Why Our Relationship to the Truth Matters
Today, July 7, is National Tell the Truth Day, a day dedicated to honesty and the rejection of manipulation and lying. The unofficial holiday encourages people to always tell the truth, even if it is often times inconvenient and hard.
I once worked for a woman who lied about everything.
She compulsively said things that were not true for no discernible reason. She would change details and timelines, often altering a story to present herself as the hero or the victim. It was bewildering at first, but once I figured out what was happening, my confusion morphed into something akin to bemusement. Her mental gymnastics became almost entertaining to witness.
I probably shouldn’t have been all that surprised - it’s been estimated that most humans are lied to up to 200 times a day! Moreover, research consistently shows that lying is a really common occurrence in our society; in addition to being lied to, we’re likely to tell a lie of our own anywhere from 1-10 times each day.
The relationship between truth and lies has been studied for lifetimes, and it’s actually widely regarded as a basic tenet of the human experience - nobody gets through their life entirely lie-free.
That said, studies also show that truthful people understand themselves better, have a clearer perception of their own strengths and weaknesses, and are more likely to keep their word. Consistently telling the truth also makes us physically healthier, mentally happier, and increasingly more trusted by our peers, friends, and colleagues. Living with truthfulness and honesty are the foundations of living with integrity, which, contrary to what politics might lead you to believe, is actually a highly-valued attribute to have.
Plus, sticking with the truth is easier in that there’s less to remember. Life can be complicated enough without having to keep track of what stories you’ve told to which people.
So why do some of us find it so tough to be honest?
Two Types of Truth
First, let’s consider that there are two types of truth - being true to ourselves and being true to others.
Being true to yourself is basically akin to keeping yourself in check. While it’s important to appreciate and acknowledge how fabulous you are and how far you’ve come, it’s also critical to recognize your potential for growth and evolution.
Being honest with yourself can be as simple as admitting you don’t like going to parties or as complex as admitting you want to leave your marriage. Self-awareness is key, as is the quality and tone of your self-talk.
When you are honest with yourself about what you need, want, like, and dislike, you learn to both value and prioritize yourself more readily because you are clear on what you want. You reinforce that you are inherently worthy of designing a life you genuinely love. It becomes easier to set and honor boundaries designed to protect your time, energy, space, and body.
The better you are at telling yourself the truth, the better you are at being truthful with other people. The opposite is also true - when you make it a habit to lie to yourself, lying to other people eventually becomes no big whoop.
That tracks with my former boss. In addition to her bizarre lying habit, she made it clear she didn’t even want to hear the truth from us unless it painted her in a positive light or made her feel good. If, for example, a client wasn’t 100% satisfied with a product or found one of the offered programs confusing, she was so uninterested in hearing it that me and my colleagues would be reprimanded for mentioning it.
Honesty of any kind just wasn’t a part of her wheelhouse, and, not surprisingly, it created an unhealthy work environment where none of us trusted a word she said.
Two Types of Lies
Not all liars take things to such extremes, and not all lies pack the same punch.
Telling someone you’ll be there in ten minutes when you’re still 30 minutes away is different than, say, falsely accusing someone of criminal behavior. The former is what’s known as a little white lie, also called a fib, a half-truth, or an exaggeration, while the latter is sinister, calculated, and malicious in nature.
If sinister lies are obviously-damaging daggers to the heart, then little white lies can be likened to pinpricks: one or two here or there might not seem like that big of a deal, but enough of them over time will create an irreparable hole.
Personally, I used to throw white lies around like confetti. From making up a reason I couldn’t attend an event to under-reporting what something cost in fear of judgment, I let my insecurities around my inherent value as a human being boss me around. I wanted to be seen as “good” or “smart” or “capable” by whomever I happened to be speaking to, so I would often alter my answers to what I thought they’d want to hear.
I meant well, but when I think back about that behavior now, it shocks me. Not only did I believe it was necessary, but I also thought of it as a really valuable skill to cultivate. I thought that using small fibs to keep a situation easy breezy was such a clever way to go through life. Many of us have been conditioned to believe the same thing, especially if saying the alternative might invite disappointment or hurt someone’s feelings, like telling somebody you like their dress when you don’t, or you think their haircut is cute when it isn’t.
After all, shouldn’t truth and tact go hand in hand?
But here’s the thing - the more we allow little fibs like that out of our mouth, the higher our tolerance for untruths goes, which means bigger lies ultimately start feeling acceptable, too. Essentially, the more we lie, the easier it gets.
Eventually, we run the risk of becoming an “honest liar,” which is someone who engages in self-deception so easily and so often that they lose the ability to differentiate between reality and the stories they create. An honest liar lies without even recognizing that they’re doing it.
What’s more, consistent and/or compulsive liars have real difficulty believing or trusting others, easily becoming paranoid about being lied to or tricked somehow because they assume they’re going to get exactly what they give.
As I collected life lessons over the years, I (thankfully) came to understand how utterly unnecessary twisting my own life experience for the comfort of others really is, so my white lying naturally dwindled to next-to-nothing. Then I got a crash course in the Very Real Importance of telling the truth when I, myself, was falsely accused of criminal behavior in a court of law. What was left of my white lie tendencies at that point died an immediate death.
Suddenly, nothing but the truth would do.
The Brain Science of Truth vs. Lies
When we tell a lie, it stimulates three main sections of the brain:
When we tell the truth, an alternate cognitive process occurs. Fewer areas are active in the frontal and limbic system because there’s no need to inhibit the truth or become anxious about deception. Truth means our brain doesn’t have to work as hard.
Studies have shown that compulsive liars have up to 26% more white matter in their prefrontal cortex, which makes them better at connecting thoughts not rooted in reality, which over time, alters a liar’s perception of reality.
And that’s not all. Lying also increases the body’s blood pressure and heart rate, as well as the production of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Repeated, prolonged exposure to cortisol can disrupt almost all our body’s processes, leading to issues such as fatigue, heart disease, anxiety, depression, and digestive problems.
So when your doctor or health coach or trainer tells you to mitigate the stress in your life, one way to do that is by examining your relationship to the truth.
But I *Don't* Like Their Dress, so Now What?
So what are you supposed to say if telling the truth might be hurtful?
Unless you’ve been directly asked, try saying nothing at all. Unsolicited, unkind comments have no place in any conversation. But if your opinion is genuinely expected, ask yourself this guiding question before speaking: Is what I’m about to say true, kind, and useful?
If so, go for it. If not, then choose different words.
For example, telling someone “The blue dress you tried on earlier is more flattering than this purple dress” is kinder than saying, “You look awful in this purple dress,” and telling someone the dress isn’t flattering when they step out of the fitting room at the store is more useful than saying so at the party.
If you’re already at the party, consider using phrasing like, “I’ve never seen such a colorful print! Do you feel like a million bucks?” or “What a pretty shade of purple - it reminds me of my favorite flowers!” or “You’re positively glowing in that dress! Isn’t it fun to get dressed up?” or “I love how happy/confident/fierce you look - you’re inspiring me to wear things that make me feel the same way!”
Dealing With a Liar
If - or should I say when - you find yourself in the undesirable position of having to deal with a liar, you have choices about how to proceed. Your goals should always be to keep yourself safe and remain confident that telling the truth matters.
Lying is a very complex issue, so the best way to protect yourself is by determining what kind of liar you are dealing with.
Limiting your interaction with a liar is ideal. As often as possible, choose to take your friendship, business, energy, time, talents, and/or romantic aspirations elsewhere because you deserve to be treated with honesty and respect in all aspects of your life.
If the liar in your life is someone you’re stuck with (at least the time being), like a boss, a family member, or an unavoidable part of a larger social circle, consider how severe the lie as well as your intentions before initiating a confrontation. Calling someone a liar is a surefire way to put them on the defensive, especially if you do it in front of others, so if your motive is only to embarrass someone for telling a little white lie, you might want to reconsider and practice the art of just letting it go.
However, if someone’s habitual lying is creating a safety issue, an ethical conundrum, or interfering with your desire to forge a real connection with them, addressing it (in private!) with a focus on how the situation at hand makes you feel while keeping your sense of compassion close is likely to yield a better result than accusing them of lying.
Stick to the facts, use “I” statements, and don’t be afraid to stand your ground – after all, truth matters and the world needs people who understand that.
Five Ways to Celebrate National Tell the Truth Day