the gratification that comes from avoiding punishment for our actions. Or it may be more complicated like lying about your marital status to a potential lover.
One may find themselves lying about all kinds of things to avoid hurting other people’s feelings in the moment. Things, that down the road, get found out and hurt the other person far more than an initial honest disclosure framed in compassion and kindness.
Another message we get culturally: “Be yourself” or “Be Sincere.”
This seems difficult in the context of our culture. Being ones self sometimes seems in conflict with the culture of white lies, protecting someone else’s feelings., and hiding our actions for immediate gratification. Potentially another double bind.
I interpret this message as: only be yourself / sincere, if other people can handle it.
My personal feeling is that by discouraging honest, compassionate and civil discourse, we have weakened our ability to accept ourselves and others as we truly are. We more often find ourselves offended by opinions that do not match our own. Rather than using these opinions in a potentially constructive way, as pointers toward potential growth, or a way to expand our knowledge of others and the world. Instead, we are indignant, how dare that person not have the same opinion as me!
Susan Jacoby in an interview with Bill Moyers made a similar observation about a trend in our nation of not being curious about opinions different from our own when she said:
In the 19th century Robert Ingersoll, about whom we’ve talked, who is known as the great agnostic, had audiences full of people who didn’t agree with him. But they wanted to hear what he had to say. And they wanted to see whether the devil really has horns. And now what we have is a situation in which people go to hear people they already agree with. What’s going on is not so much education as reinforcement of the opinions you already have.
In my observation, some lies at their core seem to stem from the fear of not getting one’s needs met. The fears may include, but are not limited to things ranging from loosing a friendship, not having enough money, a romantic relationship, safety or the continuance of a “good” reputation, the lie falls from an individual’s lips or fingertips to protect themselves from potential loss.
Fear of change in self image, self esteem or another’s image of you can also motivate lies- again it gives the illusion of preventing loss. If you believe you are a nice person, you may be inclined to believe that by telling your romantic partner that a behavior of theirs hurts your feelings, you will create conflict. Because you might. It is not the conflict that is a problem so much as the belief that that “nice people” do not create conflict. And so you say nothing, meeting one perceived need and quashing another.
Now, you have two problems. 1) Your partner doesn’t have a relationship with your authentic self. 2) Resentment may build up because your partner is still engaging int hat behavior that hurts your feelings, and your thoughts may come tumbling out, and then you’ve got more conflict than you were hoping to avoid by not being honest in the first place.
The fear is that voicing a complaint may cause a break up, or may mean you aren’t “nice.” The reality is that honesty may cause conflict that results in a break-up. And it also gives both you, and your partner the opportunity to share your authentic selves with someone, it may be your partner, and it may be someone new. Either way, you move closer to being with someone who is a good match.
I personally believe that it is an error to believe that telling other people how you feel means you are not a nice person. It is how you do it, not whether or not you do it. An example of how to honestly and kindly voice a complaint is to say something like “When you do ___, I feel ___.” They may not change, and you both have the benefit of honesty. Another is to use a “soft-startup.” If there is violence in your relationship, seek help from a professional.
Looking back over the last ten years, I have noticed that the most drama and friction comes from lies, not the truth told compassionately.
While some lies seem like attempts to reduce hurt feelings, by disguising who you are in favor of the other person in an attempt to reduce drama or friction. I personally believe it weakens our ability to accept others and ourselves as they are. Moreover, I have seen many times where lies like this create more drama and friction, because while the lie reduces drama and friction in the moment, it creates a situation for a much bigger problem in the future. My friend Simon Funk says “Dishonesty is the #1 source of all drama.”
I believe it is possible to be honest with compassion for the person to whom you are being honest with. And, as an article I recently read stated, true compassion includes being compassionate toward yourself, to me, that means honoring who I am, and telling others my truth and the truth while accepting that they may not like me anymore. I generally believe that most people I encounter are honest most of the time, I don’t think our society would be able to function as well as it does if that were not the case.
Honesty is a tricky subject. I think it is generally something that helps us be closer with others and create intimacy with them, for when we are honest with ourselves, others and in our interactions, we are allowing them to know us as we really are, and providing a context in which we can make more informed choices about our lives. Being honest, especially when in doubt is engaging in one of the steps toward self-actualization and authenticity.
I am still working out my opinion on lying, I appreciate any feedback.