The therapists and clients in my therapy community all use a series of six self-care contracts as guiding principles in their lives. One of those contracts is “I will not be sneaky or lie. I will be honest with myself and others.”
I hold telling the truth in high value and have for a long time. Has being upfront and telling the truth always been important to me? Not at all. I know that I was sneaky and told lies during a good part of my childhood and early teenage years.
In some families, being sneaky and lying may be the only way for children to have power and to do the things that they want to do. To some extent that must have been true for me. I don’t have any memory of how often I engaged in those behaviors, but I do remember one notable example. One day, my mother asked me if I had practiced my accordion, an instrument I hated. I immediately said yes. When she took me to the closet where it was stored, I was dismayed to discover that there was a big rug rolled up against the closet door. There was no way I would have been able to move the rug to get to the accordion. Did being caught in a blatant lie make me change that behavior? No it didn’t. What I learned from that incident was to be much more careful when I told lies. I don’t remember when I made a decision to stop lying, but I did. It may have been in ninth grade when my spiritual journey became so important to me.
One thing that is guaranteed to rile me up is if I find out that someone has lied to me. That seems ironic considering that I used to lie. However, as a therapist I have learned that we are very likely to get triggered when others do the same unhealthy behaviors that we consciously, or unconsciously do (i.e. they are being a “mirror” for us) or when we have not completely forgiven ourselves for our past mistakes. I know I still carry some guilt for all the lies I told during the early years of my life, even though I have some understanding of why I told them.
There is a quote that is often attributed to Buddha that says: “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, 1) is it true, 2) is it necessary, and 3) is it kind?” While I am not always successful, I strive to keep those three criteria in mind when I speak. That doesn’t mean that the people I’m talking to will think that what I have to say meets all of the criteria. As a therapist, I often say things that are hard for clients to hear. At the time, they may think I am being unkind and that my words were unnecessary, but later, they may change their minds.
Is it ever okay to tell a lie? If someone was in danger and telling a lie would help keep them safe, then I believe the lie would be warranted. In most other cases though, a lie would be unnecessary and potentially harmful to ourselves or others.
If our needs conflict with others desires, we may be tempted to lie. For example, if someone wants us to spend the evening with them we may create some fictitious obligation when the reality is that we just want some quiet time at home. It might be difficult or even frightening to tell the truth, but most people will understand, and even if they don’t, the truth isn’t likely to do as much damage to the relationship as getting caught in a lie. Even if we don’t get caught, when we lie to someone, our sense of self-respect may be damaged. We may not know the effect of all the little lies on our psyche until sometime long into the future.
When people shift from being sneaky or telling lies to being honest, they often believe that they have to tell other people everything. That was true for me. If I didn’t tell people the whole story, I felt like I was lying. I soon learned that was not the case. Generally, our thoughts and actions, whether past or present, are our business. There is no need to share them with others unless we want to. It is not lying to keep private things private. In fact, it may be good self-care. Disclosure is an area that requires discrimination.
There are many times when it would be impossible to tell the whole truth and keep the criteria of saying only what is true, kind and necessary. That doesn’t mean that we have to lie though. It may be a time for silence.
Two areas that I continue to work on are not minimizing my own needs and not exaggerating. Recently someone pointed out to me how something they had done had impacted me in a negative way. Instead of acknowledging that what they had said was true, I started talking about a past experience with someone else that had hurt me more. In a way, that was minimizing the situation, and I missed an opportunity to talk about an ongoing problem.
My speech used to be peppered with exaggeration. I spoke of “millions” of this and “tons” of that. I know there are many other examples, even in the present, of how I exaggerate but I’m not remembering them in the moment. When I find myself exaggerating I correct myself internally, and ideally clear it with the person I have spoken to as well.
I think learning to be upfront and honest, yet still use discrimination, is a lifetime process, or at least it will be for me. But I believe it is worth every bit of effort I put into the journey.
Written for Dungeon Prompts- Season 3, Week 5- For What Would You Lie?