It's been said that the most powerful tool for physical health is a fork (or spoon), since the choices you make with it determine the good or bad things you put into your body.
In the same way, perhaps the most powerful tool for your mental health -- and certainly for the health of your relationships -- is your tongue. Thousands of times each day, it (or your fingers on a keyboard -- same thing) offers the good word or the bad one out into your world.
If you say what's true for you, and say it clearly and kindly, you get one kind of result. But if you use a sharp tongue, speak falsely, exaggerate or leave out the parts that are most important to you, you get different results -- unnecessary conflicts, lost opportunities, a tightness in your chest, etc.
Of course, the most important person to speak truly to is yourself, with inner speech. Come to peace with the truth: the facts, your experiences and intentions, the goodness inside your heart, what's led to what for better or worse.
On the other hand, if you act like something is true but deep down there's a knowing that it's not -- like it's OK not to go after an important dream, or that you can keep putting off dealing with a health issue such as smoking, or that everything's fine in a cool and distant marriage -- you're living on thin ice. Hard to build a good life on that foundation.
Truth is bedrock. Even if you wish the truth were different, it's what you can count on in a world of full of selling, spin, and BS. It's your refuge.
Speaking truly does not mean saying everything. You can cut to the chase in a conversation, not burden a child with more than he or she can understand, be civil when you're angry, and not spill your guts in a meeting.
Nor should you confide more than is appropriate. There's a place for privacy, for not telling A everything you know about B, for recognizing how intimately you can safely communicate in a particular situation or relationship.
Speaking truly -- to yourself and to others -- does mean being authentic. Is your outer expression lined up with your inner experience? Most of us have "that thing" that is hard to express. For me growing up, it was feeling inadequate. For many men, it's feelings of fear or weakness. For many women, it's feelings of anger or power. Could you find appropriate ways to say your whole truth, whatever it is?
Ask yourself: "What am I actually experiencing?" Relax your face completely and look at it in the mirror: What does it tell you? What does it say you really need these days?
Also ask yourself: "What's important that's not getting named?" This applies both to you and to others. Consider the hurt or anxiety beneath irritation, or the rights or needs that are the real stakes on the table. Is there an elephant in the room that no one is mentioning? Maybe someone has a problem with anger or with drinking too much, or is simply depressed. Maybe someone's jumbo job -- 60, 70 hours a week or more, counting commute and weekend emails -- is crowding family life out to the margins.
Especially when you're upset, watch out for distortions in the words you use. These include leaving out the context (like getting mad at a misbehaving child who's hungry), using extreme language -- words like "always" or flat statements that should be qualified -- or using a tone that's harsh or nasty. Without talking like a robot, look for ways to be more judicious, accurate, and to the point in what you say.
Last, accept the fact that no one is a perfect communicator. You're always going to leave something out, and that's OK. You have to give conversations room to breathe, without continually judging yourself as to whether you're speaking truly! Communicating is repairing. As long as you come with basic sincerity and goodwill, your words will weave and mend a tapestry of truth in all your relationships.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness (in 14 languages), Buddha's Brain (in 25 languages), Just One Thing (in 14 languages), and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has several audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he's been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 111,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity.