Martha Beck: When Is It Okay to Lie?
Honesty is the best policy, says Martha Beck—except when it isn't. Here's how to know when to fess up, when to keep mum, and when to lie through your teeth.
Illustration: Dan Page
Questions for Clearing Denial
- What am I afraid to know?
- What am I hiding?
- What do I almost know?
- What knowledge am I avoiding?
Warning: The truth generated by this exercise may rock various boats in your life. But to continue lying is to doom yourself to endless misery. Sit and breathe the truth for a while. Feel how clear and bracing it is.
Rule 2: Tell your loved ones as much truth as you can.
A 2012 study found that when subjects told just three fewer white lies per week, they reported noticeable relief from tension and melancholy and fewer physical ailments like sore throats and headaches. Maybe that's because lying, even to please someone, means giving up the chance to be genuinely known, understood, and loved as we are. Conversely, if someone's lying to us, then no matter how much we adore him or her, we're loving a fiction. Without honesty, people feel emptiness and disconnection. People grow apart when they don't share what's happening to them as they grow.
If any of your valued relationships feel strained, you must determine where telling more truth will clear the way to more intimacy. Maybe you've been saying "I'm fine" when you're not fine, concealing problems that affect your mood, or feeling that your loved one isn't being open with you. If you continue to follow rule 1, you'll know that your only job is to tell your truth, then respond honestly to whatever happens next.
If your loved ones match your truth telling by telling more truth themselves, you'll grow closer. If they lie, you may have to accept—and grieve—the distance that will continue to open between you. The good news is that as long as you never lie to yourself, you'll have the clarity to heal from broken connections with amazing speed and form new bonds with more honest people.
Rule 3: Tell acquaintances enough truth to maintain optimal connection.
Sometimes your life is full to the brim with significant others, and adding more intimacy from more people would be like stuffing in six slices of pie after Thanksgiving dinner. At other times you may be hungry for more friendship. Remember, intimacy increases with honesty. Share less to keep people away and more to draw them closer.
For example, say you're coming out of a rough performance review with your horrible boss, and a coworker asks, "So, how'd it go?" If you don't want to connect more closely with this acquaintance, go ahead and fib: "It was okay." But if you'd like a closer relationship, tell the truth: "I've had colonoscopies that were more fun." Now it's your coworker's turn to deflect or invite friendship. If she doesn't want to know you better, she'll lie politely: "Sorry to hear that—oh, there's my cell phone." If she wants to cultivate you as a friend, she can open up about herself: "I once had a performance review that put me in a three-month coma."
The key to this dance of openness is to reveal just a bit of the truth at a time. There's no need to blurt out your life story to everyone who says hello, or to embrace every acquaintance who decides to share details about the time she got her sinuses scraped. Tell a bit of the truth, evaluate the reaction, then tell a bit more—or not. You'll decide as you go, reevaluating with each new interaction. This gradual approach allows you to adjust your relationships without undue drama, oversharing, or hurt feelings.
Rule 4: If you're desperate to kill a relationship, lie.
Only in relationships that are already weird and awful is lying an ideal communication technique. So again, if a tyrannical dictator has you in captivity, go ahead and lie. Kill that connection right now. But if you think lying will "protect" a person or relationship you value, go back to rule 1. Your own heart will tell you that no matter how protective lying may feel, it always poisons connection.
You possess an innate ability to know when you're breathing easily and when you feel choked by secrets and falsehoods. Let yourself know what you know. Open up to the ones you love most. Maintaining honesty and clarity at the center of your world will help you know how much truth to tell in every situation you face. And that's no lie.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One.