Radical Honesty

“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.” —Gaston Bachelard

Our lives are lies. We tell the truth—the real, capital-T Truth—so rarely that we don’t even recognize it when it stares us in the face. The last time most of us tried to tell the Real Truth, we were probably very small, and somebody probably withheld love and projected judgment at us when we did it. Someone got upset that we spilled family secrets at school, or we got in trouble for telling our teacher her teeth looked funny, or we were forced to override our repulsion and hug a creepy uncle at a family gathering. So we learned, very quickly, to adjust. To reframe. To “walk back.” To soften those hard edges. Most of us developed an attachment to core virtues that made sense of it all: We’re good people. Kind people. We don’t hurt others. We don’t say anything at all unless we have something nice to say.

Then it got even more complicated. We realized that not only was our Real Truth disturbing to others, but our false self didn’t work 100% of the time either. Different people seemed to reject different parts of us. So we spun off the false self into many false selves. One for everyone. We learned to carefully manage all of our different personas and keep them militantly separate. We keep the different parts of our life in different “buckets.” Those of us from addicted or codependent homes became absolute masters of this. We assess and measure and consider and reconsider and slap a big coat of “I’m such a nice person!” on it all and anxiously await approval and desperately hope no one’s too critical of us. It’s not even conscious. It happens so quickly and constantly that we don’t even notice it. Even as it becomes completely exhausting and nearly impossible to manage—we still don’t notice it.

When we integrate all of our false selves and stop living a lie, everything changes. Martha Beck, Oprah advice columnist extraordinaire, had a near death experience and afterwards vowed to tell no lies for an entire year, about anything, even the most innocuous-seeming of white lies and half-truths. No withholding, manipulating, hiding. No “protecting anyone’s feelings” (which is really just a way to protect yourself, when you think about it.) Just full-stop radical honesty at all times. Understandably, she drove pretty much everyone out of her life in the process. What would happen if you told the truth, all the time, no matter what? The whole truth and nothing but the truth? How many of your relationships could withstand that? Could *any* of them withstand that?
What does it say about us that just getting through the day requires us to live so untruthfully? Why are we so afraid?

When you tell your friends sure, you’ll go out Friday when you really don’t want to but you’re afraid they’ll judge you for being boring or a bad friend if you don’t: you’re living in your false self.

When you nod and smile to your boss “absolutely, I’d love to take on that project!” when you’re already swamped and it’s the last thing you want to do, but you’re afraid of job security: you’re living in your false self.

When you’re in love with someone and don’t tell them because you’re afraid of rejection: you’re living in your false self.

When you don’t want to talk to someone but do it anyway because you’re afraid of being judged as unfriendly or stuck-up: you’re living in your false self.

“But that’s just what it means to live in society,” you say. “Society couldn’t function without all those white lies and unspoken agreements! You have to go along to get along!” And I agree with you completely. Society as we know it is built by and for the false self, and both requires and nourishes it. How is that society (and its institutions) working out for us?

When we “go along to get along,” we never confront the things that make us truly uncomfortable. Instead, we build our whole lives around *avoiding* feeling uncomfortable. We limit our discomfort as much as possible. But there is a very high price. We are profoundly corroded by it. We have to self-medicate more and more just to keep up appearances, because keeping up appearances is more exhausting than we realize. We make ourselves sick and addicted. We push people away. We close down our lives. We make our worlds small and resentful little places full of special rules and secret access codes. We’re anxiously performing, constantly. And when we’re not performing, we’re seeking relief from the constant performing by numbing.

We have never in human history been this disconnected from our emotions or had so many opportunities to avoid feeling them. But the survival of civilization depends on all of us feeling through to the real depths of our discomfort in ways we never have before. In 12-step programs, making an amends notoriously involves speaking one’s truth and apologizing for past behavior—directly, and in person if possible. Without doing it in person, it’s much harder to genuinely feel the feelings that come up in our bodies when we say to someone we’ve betrayed “I betrayed you,” or “I never really loved you,” or “I still resent you for such and such.”

But that’s the whole secret: feeling the very thing that as a child you believed would annihilate you, and realizing as an adult that it won’t. We bypass our emotions in this way all the time, sending difficult emails and feeling like we’ve accomplished something by hitting “send.” It’s better than nothing, but it’s not feeling what you’re really afraid to feel—the hardness in their eyes when they lash out at you, the embarrassment and shame you feel from your part in it all, the grief that things didn’t turn out differently. But we must feel all of those things to be free. Do we really believe everyone has to think we are great all the time just to feel safe? What a terrible trap we’ve created for ourselves.

Feeling our feelings doesn’t mean drinking a bottle of wine and drunk-dialing our ex to give them a piece of our mind. It also doesn’t mean manipulating others with cruel criticism or emotional appeals—techniques that are often misrepresented as “radical honesty.” It just means telling the truth about what we are doing, feeling, and thinking—all the time. Our bodies will always let us know when we have an opportunity to be truthful by giving us a little (or not so little) twinge of discomfort. In those moments we have three choices, and almost always pick one of the first two. We can lie (including but not limited to: sugar-coating, redirecting, co-opting, otherwise manipulating, and outright avoiding); we can numb ourselves through one or many chosen addictions; or we can tell the whole full truth as we are experiencing it in that moment.

When gurus say “just be in the moment,” this is what they mean. White lies, half-truths, and avoidance take us right out of the moment and right out of the relationship. And ultimately, we miss our entire lives that way.