The Power of Honesty

We live in a culture that seems to value honesty. “Keeping it real” reflects America’s collective aspiration for authenticity. At the same time, our culture seems to scream at us to conform. Only those who shun all media, for instance, are immune from the constant messaging about the right foods, the right weight, the right hairstyle, the right music, ad infinitum.

So, we often find ourselves going along to get along. But at what cost?

The loss of innocence and the death of honesty

Many of us can remember the searing, confusing journey through adolescence. As we began to fully experience our bodies and assert our identities, life often vacillated between exhilaration and horror.

It was exhilarating to point out our parents’ hypocrisy—At. Every. Opportunity. It was exhilarating to listen to music that drove the adults in our lives crazy. It was exhilarating to say “no.”

It was exhilarating to see and speak the truth and to realize that gave us power.

But then, as if in perfect sync with the rise and fall of our hormones, we were pulled up short for just being who we were.

People love to praise the honest toddler—just check out the thousands of videos of cute kids “telling it like it is” on all our social channels. But adolescents? Nope. Honesty in adolescents is often deemed inconvenient or irrational.

For some of us, especially victims of abuse or neglect, being an honest adolescent could be downright dangerous. As a result, we learn to suppress the truth, not just from our folks or our teachers or even our “friends,” but more precariously from ourselves. A technique for surviving the judgments of others becomes hardwired in our adult brains.

The only thing to fear is fear itself

John Updike once wrote, “Telling the truth is a ruthless act.” Yes, the truth can hurt, but it doesn’t have to be hurtful.

Because we have learned that honesty can lead to conflict—and conflict is to be avoided at all costs—many of us are wallowing in a stew of polite submission or simmering in the hot bath of resentment. We pay the price in wrecked or rocky relationships.

Too many of us, hardwired to avoid conflict at all costs, suppress our natural inclination to ask for what we want or call someone out for the hurt they have inflicted.

This can happen at work: maybe your boss or your team exclude you from decisions; maybe you are relegated to work that does not reflect your strengths or provide you an opportunity for growth; maybe a co-worker’s laziness causes you to look bad.

In our personal lives, our inability to speak the truth often leads to heartbreak. Maybe your husband talks over you whenever you bring up something he disagrees with; maybe your daughter clams up and slams the door every time you ask her to clean her room; maybe your mother always points out that you seem to have gained weight.

You avoid asking, speaking up, pointing out, insisting on better in all of these situations because your brain tells you it will lead to conflict (sure, it might) and that would be horrible.

And maybe you have learned to suppress your needs and wants and observations for the sake of peace, but unless you are a saint, this strategy is not at all sustainable. Likewise, if your modus operandi is to lash out.

Fight or flight might have worked when we needed to keep a look out for lions and tigers and bears, but it does not serve us well in our relationships.

Honesty starts with “I”

The only life worth living is authentic. To get there, we must get comfortable again with telling the truth. And this starts with being honest with ourselves.

If we are unable to excavate our truths, we can’t speak them aloud. If we are stuck in guilt or shame or fear of conflict, we can’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable to being rejected or disappointed or even humiliated. It is in our avoidance that we are never actually free of fear. To get past the fear, we must embrace its possibilities.

Further Reading

Bréne Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, shame and courage.

“Why Be Honest?” by Alex Lickerman, MD in Psychology Today

“Honesty and Respect,” by Claude M. Steiner, Greater Good Magazine

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