The Truth About Lying
Are you an honest person?
Seriously, ask yourself: are you honest? Wait til you have your answer before reading on.
Do you have it? Cool.
Now ask yourself: Do you lie sometimes?
I’m willing to bet that you’d say you’re an honest person. I’m also willing to bet that you lie sometimes. So you’re honest…except when you’re not.
Now for the real question: can someone who lies sometimes qualify as an honest person?
Or are we all really just liars in denial?
When lying is the right thing to do
I can hear you now.
“Of course I’m still an honest person! It’s impossible to be honest ALL the time and I am honest most of the time.”
That justification seems to make sense. After all, there are certainly times where lying is more than justified.
Take the classic moral case. An axe murderer shows up at your door looking for your roommate. You know your roommate is upstairs. If the axe murder finds him, he’s totally finished. So the axe murderer says, “Could you kindly tell me if your roommate is home?” Should you tell him?
No. Duh. You lie. Because you had to, right?
You didn’t have to lie. You could have said, “Right this way, Tommy is upstairs!” Your buddy would be in a pretty terrible spot, but you could have told the truth.
Now let me go on record as a big proponent of lying to axe murderers. I think that is the right thing to do. But here is my point: You never have to lie. You always have a choice. You have complete freedom of response, even if you don’t like the outcome. Don’t hide that from yourself.
The question you have to ask yourself is not “Do I have a choice?” (you always do). The question is: “Is this lie worth it?”
Axe murderers and roommates with lives on the line? Worth it.
But what about lying to your boss about why you took the day off? Or a friend about having already left the house to meet him, when you’re actually still getting dressed? Or a girlfriend who will get mad if you tell her you were out partying with friends and flirting with other girls?
These are the lies supposedly honest people tell day in and day out. And be honest. You tell them too.
Why do we lie?
Axe murderers aren’t banging down your door. I’m willing to bet no lives are on the line when you decide to lie.
So if you don’t have to, what justifies your lies?
Convenience. You lie because it is advantageous to you.
- Lying to your boss spares your job (or at least a verbal lashing)
- Lying to your girlfriend keeps her off your back
- Lying to your friend about being late spares you their righteous indignation
We tell ourselves about the noble white lie to protect others. But 99% of the time that we lie, we are benefiting ourselves by tricking other people into believing something that is untrue.
The moral justification for lying is only at the extremes. Almost all of the moral excuses we give ourselves for lying are just a veiled way to get what we want while still feeling like good, honest human beings.
So let’s not pretend we are lying because we HAVE to. We lie because it helps our interests.
Okay, but I like the advantages I get from lying and no one is getting hurt. Why be honest at all?
Well, there are plenty of reasons. Some you might find more compelling than others. Here’s a rundown:
HONESTY CREATES LESS PAIN IN THE LONG TERM
You wake up with 5 million dollars in your bank account. Are you pleased?
Seems obvious, right? Of course you are! Five million bucks – you’re over the moon. But it’s a trick question.
Because if you went to bed with $10 million and you wake up with $5 million, you are not pleased at all. You are one pissed off camper.
Why is that? After all, it’s the same $5 million dollars!
Because reality did not match your expectations. Memorize this: circumstances do not upset people. Dashed expectations do.
This clip from 500 days of summer illustrates the point beautifully:
It’s not simply the things you do that upset or excite people. It’s the gulf between the things you do and what they expect from you. It is not the honesty that causes pain. The pain comes from when you created a rift between expectations and reality.
I repeat: you don’t upset people by telling them the truth. You upset people by lying in the first place. The moment of honesty is just when you pay your debts.
People associate honesty with pain because it is in the moment of honesty that pain occurs. That’s like associating your monthly credit card payment with pain. The debt was incurred when you bought something. The monthly payment is just clearing the account.
So if you’ve been living a life that includes lies, you have some debt to clear. And it doesn’t matter if those lies are implicit (Your boss thinking you’re planning on staying at your job when really you’re interviewing elsewhere) or explicit (You tell your parents you believe in God when you don’t). You’re still going to have to reckon with dashing people’s expectations.
The consolation is that you never have to incur that debt again.
HONESTY IS A PILLAR OF SELF ESTEEM
Your self-esteem is your reputation with yourself. It is the feelings you have towards the person you have become. And it is an absolute prerequisite for true happiness.
Think about it: if you don’t live up to your own standards, how can you feel good about yourself? Sure, you can experience pleasure. But how can you feel worthy of true happiness if you don’t respect yourself?
So if you think lying is wrong, and you continue to lie, your self esteem plummets. No matter what mental booby traps you set up to rationalize, your self-esteem KNOWS. You are a liar. You cannot pretend otherwise. Even if no one discovers you, YOU are always there.
You can try. You can justify, and rationalize, and come up with exceptions for yourself. But in the end you know. And it will eat away at you.
HONESTY FORCES YOU TO DO BETTER
A few weeks back, I reached out to my friend, Chris, who is a badass trainer. I wanted some fitness advice. He came back with a detailed, day by day, meal by meal, exercise by exercise training program. It was specified to my current diet, training routine and fitness goals.
And it was no fun at all.
While I agonizing through one of my sets on the first day I thought, “This can’t be worth it. I’m quitting.”
Except if I did I would have had to tell Chris the truth. I couldn’t just invent some excuse about not having the time. I would have to say, “I quit because it was too hard.”
The only way I could avoid saying that would be to actually stick with it.
So I did. For a week. And then two. And then through a grueling week of travel.
And now I’m hooked on the feeling of improving in that area. Because I had to be honest, I felt compelled to do the tough, right thing. My life is better for it.
Imagine if you had to tell the truth about everything you did. What bad habits would you cut out? (I know my grandma would have to stop sneaking cigarettes!) What good habits would you pick up? What people would you alienate? What people would you attract?
Yes, there would be an adjustment period. Coming clean is never easy. But once you’ve cleared your lie debts, life gets better in every way.
SITUATIONS REVERSED, HONESTY IS WHAT YOU’D WANT
Morality is a tough topic to tackle in a single blog post. So let’s keep it simple. We’ll go Golden Rule on this one:
- Should your significant other lie to you about where they have been?
- Should your employees lie to you about why they are late?
- Should your friend lie to you and say you’re really well liked when your group of friends talks bad about you behind your back?
No. You want the truth! You want to dump your cheating girlfriend, chew out your late employee, and know if your friends are secretly talking crap on you.
So give other people the same respect. Don’t manipulate them. Give them the truth and let them make informed decisions, even if it isn’t to your benefit.
How to be honest: the nitty gritty no one ever talks about
Okay so hopefully you’re convinced to start being a whole lot more honest.
But how do you start? It’s not just by saying whatever pops into your head. That’s just abrasive and it’s not even strictly honest.
You need practical honesty.
WHAT IS PRACTICAL HONESTY?
Practical honesty is NOT always saying the literal truth. That would kill all forms of joking.
Practical honesty is NOT saying every thought that comes into your head. That is unproductive and occasionally dishonest because the truth shifts as we consider it.
Practical honesty means communicating all meaningful truths in the most productive way possible.
This requires empathy. You need to be able to distinguish what is meaningful to other people. You also have to recognize that “meaningful” is not static. It shifts over the course of the interaction.
So if I am out at a bar and I jokingly tell a girl that I am a renegade CIA agent, I don’t consider it a lie. But if I were to form a relationship with her and insist that I truly was a renegade CIA agent…I’d be a nuts and she’d be nuts for believing me.
More to the point, it would be a lie.
My work status isn’t meaningful in the first 15 minutes of interaction. It is something that would be important if we continued to have a relationship.
Similarly, I don’t need to tell someone I interact with for 30 seconds that they made a bad first impression. My opinion of our relationship is not yet meaningful. But if a close friend consistently does things that upset me, I should tell them. Because the way their actions impact our relationship is very meaningful.
It’s not a hard science. You constantly have to be on the lookout for what is meaningful in a given context. You have to empathize.
If you need a rule of thumb: move towards more transparent communication. Move away from lies of convenience. If you want people to perceive you differently, make a real change; don’t just manipulate their access to the truth.
How to start being practically honest today
1) CUT OUT THE CONVENIENT WHITE LIES
That’s right. For the next 7 days don’t tell ANY white lies.
- Don’t text, “I’m on the way,” when you’re running late and still getting dressed.
- Don’t tell the homeless person “I don’t have any change,” when you just don’t want to give
- Don’t say “I can’t make it,” to a party when the truth is you’d just rather not go (say, “I appreciate the invite, but I am not going to make it.”)
If it isn’t true, don’t say it! No matter how expedient it might be. You can even use a rubber band on the wrist as a reminder (like in the 21 day no-complaint challenge)
This will train you to screen your words for veracity before speaking. Easy lies will escape your lips less and less often.
And if they do by accident, no sweat. Just say something like, “Woops, that’s not true. I don’t know why I said that. What I should have said was……” and then say the truth.
1a) GET USED TO ELABORATING
How do you handle these questions when honesty is likely to hurt someone you care about?
Realize your only options aren’t “yes” or “no.” Real practical honesty requires more. It requires serious thought and explanation. Do not let anyone box you into yes/no responses.
So if your girlfriend asks you if think this dress looks good on her and it doesn’t: “I’m not the biggest fan of that dress. I like the other one better. You look great in that one” (Say so in a kind way that provides a solution.)
Or your friend asks if you like his artwork that isn’t so great: “It’s not my favorite, but I can tell you put a lot of work into it. You’ve improved a lot since the first one.” (Encourage his overall goal to improve while maintaining the value of your opinion for the next piece he creates.)
Or grandma asks if you like her cookies – which are no bueno: “These cookies were cooked more than I like them cooked. It’s super sweet of you though and always appreciate when you make food for me!” (Recognize her effort, express love, and give constructive feedback so you can be honest in your praise next time.)
If a yes/no answer would lead to hurt feelings, your job is to reframe your answer to be as considerate as possible. While still being honest, of course.
2) ELIMINATE LIES OF OMISSION
I was speaking to a close friend’s mother over dinner. She’s an awesome lady. She was telling me about a psychic experience she had. Apparently, her hairdresser (the psychic) had given critical information to a man that saved his daughter’s life.
I have no idea if the facts of the story were coincidentally true, but I know I don’t believe in psychics. If she had mentioned it in passing, I wouldn’t have told her I thought it sounded like baloney.
But she was speaking to me one on one. If I didn’t say anything it would be a tacit acceptance of the story. I didn’t want to upset her. But after several minutes of storytelling, I felt like it had crossed the line into meaningful omission.
So I told her:
“Yeah, to me it sounds too good to be true. I don’t believe in psychics and I don’t believe she is one. But it’s a good story.”
And we moved on.
You need to stop biting your tongue when you have unpopular opinions. You don’t need to be an evangelist. I don’t run around shouting people down every time I hear the word “psychic.” But if it becomes clear someone has a meaningful and mistaken interpretation of your beliefs….well, then you need to clear things up.
So as kindly as you can, speaking in “I statements,” let them know how you really feel. Remember: your goal here is not to persuade or bully. It is to avoid lying by omission.
Even though disagreeing can feel like it’s damaging the relationship, you actually build respect when people know they can trust you to speak up when you disagree.
3) CHANGE YOUR LIFE TO REMOVE THE BIG LIES
Ugh. These are the hardest. These lies can form the basis of some of our most important relationships. Revealing the truth could have serious consequences.
- Maybe you’re parents think you’re religious and you’re not
- Maybe your friends think you like it when they tease you, but it really upsets you
- Maybe your work thinks you are management material and you’re secretly planning your escape
- Maybe you cheated on your partner and they don’t know
In all of these situations telling the truth could end relationships. It may threaten your livelihood.
I understand if you need to take your time in getting out of these. I felt the same way about my first and only real job.
My colleagues were thoughtful and smart. My bosses were great (and downright cool). I was “successful” by so many people’s standards. There were plenty of reasons I “should have” been content….but I felt like I was misrepresenting myself on a daily basis.
Like throughout the day I was pretending that I was fulfilled. That ate away at me.
Unfortunately, leaving wasn’t so easy. With $100,000 in student debt, I needed some sort of income.
I spent months saving and weeks planning before I left to become a writer and coach. And when I did, I had never felt so myself.
Sure, I was poor and sleeping on a twin-sized mattress on Ben’s bedroom floor. But my ledger was clear. No more pretending my future was moving up in consulting. I could be honest with everyone about everything
So I understand it might take some time to put the pieces in place before removing all the implicit lies from your life.
But please. For the sake of your self-esteem. You MUST start extricating yourself from these situations. Today. It’s going to suck and hurt. You may be worse off than before you told the truth.
The upside is that you never have to go into debt again. Once you clear the ledger, you can be totally honest without upsetting people’s expectations.
You can go into a job interview like I did and when they ask your 5 year plan, tell them:
“I’d like to be a literal rock star. Or Tony Robbins’ apprentice. I definitely don’t see myself in corporate America.”
And people will be cool with it! Because you’re setting expectations in line with your reality. You won’t get every single outcome you might desire (**cough** like that job **cough**).
But if you tell your truth loud enough and long enough, eventually you’ll arrive in a place where you’re rewarded for being your unadulterated self.
For me that place is Charisma on Command. Thanks for supporting me being me 🙂
So don’t put it off. Clear the ledger. Tell the truth. To your partner, your parents, your boss. There is no better time and there will always be reasons to wait. But I promise, if you go through the pain period, when you come out the other side, your world will be a better place.
I know this has been a long, dense read. I appreciate you coming this far. So I’ll leave you with this kick in the butt.
It doesn’t matter if you are honest MOST of the time. Most of the time is easy.
It’s at the edges that your integrity is tested. When it hurts. All those times when you “can’t” tell the truth. Your boss would fire you or your girlfriend would get mad or you family would disown you. When the easy lie is on the tip of your tongue. Those are the times where you decide what kind of person you are.
Like so many things in life, you have a choice between the easy way and the right way.
So what’s it going to be?
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15 thoughts on “The Truth About Lying”
Great article Charlie! Made me stop and think how honest I really am when I talk to people about my life.
I seem to have a habit of telling half-truths and exaggerating the points that make me look good in a story even though I know it’s not really 100% true (a bit like a fishing story I suppose!) I’m ok with telling a funny story about myself and exaggerating the truth in a self-deprecating way, but I’ve noticed my self-esteem takes a hit when I intentionally spin the truth in my favor and make myself look like a hero when that was definitely not the case. I guess honesty comes from being truthful with yourself first, huh?
Keep up your good work Charlie!
Totally nailed it. I think that is the meaningful thing. When you are telling a funny story and exaggerate, it’s typically understood the exaggeration is for comedic effect. But when you are being more serious, you are purposely giving people false impressions and that doesn’t feel so good. Oddly enough, talking about yourself in honest, less aggrandizing terms will make you feel better 🙂
Thanks Charlie for this great article.
I myself have been thinking about honesty & white lies for the last couple weeks. I’m not in the place I want to be and where others expect me to be. And I’m still figuring out what I want to do with my life. So it has become really hard for me to tell people around me how I really feel. I just put on this mask and tell them about my amazing freelancing job even though I hate being in the place I am right now. So yeah, I will definitely use more honesty to be more open about these feelings. Let’s see how this 7day Challenge goes for me 😀
Thanks again for this great post.
I think a mix of optimism and honesty would really be helpful here. So you might say, “I’m freelancing right now. I’m not in love with it. But in the meantime the good news is that is flexible and it lights a fire under my butt so I am actively pursuing other options.”
That way you get to be honest (which might actually result in getting you some recommendations or help) while still not being a huge downer to yourself and others 🙂
Missed reading your blog posts the past few months. Totally excited to see ya back at it!
And dude your soo right about the self esteem. For some reason I find myself going on spurts of telling little white lies (really stupid ones too) and I can literally feel my overall confidence plummeting. Once I am reminded that I am doing it and make the conscious effort to stop lying – confident me shows up almost instantly.
So hey, thanks for the reminder 🙂
It’s good to be back! Actually working on a longer post purely on self-esteem. Felt like I needed to spend some time unpacking honesty first since that is such a huge part of it
Charlie, this is a great post. Thanks for writing about this topic. I have a question for you. I live in a big city, and homeless people ask me all the time if I can spare some change or give them money. I usually don’t have change but do have cash and don’t want to give because there are better ways to give back. So what should I tell the homeless person?
That exact question is one of the thing that we have struggled with. I don’t have a great answer because, well, inequality is a problem that goes beyond honesty. I have seen a few strategies…
One buddy of mine responds “No thanks.” His take on it is that there is an offer being made: give money in exchange for feeling better/karmic relief/whatever.
I have stuck with “No man, good luck.” It is simple and true. And let’s be honest, even though it might sound colder than “Sorry, I don’t have any cash,” no one is buying that and no one is feeling better because of those IOUs
Then of course, you have the option to carry change or ones around with you to hand out when you see people. Might not be plausible in a big city. Or it might not be in alignment with your beliefs about the best way to give. But it solves the honesty problem.
No man goo
Have you read the book radical honesty? It takes this stuff to the next level, the level you’ll find out, that we really lie to ourselves is just ridiculous. It’s lies upon lies held together by lies. I highly recommend the book.
This is so good and perhaps more people should read this. It’s a shame how I only found this now. The hardest thing about being honest is following through and most people who start to be honest gives in to the overwhelming feeling when they have to take responsibility. When in fact, matching up to a lie will always be much more difficult even if it is convenient. Would you consider the category as lazy?
Great article Charlie, sorry for only finding out about you recently.
I really like this article! I have found myself actually improving. I don’t text “I’m on my way.” When I’m not and I focus on being honest. Its important to shift the personal paradim from “Telling the truth gets me in trouble.” to “Telling the truth is EASY!” Communication is powerful when it comes to removing lies. Though that is a powerful point.. There are times like when the Axe Murderer ask where my roomate is that I would definitely lie. No questions asked.
Thank you, this is a great article and a powerful perspective.
Thank you so much for this, Charlie. This article has literally changed my life. You see, I was a really good liar, so you could say that I even “enjoyed” doing it because I was so good at it. I used to feel “clever” and “cunning” when people believed my bullshit.
Yet, thanks to this I’ve realized that I felt good for the wrong reasons. I realized that tricking people into liking me or doing stuff that I wanted would never make me happy, and that my self-esteem was suffering because of my lack of integrity.
So I took the step and “cleared the ledger”. I told the truth to everyone that I had lied to in the past . It wasn’t easy, I ended up alienating some people and breaking up with my girlfriend whom I had a two year relationship with because I confessed that I didn’t want to marry her, even though I truly loved her.
But for the first time, I feel “free” and capable of becoming the person that I’ve always wanted to be. I feel way more happy now than some weeks ago. So thanks again, man! And keep up the good work! You’re really making a difference 🙂
Wow. That is mind blowing. I’m so honored man. Good for you – you did the hardest thing. And I think now that you’ve gone through the pain period, you’re about to experience all the upside of that bold decision 🙂
Wow. That should have been really hard for you, but all this diserves real respect. Glad for you!
i am taking your advice, start practising from just now. Thanks.
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