THE BLOG
04/15/2013 03:53 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2013

Little White Lies: A Guide to Everyday Lying

We lie to ourselves and to others every day. It's what we do to get through our day. Lying can be thought of as a spectrum from being brutally honest on one side to being psychopathically dishonest on the other. Somewhere along that line is a healthy balance of authenticity, social intelligence and empathy. The sweet spot is different for everyone and it varies according to situations. I try to keep my range between brutally honest to telling a few little white lies, while not undermining the trust others have in me. Sometimes it's a tightrope walk.

I have a confession to make. I used to lie, a lot. When I was a kid I moved from town to town, school to school. To fit in, to be liked, to buoy myself up, I made up things about myself. It was a crime of opportunity. My new friends didn't know my past so I wove stories to suit my needs. Rather than making lies out of whole cloth, I was more of an embroider, embellishing my story to make myself more interesting, more exciting than I was, and more worldly than I was. I told friends I had been to places I had never been, seen movies I had only read reviews about, had experiences I had never had. After all, what was the harm and who knew the difference? I buttressed my self-esteem with lies.

Lying is stressful. A tangle of lies is hard to keep straight. I had to remember to whom I had told which story. Lying is not only about saying something believable, but I had to keep track of what I say to whom. It's crucial for liars to be consistent, and that isn't one of my strengths. As I considered it more, I understood that lying comes with a price. It was unnerving when someone saw through the tissue of my fabrications.

My lies were typically conscious. I made things up with awareness that I wasn't being truthful. This was outright manipulation on my part. At other times I was on self-deceptive autopilot, actually believing what I said about myself. I eventually came to a place where I wasn't really sure what my values, and beliefs were, or who I was. When I noticed I was formulating a fib, I began to get angry with myself. This is when I started to reign in my fabrications and manipulations.

Being a self-confessed liar, I am interested in why we do it. I have always been interested in why people do what they do, and lying is one of those behaviors that are ever present, yet hidden in a dark corner, obscured from view. Research indicates that we begin lying as early as two years old and that the average man lies about three times a day (women apparently lie less often). If we all do it, is lying so bad? I take the position that it is a necessary evil as long as it is done in moderation, for the right reason and with awareness.

Little White Lies

A British study that found men on average tell three lies a day identified them as Little White Lies. So what are these lies and why are we so attached to them? These are the lies we tell others, often about how we are feeling, how we perceive another, or what we've been doing. We may fib consciously or unconsciously. Usually our little lies are a result of feeling of empathy for another person. Anyone with a shred of social intelligence understands that telling a partner or a friend the unvarnished truth can be hurtful. To avoid scarring them, we lie. Lies of this kind are things usually of low cost to us but may be of critical importance to our friends or our partner. Imagine saying:
  • That meal was wretched!
  • Those pants look awful on you!
  • I don't like your friends.
We lie to get along with people. Those on the Autistic spectrum often lack empathy for others, which can make them difficult to get along with, precisely because they are so honest. Telling little lies is the price we pay for getting close to someone who needs to be stroked once in a while. And speaking about getting stroked, just what lies do you like to hear about yourself?

Self-Deception

Absolutely no one is beyond self-deception. We deceive ourselves all the time. We distort facts to rationalize our own self-deception, usually unconsciously. We hide things about ourselves that are unacceptable to ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is when our actions don't match our values or beliefs. The disconnect makes us feel uncomfortable, so we rationalize or adjust a belief to return to the feeling of comfort. For instance, we all die. For years I have been urged to write a will. Each time I think about it, something knocks it out of my head. It goes against almost every value I have, but something is keeping me from doing it. Maybe I will live forever!

One way to fight self-deception is through awareness. The truth will set you free. When you feel a twinge of discomfort, you may be on the verge of telling a lie. It's a lifelong pursuit to root out our delusions and self-deceptions. We often cannot see our own madness, so it helps to have someone close to us who can point out our self-deceptions (when we are ready to hear it of course!).

Having been an out-and-out liar certainly helps me be more aware when I lie to others and myself. I do my best to be authentic and be honest. Sometimes that's not possible and when I have to lie, I do my best to be aware of it. As a life coach I can sometimes see through it when clients lie to me. Interestingly I've only had one client who confessed to a pattern of habitual lying and wants to change. My goal is to be as authentic as possible, to be more aware, and to have more choices in my daily life. And I'm not too hard on myself when I inevitably have to tell a friend a little white lie.

For more by Bradley Foster, click here.

For more on happiness, click here.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.