Martha Beck: When Is It Okay to Lie?
For example, if you're reading this from a dungeon where a psychotic dictator has imprisoned you for singing his praises too feebly, tell any lie necessary to get the hell out of there. Lies create distance and destroy connections, and that's just what you want in such a sick situation. But if you're hiding bad behavior—say, lying to your loving spouse about your night job cooking methamphetamine—beware. After decades of coaching and weeks of binge-watching Breaking Bad, I know that meth fumes can be ventilated, but lies will destroy your life.
Even those of us who don't run meth labs face a contradiction between our need for honest relationships and the temptation to lie about our failings, desires, and pain. It may seem that lying is easier than honesty—that it has the magical power to spare feelings, preserve comfortable assumptions, and make us appear less flawed than we are. But truth is like fresh, clear air, while lies are like smog that poisons our psyches and interactions. The amount of truth you must tell to any given person depends on how much healthy intimacy you want with that person. The more intimate you want a relationship to be, the more truth you must tell. It's that simple.
The Truth Target
Picture a sphere with yourself at the center—a kind of three-dimensional target with you as the bull's-eye and your closest relationships the next ring out, followed by friends, acquaintances, strangers, and psychotic dictators. In the realm nearest you, you want pure, healthy, honest air. Moving away from the center, the clarity of truth becomes less necessary—as illustrated by the following four rules for determining which truths are worth telling and which aren't worth the bother.
Rule 1: Always tell yourself the truth.
The most intimate connection in your life is the one you have with yourself. Dishonesty in this relationship is at best counterproductive, at worst catastrophic. If you want your life to work, tell yourself the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Of course, this can be difficult. Denial, as they say, ain't just a river in Egypt. We all engage in it, whether occasionally or habitually, often without realizing we're lying to ourselves at all. Fortunately, we can always locate our own untruths: Just follow the fumes of suffering. Believing lies makes us miserable. That's why all effective counseling, from therapy to chatting with your nana, focuses on trusting your gut and owning your thoughts and feelings.
You might tell yourself that letting in only cheerful thoughts (My mother is a saint) invariably creates happiness, but you'd be lying. I can't count the times I've heard clients voice something unpleasant ("My mother can be atrocious"), then breathe a huge sigh of relief—not because they're being negative, but because they're allowing themselves to admit what they already know. Continued investigation reveals more subtle lies ("Mom owes it to me to stop being atrocious!"), which cause suffering until they dissolve into an even deeper truth ("I have no control over Mom, and no idea what her destiny might be. I can only observe her behavior and choose to respond with integrity"). The more we align ourselves with our deepest truths, the clearer, saner, and happier our inner lives become.
Therapists and nanas are all well and good, but I suggest that you learn to counsel yourself—by noticing when you're feeling terrible, allowing yourself to feel those negative feelings, then asking and answering the questions below. For maximum air cleansing, sit quietly with each question until an answer arises, then write down that answer so you won't slip back into denial. The questions are reiterative, because different words elicit different responses. See which works best for you.