We have all heard the phrase “the truth shall set you free,” however, most of us have probably been on both ends of the discomfort honesty can bring. Moreover, our culture, thick with anxiety and depression, prizes appearance over substance, success over contentment and peace, and fame or infamy over humanitarian contributions. We say we want honesty, but do little to support or encourage it. Instead, we reward and support illusions as individuals and as a society. We ignore the classroom or boardroom bully and quietly take it, and we pass paper policies to make ourselves feel like we’ve accomplished something real which could do good, but then don’t insist they are funded as necessary to make change possible thereby ensuring the entrenched status quo.
Individually, sometimes people ask us for our opinions, but then get angry when given honestly, because we are really just seeking approval or want justification for what we have already decided. And sometimes when someone tells us the truth it holds up a mirror to us that we weren’t quite looking for or ready for.
We sometimes shy away from those kinds of truths because they make us uncomfortable and bring us to a place where we have to decide to change something, or continue living with whatever the uncomfortable truth is, and we do that in small ways a lot more often than we are aware of—thanks to hard-wired psychological defense mechanisms. We aren’t always in the best emotional or psychological state to hear, face, or deal effectively with the truth or reality, so Mother Nature devised internal mechanisms, psychological defense mechanisms, which allow us to avoid it.
Think, for example, of having to live with a constant ongoing awareness of a situation in direct opposition to a core value. Say for instance you have a strong sense of justice, but take no action when you see someone being mistreated at work or at school; this creates an internal value conflict. In this instance, fear of job safety or getting the same treatment could be a contributing factor to remaining silent. We then justify our silence in whatever way works best for our world view and psychological makeup using whatever psychological defense mechanism(s) needed to get the job done and allow us to go on living our lives as effectively as possibly.
As a broader example, think of all the worlds’ tragedies we blind ourselves to daily such as starvation, murder, genocide, child abuse, and all the many constant threats to a civilized idea of our modern world. Is it really any wonder why so many seem to turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor, or blame them for their circumstances? To unravel that particular social ill upsets the entire apple cart of the world we inhabit and the comfortable, stable lives we lead, as to address it realistically we would have to accept our part in the creation and continued use of a sizeable underclass to maintain an ideal middle and upper class. Without poverty what would wealth mean?
To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, a mind once stretched can never revert to its prior form. For me, this single idea is the sagest reason for honesty. When we are emotionally invested in something we apply a sort of tunnel-vision, our sight and judgment becomes clouded. How can it not? And what are we more emotionally invested in than our own lives? If we surround ourselves with those who only tell us what we want to hear, we are sentencing ourselves to a life of limited growth and understanding, and along with that limited understanding we are contributing to a less than ideal world.
Some of us can do no more than get through our days, barely holding on as we are so fragile that our internal, self-protective delusions are about the only thing holding us together. Some of us delude ourselves because we like our comfortable (or perhaps even uncomfortable) existence much more than we like the idea of change. Fear can be numbing and paralyzing and it can also become an entrenched way of life. The antidote, as I see it, is to face it, taking little steps, and those steps begin by allowing others to hold up mirrors to us, by hearing, as non-judgmentally as possible, uncomfortable truths and differing opinions, and to also offer, compassionately, truths for others. We are all at times frail, and scared, and unsure, and we are all also strong, and capable, and amazing.
Why do I believe this is important? Because genuine self-esteem, the kind that nurtures and supports us and makes us resilient, requires authenticity, and authenticity cannot exist when we act out of alignment with our values. We become authentic through honesty – honesty with ourselves and with others.
So I ask you, is honesty the best policy?
Written by, Michelle Sicignano, LMSW
Staff Writer, SJS
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