This past summer, my husband and I visited a small resort community for a weekend vacation. One morning, we headed into a breakfast café and immediately knew this was not the spot where we wanted to eat one of our few meals out during our getaway. While the restaurant was popular and trendy, we were looking for more of an old-fashioned traditional diner. Rather than honestly tell the young, eager-to-serve us hostess that we were going to search for a different place, I found myself smiling at her and saying that we were going back outside to get the rest of our group. Of course, there was no “rest of our group” and I quickly realized that I told this lie to avoid sharing that we were leaving because we wanted to find a different type of experience. I am quite sure I could have been honest with her, and this young woman would not have taken it personally; there were already several people forming a line behind us. Yet, as so often happens in these situations, I reverted to an untruth in order to make myself feel more comfortable. How many times could we prepare ourselves to “tell the truth,” and how much better would our society be as a result?
Our self-defense mechanisms develop at a young age and we learn to strengthen them to avoid admitting things we may not be especially proud of. This happened on a smaller scale when my husband and I had been married a few years. We were trying hard to save money, and one of our goals was to eat at home as much as possible to avoid the cost of restaurant food. After I returned home from a later work shift one night, I asked him what he had for dinner, and he replied “a turkey sandwich.” The funny part was, I was the one who had done the grocery shopping for the past few weeks, and I knew we had no turkey in the house. Once I pointed this out, he quickly retracted his statement and revealed he had gone out for dinner, but did not want to say this, since it meant he had spent extra money. This gave us an opportunity to realize even in these minor instances, it is far better to tell the truth than try to cover up a few extra dollars spent. The more we get into the habit of telling the truth and working things out when the stakes are small, the easier it is to be honest when there is far more on the line.
When children are confronted with something they may have done wrong, their natural response often is to deny any guilt whatsoever. Naturally, they want to protect themselves and avoid consequences that may result from engaging in bad behavior. Sometimes, there are no immediate ways to determine guilt or innocence, and young people may think they can “get away” with not telling the truth in future situations. As time goes on, they may not get enough practice being honest and taking responsibility for their actions. This approach may feel easier in the short term, but it creates so many problems in relationships, jobs, and personal satisfaction for adults in the long term. When we teach young people to be honest, we are creating future adults who can admit to their mistakes as well as learn and grow from them, ultimately becoming better citizens as a result.
One area where being honest with ourselves and others is especially important involves expressing our feelings. If we learn to identify our feelings and accept them, we save ourselves quite a bit of difficulty. Although we may be concerned about the perception of others, telling the truth feels much better than trying to pretend to feel a way that we do not. I remember an outing this past autumn, where our family arranged to get together with friends who had recently purchased a lake home. Everyone was excited as we headed out to see this home situated on the water, with a beautiful view of the vibrant fall colors as they framed the crystal-clear lake. Unbeknownst to us, our friends had arranged for a picnic lunch on the lake in their pontoon boat. Unbeknownst to them, I had never had formal swimming lessons as a child and to this day I am fearful of being in a boat on a lake. I could pretend I was thrilled to get in that boat, and try to ignore the knot in my stomach and my racing heartbeat; or, I could acknowledge a fear that developed from a lifetime of water avoidance and tell them the truth. With age comes a little more wisdom, and I was able to be honest with our friends. As a result, I had easy access to a life jacket and an extra cautious boat driver, and we all had a much better boating experience.
From our actions to our feelings, it can be incredibly difficult to admit our truths at times, even to those we care most about. As the old saying goes, “the truth always comes out.” This reality will make those who practice honesty sleep better at night, but could cause worries for those who get comfortable telling lies. When it matters most, following an honest path will ultimately help us create better relationships with ourselves and with those who are part of the world around us.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.