For most of us honesty is a quality that we value, though when it comes right down to it, telling the truth isn’t always easy. If it were, we would do it all the time, and we don’t. On a large scale, many environmental, political, and economic disasters would be mitigated by speaking and acting from truth. As a young adult I starved myself, but only learned how to speak from truth in recovering from anorexia. For individuals and cultures, it’s an essential skill to cultivate.
Within families and communities, truth shines light on sexual abuse, substance use, extramarital affairs, mental illness – heavy stuff, scary stuff. We go to enormous lengths to deny and conceal truths that we fear. There are many ways that people strive to contain certain truths from emerging.
As someone in a profession where sharing vulnerabilities is par for the course, I’ve given a lot of thought to why honesty can seem so hard. Though it’s not an exhaustive list, there are at least three reasons why people don’t tell the truth:
- We are afraid of the consequences.
- We don’t trust ourselves.
- We don’t know how.
Let’s look at the first point. Why would someone be afraid of the consequences of truth-telling? The simple answer is that you may not get congratulated for telling the truth. Perhaps you won’t be believed; maybe you’ll be punished. Some of the greatest pain in people’s lives comes from the fallout of revealing a secret. Whether it’s met with incredulity or outright rejection, the invalidation of one’s truth is an awful – and sometimes costly – thing to bear.
As unattractive as the consequences may be, however, consider the alternative: when you lie, contain, or conceal truths, it creates dissonance in the body, mind, and spirit. It disrupts connection with self and others, and deprives you of being seen as you are. Simply put, it’s exhausting to lie.
Concealing a secret gives it a great deal of power, and if there is another person – an abuser, for example – who also knows, it gives them a certain kind of power over you. Revealing a truth, on the other hand, breaks its spell. Shame researcher Brene Brown says, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.” When it’s exposed to the light, however, shame can’t survive – it no longer governs a person in the same way. One can breathe more freely and reconnect with life.
One of the things that can make it hard to tell the truth is not trusting yourself. I think at the root of this obstacle is a fear that if you tell the truth and it blows up in your face, you will not be okay. A lack of validation from others does not alter your inner knowing: trusting yourself means that, no matter what, you know you will be okay.
Maybe someone rejects your honesty; maybe you will lose something valuable to you – a partner, a job, your reputation. Those are real fears, with real consequences. But they must be weighed against the cost of concealment – the stress, alienation, and exhaustion of not fully standing in your truth.
There is a difference, however, between an ‘earned’ truth and an ‘owed’ one. With certain aspects of your life, you get to decide who to tell: just because something is true doesn’t mean that you have to share it with everyone. But it’s also not an excuse to conceal the truth from people who have a right to know. For example, there is a big difference between sharing a mental health diagnosis with others (an earned truth) and sharing an extramarital affair (an owed truth).
Of course, there are exceptions to this (not every marriage is built on a cornerstone of this kind of honesty, but you probably know if yours is one of them). And some people share their truths with everyone – power to you! Trusting yourself in this context means attuning to your powers of discernment: is this a truth that I want to share? Do I have an ethical or legal duty to be honest about this? And then building up the courage and self-love to know that you’ll be okay no matter what the consequence.
Telling the Truth
I used to think that honesty was an end in itself, and that it didn’t matter how it comes out. Then I learned that there is certainly an art – a difference between the soft touch and a sledgehammer. As a teacher of mine once said, “Honesty without compassion is abuse.”
So, how do you tell a difficult truth? An important first step is to – again – reassure yourself that you will be okay regardless of whether you’re believed, validated, congratulated, scorned, rejected, or punished. Know your reasons for speaking up, and honour them. Be proud of the courage that it takes. There is a certain kind of freedom that lies beyond the threshold of a binding secret.
If your secret is personal and vulnerable (for example, a mental health diagnosis or surviving sexual abuse), choose the safest and most trustworthy person that you can share with. Ideally this is someone who will hold and honour your truth, and help you find the resources you need. If by some bad luck that person does not hold your truth well, the problem isn’t with what you’ve said; it’s with who you’ve told.
Trust your inner knowing and keep seeking the support you need: it’s out there, I assure you. There is a reason why you have chosen to share, and the right people are out there to celebrate you. The internet is a great place to find supports if you live in an area with limited resources. Keep trying to find the help you need.
If the truth you need to share is of the “owed” variety (for example, abuse of a child or theft of property) it’s still important to trust your inner knowing. Though there’s a higher possibility of legal ramifications (divorce, fine, incarceration), on a fundamental level you will still be okay. Even with a certain loss of freedom, you may in fact feel liberation: there is relief in unburdening heavy secrets. I’ve often thought that when people ‘get away’ with crimes are often not actually free. Sociopathic tendencies aside, people have to live with their secrets and lies.
Your truth is one of the only things you own: no one can take it away from you. Secrets bind, and truths really do set you free. Work to trust, love, and forgive yourself if need be, so that no matter what happens you have refuge in your being. Seek support and guidance from people you can trust, and please be in touch if you need any extra help. In health and wellness, Deirdre.