Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

Make it Safe to
 Tell the Truth

Use dishonesty to
heal, not blame

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/relate/keys/honesty.htm

Updated 02-18-2015

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      This YouTube video provides perspective on what you'll read in this article. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons. I've reduced that to 7:

      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. These articles build on Lessons 1 thru 3, and prepare you for Lesson 5 (evolve a nourishing family) and Lesson 6 (learn to parent effectively).

      This article is for people wanting to improve honesty in themselves and their relationships. The article offers...

  • perspective on...

    • why we all lie at times,

    • family secrets,

    • "pathological (compulsive) liars,"

    • enabling others by lying,

    • "white lies," and...

    • honesty and intimacy

  • four common "dishonesty problems," and...

  • options for improving honesty with yourself and others.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 3

  • requisites for a mutually-satisfying relationship,

  • ways to analyze and resolve typical relationship problems, and...

  • fundamentals of win-win problem solving
     

      How recently have you lied to or withheld some truth from someone? Can you say why you did so? How did you feel about yourself? How did it affect your relationship? Your self esteem? How recently has someone important lied to you? How did you feel and react?  

colorbutton.gif The Truth About Dishonesty

All adults and kids distort or withhold the truth occasionally. We lie with words and/or with our faces, bodies, voice tones, and silences. We also tell ourselves small to major lies - delusions, distortions, denials, repressions, hallucinations, and paranoias. Why do we all do this?

      Early in life, we learned to withhold, shade, or distort our truth when we felt it wasn't safe to be honest. Experience taught us that if we were truthful, someone would cause us significant physical and/or emotional pain - shame, guilt, rejection, fear, or loss. The pain could come from...

  • our tireless Inner Critic, who causes shaming thoughts like "You worthless, pitiful, loser;" or...

  • someone we depended on to fill key current needs, starting with our parents and other caregivers.

      So lying is not a character defect, "weakness," or a despicable moral "failing." It's a symptom of psychological wounding and the normal human needs for security and comfort. So if you want people (including kids) to tell you their truth, take responsibility for making it safe enough for them to do so. If they don't feel safe enough internally (from self-generated shame, guilt, remorse, regret, and fear), that's beyond your control. You can control how you react to them.

      Safe from what?

Primal Safeties

      All adults and kids need to feel consistently safe enough from the pain of...

  • private or public shame ("I'm stupid, unlovable, ugly, inept, and worthless");

  • excessive guilt ("I've done something really bad or wrong"),

  • social rejection (abandonment and loneliness);

  • anxieties and fears (loss of security);

  • regret and remorse;

  • losses (broken bonds) and grief; and pain from...

  • despair - the loss of hope and motivation..

These may combine at times to cause the pain of overwhelm

      Reality check: think of the last person you lied to, and identify the discomfort you needed to avoid ["If I had told the truth, then... (what painful thing might have happened?)"]. Now recall the last person who lied to you, including a child. What discomfort did they (probably) fear? Do you respect their right to protect themselves from pain as much as your right to do so?

About "Pathological Liars"

      Have you ever met a "pathological liar"? That's a shaming "hand-grenade" label because it carries powerful associations of mental illness, craziness, sickness, unreliability, dishonesty, and inferiority. Saying or thinking this label damages relationships and degrades communication effectiveness.

      If you accept that adults and kids lie because their ruling subselves feel unsafe, then a more accurate, neutral label is "S/He's very wounded, and her/his false self often feels it's unsafe to tell the truth."  If you're uncomfortable with a statement like this, check yourself for psychological wounds!

      This YouTube video offers perspective on "pathological liars":

Family Secrets

      Some insecure, unaware adults promote dishonesty by justifying and enforcing "family secrets." These can be hiding the truth from (a) each other ("Mom's a closet alcoholic.") and/or (b) from non-family members ("Don't tell strangers our family's business!). Each of these is an attempt to avoid expected pains (above). Secrets are transmitted through silence and/or verbal rules - "We don't talk about what Uncle Charley did to Rebecca."

      Often the ritual of keeping family secrets passes down the generations, until the original reasons are lost or gone (e.g. "Divorce is no longer as shameful as it once was"), and/or some family member decides to tell the truth.

      Therapist Claudia Black highlighted this dynamic in her pioneering book "It Will Never Happen to Me." She observed that typical dysfunctional (low nurturance) families silently enforce the rules "Don't ask, don't tell, and don't feel." My experience as a family therapist since 1981 validates her observation. Do these silent rules shape your family relationships? If so, who makes and enforces these rules? What would it take to change them?

      If you're choosing to keep and pass family secrets on, what inherited shame, guilts, and/or fears control you? What are your kids learning about telling the truth in and about their family? For more perspective on family secrets, see this after you finish here..

Protecting Others From Pain (Enabling)

      Lying to protect someone else from psychological pain can be caring and/or selfish. Do you agree? If you tell the truth and see that it hurts your listener, I doubt that your Inner Critic praises you as a wonderful person. Protecting others from discomforts ("hurt feelings") often helps us avoid guilt, shame, anxiety, and remorse. Do you agree?

      In the context of relationships, enabling is hindering someone from admitting a self-harmful condition like addiction, self-neglect, or a disabled true Self, by not offering them the truth as you see it. The line between short-term compassion and long-term enabling can be hard to see. Has anyone ever impeded your growth by withholding important feedback about you?

      Protecting and comforting others is considered noble and compassionate. This can be self-serving by sparing us the discomfort of being with someone in pain. You cannot hurt someone's feelings - only they can. Do you agree?

      A fundamental decision underlying every relationship is "Who is responsible for the quality of your life and mine?" Taking responsible for an able adult's comfort and safety is inherently disrespectful and potentially harmful. It implies "I don't trust you to take adequate care of yourself, and I know better than you."

      From this view, sparing people from "hurt feelings" by lying delays their potentially hitting bottom and healing. The challenge is to decide "I want to help you by not helping you," without excessive anxiety and/or guilt. Can you maintain this attitude about able people you care about?

      For more perspective on enabling, see this after you finish here. 

About "White Lies"

      Do you condone or tell occasional "white lies"? These are intentional (conscious) untruths we feel are minor, well-meant, harmless, and morally acceptable ("I told Marissa I liked her new blouse, but it was really ugly!"). Habitual white lies ("shading the truth") can be toxic to ourselves and our relationships because they may...

  • violate our integrity and diminish our self respect;

  • reduce other people's trust in us, because we "leak" our true feelings and give double messages;

      And white lies may...

  • seduce us into justifying "bigger" deceptions; and...

  • encourage impressionable kids to justify "small lies" without guilt.

      The adjective "white" here is associated with "good," and "acceptable" because "I mean you no harm." By implication, deceptions which intentionally promote or allow harm to someone would be "black," often associated with evil and immorality.

      Typically, we tell white lies because (a) it's easy, (b) it avoids discomfort from upsetting others, and/or because (c) we don't know how to give honest, respectful ("tactful") feedback. For example, you could avoid pretending to like Marissa's ugly blouse by saying something sincere like "Well, my preferences in colors and patterns differ from yours. I'm glad you feel good in this blouse."

      Pause, breathe, and notice your thoughts now. Is your true Self guiding your other subselves now?

  Honesty, Trust, and Intimacy

      Would you agree that "satisfying relationships" depend partly on mutual trust? This treasure comes from experiencing each other over time as steadily wanting to be "honest" and "genuine" - i.e. "saying what we mean, and meaning what we say." Trust grows from behaving in a way that consistently matches others' expectations of us in various situations ("I can always count on Mei Ling to see the bright side of things," or "She'll always tell me honestly how she feels.")

       Think of someone you distrust, partially or completely. Can you count on them to want to tell you their truth in all situations? How do you respond to this distrust - acceptance? Avoidance? Confrontation? Repression? Justification? Complain? Criticize? Gossip? Excuses? Do you get your relationship needs met well enough often enough with this person? 

      Depending on the levels of mutual trust and acceptance, some relationships achieve the prize of intimacy. Best friends and lovers strive to maintain this prize - trusting each other to want to risk being completely honest ("vulnerable") about their most sensitive feelings, thoughts, limits, failures, and dreams. Have you experienced this with someone?

      True (vs. pretended) intimacy flourishes with (a) self awareness and (b)  mutual respect + acceptance + forgiveness + compassion - i.e. with "love". These traits usually require each person's true Self to be consistently guiding them. Do you have any intimate relationships now? If so, how would you describe the level of mutual honesty you share? 

      For more perspective on primary-partner intimacy, see this after you finish here.

 colorbutton.gif Dishonesty "Problems"  

      I assume you're reading this because:

  • Some dominant subselves are afraid to face your own truth (denial or repression), and/or...

  • You're afraid to tell someone something important because...

    • that may cause them significant discomfort (you take responsibility for their feelings), and/or...

    • you may be judged to be "rude," "insensitive," or "selfish;" and/or...

    • disclosing your truth may damage or end your relationship, and/or honesty...

    • may force one or both of you to face something painful, scary, or overwhelming; and/or...

  • You feel someone is lying about something important to you, themselves, and/or someone else; and/or...

  • Someone accuses you of lying when you're telling the truth.

      Let's explore some options for managing each of these common problems...

colorbutton.gif Options

      In any situation like those above, you have many choices to improve honesty with yourself and with other people. For example...

In All Situations...

  • assess yourself for significant psychological wounds. If you find any, make wound-reduction a top personal priority - i.e. patiently progress at Lesson 1. If you skip this or put it off, these other options will be of little or no help. After you study parts 1 thru 3 of this lesson, then see this parts-work strategy for stopping the compulsion to lie.

  • assess your knowledge about effective thinking and communication, and intentionally improve your skills and outcomes with adults and kids.

  • evolve and use a meaningful Bill of Personal Rights with your Self (capital "S") guiding you;

  • learn how to spot and relate to significantly-wounded adults and kids

  • tailor these options for giving effective feedback to other people, and...

  • assess and reduce any relationship barriers like these. .

      These six options have many relationship benefits, not just improving honesty!

      Let's look at additional options for each of the "dishonesty problems" above...

1) You Fear Your Own Truth

      Three common ways Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) avoid their truth are denial, repression, and distortion. The "you" who is afraid is probably one or more Inner Kids and their devoted Guardian subselves who don't yet trust your true Self and Higher Power to keep them (you) safe enough. Each subself may have different fears, and they may scare each other.

      To reduce self-dishonesty over time...

learn about normal personality subselves and psychological wounds;

confirm you have significant wounds, and identify which ones;

commit to reducing them over time - specially excessive reality distortions like denial and repression, and excessive fears; Then...

learn how to identify each scared subself, and work with her or him patiently to (a) develop trust in your talented Manager subselves, and (b) reduce their anxieties to normal.

      For more perspective, see this after finishing this article.

2) You Fear Telling Someone Else the Truth

      Local or frequent fear of full disclosure suggests that a protective false self dominates you. A related problem may be your well-intentioned People Pleaser and/or Martyr subselves are taking responsibility for the other person's feelings (enabling them). If you have this problem now, keep the other person/s in mind as you review these options...

  • free your Self to guide you, and check yourself for codependence;

  • keep your Inner Critic from taking you over - there is nothing bad or wrong with trying to keep yourself safe!

  • define and use your Personal Bill of Rights;

  • avoid enabling other people by withholding important truths;

  • identify your scared subselves and their specific fears (per above), and view their fears as helpful, not "negative";

  • evolve your skills at effective assertion and giving respectful feedback to others (ref. Lesson 2);

  • tailor and apply these guidelines for improving communication outcomes and relationships; and...

  • use these powerful guidelines as you make your decisions.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect. Do these options seem useful in your situation? Is there anything that might block you from using them?

      Another common dishonesty stressor occurs when...

3) You Feel Someone Else is Lying About Something Important

      Tho each situation is unique, consider these choices.

  • put your Self in charge of your other subselves;

  • Get quiet and undistracted, and identify why the dishonest person's behavior affects you - what do you need?

  • recall that kids and adults lie when truth-telling seems unsafe internally and/or socially, and regard the other person with empathy and respect, not scorn.

If They're Lying to You...

  • if and when appropriate, (a) tell the person you're having trouble believing them about _____. Expect normal resistance (denial, outrage, justifications, evasions, denials, attacks, withdrawals, etc.) without blame;

  • Avoid lengthy explanations or justifications. They'll only provoke arguments, denials, counterattacks, and/or withdrawals;

  • After each "resistance, listen empathically, and then repeat your observation briefly and calmly with good eye contact;

  • Consider asking something like "Am I doing something that makes telling me the truth feel unsafe?"

  • Consider using an assertive 'I-message' like...

"(Name), when I'm unable to believe you on (this topic), I lose trust in you in general.

If the other person has lied to you repeatedly, you may say something like...

"(Name), I've lost my (situational or general) trust in you. Are you willing to work with me to rebuild my trust?" If the other person is significantly wounded, be prepared for evasion, ambiguity (double messages), denials, attacks, arguments, or "No."

If Someone Lies to Another Person

      In addition to the general options above...

  • decide if you need to confront the liar. If you do, (a) be clear on what you need (e.g. to preserve your integrity and self respect), and (b) intentionally avoid enabling the dishonest (wounded) person.

  • Option - confront the liar calmly, and tell them factually what you observe (vs. what you assume). Expect defensiveness, justification, hostility, or other normal "resistance." Use empathic listening, and restate briefly and calmly what you observe.

  • Option - inform the other person you think they've been lied to. Get very clear why you're doing this. If you do, consider telling the dishonest person of your actions and why you made them. First check to see if they're open to some constructive feedback.

  • Option - tell the scared person how their behavior affects you and your relationship with them. Typical effects are loss of respect and trust, frustration, avoidances, and perhaps gossip and social labeling ("Maria is a liar.") 

      A final common "dishonesty problem" is...

4) Someone Accuses You of Lying When You're Telling the Truth

      Normal reactions are to feel hurt, frustrated, resentful, and angry; and to protest, deny, explain, vent, withdraw, and/or blame. These usually serve to amplify the stress between both people, unless each is guided by their true Self. Options -  

  • put your Self in charge of your other subselves;

  • use calm empathic listening to confirm you're hearing the other person clearly;

  • seek friendly eye contact, assert your truth simply and directly ("I'm telling you the truth"), and  calmly expect resistance (like accusations, name-calling, attacking, and/or generalizing...);

  • assume the other person is unaware of being controlled by a suspicious false self, which needs to distort reality, so s/he is unable to trust appropriately;

  • decide if you need to use an assertive ''I"-message. If you do, take time to compose one, and deliver it calmly and respectfully e.g.

"(Name), when you accuse me of lying when I'm telling the truth, I feel hurt, frustrated, and irritated."

Expect resistance, without blame. Use empathic listening, and repeat your I-message calmly, with good eye contact. Repeat this sequence as often as you need to.

  • if the other person knows about subselves and false selves, consider asking something like...

 "Which of your subselves needs to feel that I'm lying?"

  • Intentionally avoid getting hooked into long defensive explanations, changing the subject, apologizing, placating, and/or bringing up other issues ("Well how 'bout the times you've lied to me about _____?!") 

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - do these options seem useful in your situation? Is there anything that might block you from using them? What may happen if you try your version of them?

      If you find yourself in other "dishonesty" situations, use the themes here to evolve effective responses. The more you use these options, the more automatic they'll become. Reflect - is there someone else you'd like to discuss the ideas in this article with and/or to ask to be a mutual-accountability partner as you practice them?

colorbutton.gif Recap

      This Lesson-4 article proposes that dishonesty occurs when a subself or a person fears that telling the truth will cause themselves and/or someone else  significant pain - i.e. shame, guilt, fear, hurt, grief, regret, sadness, and/or despair. The article suggests that to increase honesty among subselves or people, you can intentionally seek to make it safer to tell the truth.

      Keys to doing this are (1) keep your true Self in charge; and (2) practice personal and social awareness; and the other effective communication skills (Lesson 2).

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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