Americans lie an average of 11 times per week. This can take a toll on one's relationships, physical health and mental health.
A study by Anita Kelly and Lijuan Wang of the University of Notre Dame looked at lying and quality of life. Over a ten-week period of time, two groups of subjects were asked weekly, while being given lie detector tests, how many lies they had told. One of the groups was encouraged to stop telling major and minor lies for the ten weeks.
Both groups ended up lying less over the course of the study, which is not surprising; when you focus your attention on something you are much more likely to improve your behavior around it. For example, if you weigh yourself regularly you are more likely to lose weight; if you carry a pedometer to measure the number of steps you take, you are more likely to take more steps.
Those in the group encouraged to not lie told fewer lies than the other group, though. The important element of this is that in any given week when people lied less, they also reported that their physical and mental health was better and that their relationships were better.
This is not shocking, of course. Lying leads to greater distrust; honesty is one of the foundations of trust. If you tell a lot of lies, people will trust you less and your relationships will suffer for it. Lying also is stressful; you have more of a sense of isolation, and there is pressure to keep track of the lies that you tell.
When you have to hold something in your mind, it takes energy and focus, and that limits your capacity for other things. When you have a list of things to do in your head, for example, one of the great stress reducers is to write them down where you know you will look at them. Then you can relax your mind regarding that list and focus elsewhere. When you lie a lot, you have in effect a long list in your mind, and that can wear on you.
Sally Theran of Wellesley College reported on another study at the August meeting of the American Psychological Association: "My research on girls and boys… indicates that the process of being authentic, or being honest and open in meaningful relationships, is significantly related to feeling less depressed and having higher self-esteem…. There may be increased conflict, as a result of being open and honest, but it leads to a better quality of friendships."
Okay. Again, this is common sense, right?
And yet we establish habits over time, and those habits are more or less automatic. If you've learned that you have to lie in order to get by, or to avoid dangerous conflict, or to save yourself from some kind of significant pain, then you get used to lying and you tend to do it more often.
With our tendency to see what we expect to see, and with the decrease in authentic communication and feedback that could tell you otherwise, it can be easy to think that it's a good thing that you know how to lie and are comfortable with lying, and this pattern reinforces itself.
But here's where this can get tricky: I have colleagues who believe that if you don't express every feeling or impulse to your mate you're being dishonest. I have watched these folks say the most awful, hurtful, vile things to each other, calling each other the most insulting names in the process. Their impulse is sometimes to hurt the other, and so they do it.
It doesn't work very well for them.
By this philosophy, the whole concept of honesty and authenticity gets twisted in a post-modern tangle of unbridled whim. In particular, this reflects the Logical Positivist position that "if you don't know everything, you can't know anything." By this way of thinking, if you don't express literally everything that goes through your mind, you can't be honest.
This is, of course, ridiculous. To be honest is not to be brainless. To be honest does not mean that you let fly anything that comes to mind.
Honesty is an element of integrity. To have integrity is to literally integrate your thoughts, feelings, experience, values and knowledge. That means that honesty requires consciousness.
You may feel, at a given moment, annoyed with a behavior that your mate or child or friend is engaged in. It may be appropriate to say in that moment, "That's really annoying me right now. Could you please stop?" Or it may not be appropriate. Your mate may be practicing a skill that he or she is trying to master – playing an instrument, for example – and at this stage of the game it doesn't sound very good.
Do you express your feelings at that moment? Do you say, "That sounds awful! I can't stand listening to this!"? Probably not. Those might be the words that come to mind and you may feel that way but that is your reaction, not you. What is authentically you is not just your reactions or feelings, isolated and in the moment.
Let me emphasize this: Your reactions, passing feelings and impulses are not you. They are pathways that you have laid down in your brain over time, consciously or unconsciously, so in that sense they are part of you; but you have a conscious say in those pathways – you can change those pathways.
What is authentically you includes your values, your priorities, and how you choose to be in relation with the people in your life. To be authentically yourself requires that you integrate your feelings, impulses and reactions with your values and priorities and how you choose to be in relationship.
If you value supporting your mate in learning new skills, you understand that practicing this instrument is important to your mate, and this not very aesthetically pleasing stage of learning an instrument is part of the journey. So you either go out for a walk or you find a way to re-evaluate the situation and your feelings so that you focus on your love and support for your mate, and not your own feelings in the moment.
You may also figure out with your mate a way to minimize the annoyance over time – perhaps by creating a practice room with soundproofing.
But honesty is not about simply reacting.
You know when you are lying to cover something up, to save face, to avoid an inevitable conflict. Don't do that. It doesn't work. Not really.
But you also know, if you pay attention, whether by expressing your feelings what you are really doing is indulging a feeling, impulse or automatic reaction. Don't do this, either. Instead, use your mind to understand what you're feeling, and then decide what you want to do with those feelings.
That is not dishonesty; it is self-possession. The capacity to own your own life, to regulate yourself, is the hallmark of humanity.
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