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When Is It Okay To Lie?

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Honesty is the best policy, says Martha Beck -- except when it isn't. Here's how to know when to fess up, when to keep mum, and when to lie through your teeth.

By Martha Beck

"Does the truth always set people free?" a friend asked me recently. "Or can it be a huge, crazy-making pain? If I want to lie a little to get along, am I betraying my authentic self?" This is a dilemma we all face virtually every day, whether we articulate it or not. The answer is, the truth almost always sets us free. But not all situations demand the same level of openness.

For example, if you're reading this from a dungeon where a psychotic dictator has imprisoned you for singing his praises too feebly, tell any lie necessary to get the hell out of there. Lies create distance and destroy connections, and that's just what you want in such a sick situation. But if you're hiding bad behavior -- say, lying to your loving spouse about your night job cooking methamphetamine -- beware. After decades of coaching and weeks of binge-watching "Breaking Bad," I know that meth fumes can be ventilated, but lies will destroy your life.

Even those of us who don't run meth labs face a contradiction between our need for honest relationships and the temptation to lie about our failings, desires, and pain. It may seem that lying is easier than honesty -- that it has the magical power to spare feelings, preserve comfortable assumptions, and make us appear less flawed than we are. But truth is like fresh, clear air, while lies are like smog that poisons our psyches and interactions. The amount of truth you must tell to any given person depends on how much healthy intimacy you want with that person. The more intimate you want a relationship to be, the more truth you must tell. It's that simple.

The Truth Target

Picture a sphere with yourself at the center -- a kind of three-dimensional target with you as the bull's-eye and your closest relationships the next ring out, followed by friends, acquaintances, strangers, and psychotic dictators. In the realm nearest you, you want pure, healthy, honest air. Moving away from the center, the clarity of truth becomes less necessary -- as illustrated by the following four rules for determining which truths are worth telling and which aren't worth the bother.

Rule 1: Always tell yourself the truth.

woman tell herself

The most intimate connection in your life is the one you have with yourself. Dishonesty in this relationship is at best counterproductive, at worst catastrophic. If you want your life to work, tell yourself the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Of course, this can be difficult. Denial, as they say, ain't just a river in Egypt. We all engage in it, whether occasionally or habitually, often without realizing we're lying to ourselves at all. Fortunately, we can always locate our own untruths: Just follow the fumes of suffering. Believing lies makes us miserable. That's why all effective counseling, from therapy to chatting with your nana, focuses on trusting your gut and owning your thoughts and feelings.

You might tell yourself that letting in only cheerful thoughts (My mother is a saint) invariably creates happiness, but you'd be lying. I can't count the times I've heard clients voice something unpleasant ("My mother can be atrocious"), then breathe a huge sigh of relief—not because they're being negative, but because they're allowing themselves to admit what they already know. Continued investigation reveals more subtle lies ("Mom owes it to me to stop being atrocious!"), which cause suffering until they dissolve into an even deeper truth ("I have no control over Mom, and no idea what her destiny might be. I can only observe her behavior and choose to respond with integrity"). The more we align ourselves with our deepest truths, the clearer, saner, and happier our inner lives become.

Therapists and nanas are all well and good, but I suggest that you learn to counsel yourself -- by noticing when you're feeling terrible, allowing yourself to feel those negative feelings, then asking and answering the questions below. For maximum air cleansing, sit quietly with each question until an answer arises, then write down that answer so you won't slip back into denial. The questions are reiterative, because different words elicit different responses. See which works best for you.

Questions for Clearing Denial

What am I afraid to know?
What am I hiding?
What do I almost know?
What knowledge am I avoiding?

Warning: The truth generated by this exercise may rock various boats in your life. But to continue lying is to doom yourself to endless misery. Sit and breathe the truth for a while. Feel how clear and bracing it is.

Rule 2: Tell your loved ones as much truth as you can.

broken relatinship

A 2012 study found that when subjects told just three fewer white lies per week, they reported noticeable relief from tension and melancholy and fewer physical ailments like sore throats and headaches. Maybe that's because lying, even to please someone, means giving up the chance to be genuinely known, understood, and loved as we are. Conversely, if someone's lying to us, then no matter how much we adore him or her, we're loving a fiction. Without honesty, people feel emptiness and disconnection. People grow apart when they don't share what's happening to them as they grow.

If any of your valued relationships feel strained, you must determine where telling more truth will clear the way to more intimacy. Maybe you've been saying "I'm fine" when you're not fine, concealing problems that affect your mood, or feeling that your loved one isn't being open with you. If you continue to follow rule 1, you'll know that your only job is to tell your truth, then respond honestly to whatever happens next.

If your loved ones match your truth telling by telling more truth themselves, you'll grow closer. If they lie, you may have to accept -- and grieve -- the distance that will continue to open between you. The good news is that as long as you never lie to yourself, you'll have the clarity to heal from broken connections with amazing speed and form new bonds with more honest people.

Rule 3: Tell acquaintances enough truth to maintain optimal connection.

black woman acquaintances

Sometimes your life is full to the brim with significant others, and adding more intimacy from more people would be like stuffing in six slices of pie after Thanksgiving dinner. At other times you may be hungry for more friendship. Remember, intimacy increases with honesty. Share less to keep people away and more to draw them closer.

For example, say you're coming out of a rough performance review with your horrible boss, and a coworker asks, "So, how'd it go?" If you don't want to connect more closely with this acquaintance, go ahead and fib: "It was okay." But if you'd like a closer relationship, tell the truth: "I've had colonoscopies that were more fun." Now it's your coworker's turn to deflect or invite friendship. If she doesn't want to know you better, she'll lie politely: "Sorry to hear that -- oh, there's my cell phone." If she wants to cultivate you as a friend, she can open up about herself: "I once had a performance review that put me in a three-month coma."

The key to this dance of openness is to reveal just a bit of the truth at a time. There's no need to blurt out your life story to everyone who says hello, or to embrace every acquaintance who decides to share details about the time she got her sinuses scraped. Tell a bit of the truth, evaluate the reaction, then tell a bit more -- or not. You'll decide as you go, reevaluating with each new interaction. This gradual approach allows you to adjust your relationships without undue drama, oversharing, or hurt feelings.

Rule 4: If you're desperate to kill a relationship, lie.

woman crossing fingers

Only in relationships that are already weird and awful is lying an ideal communication technique. So again, if a tyrannical dictator has you in captivity, go ahead and lie. Kill that connection right now. But if you think lying will "protect" a person or relationship you value, go back to rule 1. Your own heart will tell you that no matter how protective lying may feel, it always poisons connection.

You possess an innate ability to know when you're breathing easily and when you feel choked by secrets and falsehoods. Let yourself know what you know. Open up to the ones you love most. Maintaining honesty and clarity at the center of your world will help you know how much truth to tell in every situation you face. And that's no lie.

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