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We are rarely honest with ourselves, and that is the source of most of our limitations.
Self-deception is very strong. So strong in fact that just reading the sentence above likely has your brain doing some housekeeping – like a messy homeowner receiving unexpected visitors. You may have already tried to shore things up internally, telling yourself “I think I’m pretty honest with myself”.
The reality is you’re not. Instead, we substitute stories for truth, because the stories make us feel better about ourselves, and the world. It may feel better, but this dishonesty is dangerous and limiting.
Why dishonesty is limiting
Dishonesty can be limiting because it allows us to feel good about our accomplishments, our lives, our progress, even when we’re not living to our full potential. “I did my best” and other self-praise is usually self-serving and not accurate. This isn’t to say there’s not a place for feelings of accomplishment or satisfaction, but why do we feel the need to state it? If we were really satisfied, we wouldn’t need to make some declarative statement to ourselves about it. So rather than being an honest observation about our effort, it’s usually a way to tell ourselves that it’s okay to throttle back or not put in any more effort.
The truth is that if we have to actually say we’ve done our best, or we’re satisfied with our effort, we’re just telling ourself a story. When we truly give our best effort, we often say the opposite – “I could have done more”.
People searching for missing children, breaking records, and doing extraordinary things never feel satisfied until they’ve given their last breath or their last dollar. If they’re alive, they didn’t give all, and they know it. Telling ourselves we’ve ‘done our best’ in our everyday lives is really quite laughable in comparison, and clearly just meant to self-soothe (or deceive others – also known as lying).
Real honesty is not about emotional ego-stroking or social conventions. That’s why it is paramount. It does not bend or yield to conditions, best intentions, social graces, or sensitive psyches. It is always reliable, always a lodestar, and thus always available as a place to rely on for absolute clarity. It is a huge source of power for those who allow it to guide their behavior.
Why truth is all powerful
Just as dishonesty and deception keep us hemmed in and stop us from going further, being honest opens all doors. Let’s be clear that we’re not talking here about the childish, classroom version of honesty, the ‘did you take Suzie’s pencil’ honesty. That’s fluff. We’re talking about no-holds-barred self-accountability. We’re talking about stepping on the scale when it shows you’re 10 lbs overweight, and calling yourself overweight, not saying ‘close enough’, blaming the scale, or rounding down. And we’re talking about doing the same thing when it’s showing just one pound overweight – total honesty and accountability.
When we’re fully accountable and don’t hide in our language and self-talk, we gain power. We are finally dealing with life in an uncovered way, touching it with bare hands and not gloved ones. And while that sometimes exposes us to more cuts and scrapes, the payoff comes in feeling life more surely, more viscerally, without the dulling or dumbing down that comes from stories and self-deception. There’s a stronger grip and finer dexterity, and it gives us vastly more control over life.
Why dishonesty is dangerous
We’re been fooled into thinking we’re fragile beings that need constant happy stories and reassurance. Probably the result of being soothed as children. Unfortunately if you don’t learn to move out of that mode as an adult, it becomes damaging. The reason is that it’s false. The same way we can’t expect to build a strong and true relationship on lies, how can we continually lie to ourselves – even in small, seemingly inconsequential ways – and expect our relationship with ourselves, our own reality, to be strong? We can’t. And so the best policy is to stop telling ourselves half-truths and filling our lives with feel-good stories. Stop the damage now, by being totally honest.
The best feel-good is the truth. Yes, at first it’s harder, and it seems unfair and overly self-critical. But that’s only in comparison to the pollyanna stories we’ve been telling ourselves every moment of the day…for decades. The real gift we can give ourselves, and the one that really makes our lives beautiful and extraordinary, is the whole truth. That’s the proper basis on which to establish behavior and actions.
Dishonesty is dangerous. Perhaps more so because it’s so accepted in our culture. It’s completely common to allow this kind of deceptive language from ourselves and others. It even becomes celebrated in our society, with people feeling completely comfortable, even proud, about telling lies to themselves and others to ‘make them feel better’.
This deception toward others has become confused with social graces or etiquette, just as self-deception has become confused with self-esteem. Truth is the only proper basis for relationships with ourself and others. Developing skillful – not deceptive – ways to manage and communicate that truth is valuable. Tact, compassion, understanding, and perspective are the advanced skills we should seek here, not deception or half-truths under the banner of “manners”, meant to avoid sticky or difficult realities.
It starts with language
To start being fully honest, all we have to do is challenge our language. Simply ask ‘is that really true?’. Here are some examples:
Nope. You’re not starving, you’re mildly hungry. You could easily eat later, but you are feeling some discomfort and want that feeling to go away. Own it. That now gives you the choice of either dealing with the feeling or quelling it. That’s POWER. That’s CONTROL. But once you’ve declared ‘starvation’, it’s over. You must eat. You are not in control. It’s your body, not you. And oh boy is it urgent! Quite a story.
“I have to run to the store”.
Nope. You don’t have to do anything. You WANT to go to the store. You’ve decided to do it right now. It could wait. You might also be able to find another way to solve the problem (borrowing something, making use of an existing item, etc). This trip could also be the result of poor planning or an earlier mistake. Or maybe you just want to go for a drive. What’s the truth? Your options open up when, for example, you admit that this urgent need to go to the store is actually just impatience, or the result of poor planning on your part. Owning that opens up doors. It gives you options, it allows you to deal with life honestly, not to robotically make declarations and march your way through these invented stories.
“I got up really early today and worked hard”.
Maybe. You got up earlier than normal today. Does that really matter? Perhaps if you gave the project a bit more thought up front you could have done it in half the time, or avoided it altogether. Not so heroic any more for getting up early to do something that’s completely unnecessary, right? And how hard did you really work? Perhaps you could have worked twice as hard but didn’t. Maybe you actually enjoyed the work and are calling it ‘work’ to shine up your own work ethic badge. Why? No one’s counting but you. Just another self-story really.
At first it can seem harsh to be totally honest with ourselves when we’re not used to it. But once we remove those bulky gloves of self-deception, and run our bare hands over the rough surfaces of life, we realize just how much of it we haven’t felt before. And the grip, the control we have over reality and our lives, becomes infinitely stronger. And once we’ve embraced that for ourselves, only then can we begin to hope to be truly honest with others.
It can be scary, and hard-earned, but real honesty and accountability is a powerful shift, one that opens new doors that others simply cannot (or chose not to) see. And it all begins with the simple question “is that really true”?