Whether we’ve been taunted with it, chanted it ourselves, or been a bystander as the schoolyard chorus of “Liar, liar pants on fire!” (or an equivalent adult accusation) rang out, the sting of shame is unmistakable. The judgement is clear and unwavering.
We often take ‘catching’ someone not telling ‘the truth’ as license to label them as bad, weak, callous or uncaring. But is that impulse actually just, wise, or even true?!
I recently heard an audio by Alison Armstrong that had me reflecting on my ideas around lying – why we lie (whether or not we’re willing to admit it, we all do!), the many ways we lie (overtly, by omission, what we emphasize etc.), what triggers us to lie (in most cases it’s a protective human response), and perhaps most significantly for me, how we might create conditions that encourage ourselves and each other in truth telling.
Here’s the truth – it’s painful to be lied to, and when it happens, we tend to take it personally. Even if the words don’t come out our mouths, the thought that’s likely running in our minds is “How could you lie to me?!”
One of the powerful distinctions Alison made was the distinction between truth – saying what is actual or factual, what we think or feel in the moment (and the importance of recognizing that ten years from now, what’s true for us may be different), and honesty – the courageous act of owning up to it when we recognize we’ve lied (which requires a willingness to notice and acknowledge our own instinctive protective response that had us ‘shade’ or hide the truth in the first place).
And that’s the thing – most of us don’t lie to each other (or indeed ourselves) because we don’t care. In fact the opposite is more often true. Think about what it’s like for you when things begin to feel challenging …
the more courage
it takes for us to speak what’s really true.
When the pressure of the challenge is sustained and the alarm in our brains is really triggered, those instinctive human fight or flight impulses are engaged, stress hormones flood our bodies, and we actually no longer have full access to our thinking mind. With the biological disconnect between these two parts of our brains we experience a sense of disconnection with our deepest truest selves, and we’re capable of acting out in all kinds of ways – including lying in one form or another.
As human beings we are biologically programmed to protect ourselves against the things we fear (like not having the things we think we need, feeling embarrassed, or rejected), to preserve opportunities or gain advantage (leading to our success, or gaining information or resources we think will impress others), and to provide things we think are important (for ourselves or others – especially things we believe will have them better provide or protect us, or give us more of what we think we need).
Generally, we want to feel trusted and respected, we want to not upset or disappoint others, we want to feel like we belong and are connected, we want those around us to feel ‘good’. These are all wonderful intentions, and from the comfortable vantage point of sitting quietly reading this eNews, we may wonder if these are what we truly want, then why would we risk lying? Surely, it’s clear that lying doesn’t really bring us more respect, or deeper connections.
But as Alison succinctly pointed out …
Instinct isn’t a long-term planner!
It’s not hard to see that when they’re operating below the level of our consciousness, these deeply rooted biological desires to protect, preserve and provide actually make us more susceptible to lying.
Telling the truth is a victory of the human spirit. So, if our intention as we meet those challenging moments in life is to be a stand for more truthtelling, then we have a compelling reason to fan the flames of this spirit and expand our capacity for powerful authentic presence.
That way we’re more prepared to not be so personally devastated when someone lies to us, instead to honour the humanity in ourselves and others. And we’ll be better equipped to respond when we’re lied to – either by speaking what’s true for us in that moment, or if we recognize that in our own humanity we’ve perhaps lashed out in response, or not spoken as deeply truthfully as we might, we can model more of what we want to create in our relationships by honestly acknowledging this, and sharing what’s actually true for us in that moment.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting we step over ourselves, suck it up, and tolerate people we’re in relationship with lying to us on a regular basis. What I do want to encourage is the expansion of our capacity to respectfully honour our humanity, AND courageously co-create conditions that make it easier for ourselves and others to tell the truth – even when (perhaps especially when) the stakes are high.
What are some things that support honesty and truth telling?
- anything we can do to reduce the amount of pressure we’re putting on others to make a decision … more time and space helps us find and speak our truth
- acknowledging when we notice we’ve been overtly or covertly pressuring others … those times we hear ourselves saying things like “So what is it? I need your decision now!”
- really appreciating others (and ourselves) when a scary truth is spoken … hearing the truth can piss us off or terrify us, but truly facing it will always set us free!
- rather than either stuffing our emotions inside or allowing them to spew all over others, instead honouring, owning and speaking what we’re feeling so they aren’t having to guess … and translating what we’re feeling into what we’re needing, giving those who care about us the chance to meet those needs
- listening carefully to the tone of an answer or response we get, and not allowing ones that feel half-hearted to slip by (this one’s especially challenging when the half-hearted answer is the answer we really wanted to hear). Instead, be curious, asking the one whose response wasn’t clear what they’d most want to have happen, and together seeing what other co-creation might be possible … when we take a half-hearted response at face value we set ouselves and everyone else up for frustration or disappointment.
I’m wondering what your experience in life has been like. Is the pain of being lied to familiar? As you’ve been reading have you felt a sinking feeling – recognizing some way you might have unconsciously been lying to yourself or others? Or perhaps you’ve felt the dawning of a realization that’s opened you to possibility – maybe a way out of making yourself or others wrong? What did you think about the ideas for creating environments that are more supportive of honesty and truthtelling?
These principles and practices are examples of what we stand for and explore together in our Realizing RICH Relationships community, so if they sound like things you might like to nurture in your life and relationships, I’d love to hear from you.