To Tell the Truth

I would want to hear the truth”, the woman said confidently to her friend.  Soon after, they stopped talking because she was offended by the truth when she heard it.

One of the polygraphs used by Thomas Jefferson...

One of the polygraphs used by Thomas Jefferson, a portable version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This isn’t unusual.  A lot of my friends and colleagues say they want “to know the truth” about themselves. (As if!)

Many years ago, a friend noted that no one wants to know the truth, unless it’s a compliment about themselves. Everyone present argued with him, including me.  Almost thirty years later, I have to admit that he was soooo right.  Even though I’ve struggled with the concept of honesty, truthfulness, and direct response for a long time, every once in a while I still believe it when someone says, “Be honest with me”.

Just this afternoon, the understanding that no one, yes, no one wants to hear the truth unless it’s a positive statement about them, became crystal clear.  So clear, actually, that I would like to proselytize against the truth – especially when someone asks you for it.

My point: If someone bothers to ask you to tell them “the truth” as it relates to them, it simply means that they are seeking approval. That’s all.

“Please tell me what she said about the performance”, asked the friend who wanted to hear that she did very well. “It was great”, I said, “but the singing was a bit off pitch. Not noticeable, but just a bit so”.  You could hear her face fall.

Limestone Technologies Inc. Polygraph Professi...

Limestone Technologies Inc. Polygraph Professional Suite. Computerized polygraph system. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I am tired of therapists agreeing with me all the time”, the new client said, smiling bravely, “so I really want you to tell me what you see and what I’d be able to change”.   Silly me, I answered truthfully. Obviously, he didn’t come back.

That was many years ago, and I’ve become so much wiser since then. Now, when a client asks me that question, I know they want to tell them they are good and perfect; and mostly that they were right when they fought with their mother, brother or boyfriend.

Even with my closest friends, I’ve learned to shy away from a direct response.

A friend tried to explain why she should stay with an emotionally abusive husband.  She asked my opinion about staying with him.  It’s implied she wants to know the truth.  I know better. I know that she feels embarrassed about not being able to leave. I know that she does not like herself, and maybe even struggles with self-contempt. Do you really believe that she wants me to say “you fool, leave the sob a.s.a.p.”?  No, she wants me to say that it’ll be OK.

Does this mean I’m a liar or a hypocrite?

The answer is nuanced.  I think I’m giving them the perfect and most direct answer to the real question.  You see, indirectly – they are asking me whether I will support them, and of course I will.  My friend wants to know that I will be there for her; that I accept her even though she is compromising and even though she had always claimed she’d never tolerate such treatment.

When someone asks you for the truth about themselves, it stands to reason that the request comes from a sincere place – and it does.  What could be more sincere than anxiety, hesitation, doubt and approval seeking?

It’s just that the question was asked inaccurately.

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Honesty (Photo credit: Fluffymuppet)


About rachel bar

Psychotherapist and supervisor.
This entry was posted in Honesty, Truthfulness, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to To Tell the Truth

  1. Rob says:

    Maybe the best answer is to tell the enquirer that they already know the answer? I’ve used this on a number of occasions, when I couldn’t bring myself to lie, to good effect (I think!).

  2. rachel bar says:

    This is the best response, of course. Sometimes, though, the enquirer insists on getting the answer from me, at which case they are not interested in my honest answer but in an affirmation.
    Thanks for visiting my blog. I looked at yours and it is quite interesting!

  3. Red says:

    One has to be brave and the humble to hear and accept the truth. Similarly, one has to be wise and articulate to ask the right questions. Brave and wise, articulate and humble. Rare combinations. But, honest and supportive, that’s a treasure.

  4. Margot says:

    Someone recently told me the truth without my asking. It was such an eye opener for me that I’ve shared her insight with my other friends … even though what she said isn’t a particularly good thing about my character. But I’m also confident with my relationships with my friends and don’t mind them knowing who I really am — they probably knew that particular truth already but just didn’t tell me. But I don’t think I’ve ever asked someone to tell me the truth — way too scary!! Glad to see you are blogging again. I was worried that maybe you were giving it up.

  5. Maurice Labi says:

    Take a listen to a song: “Lie to me” by Ne-Yo, almost 1,000,000 downloads on YouTube. Somtimes a lie is kinder than the truth.

  6. Barbara Cooper says:

    Whose truth are we discussing here? Mine? Yours? What you see as the truth is really your perception of the truth as it is mine. So whose perception is right? Comes down to what you believe about yourself, others and life. What you believe IS your truth whether I consider it right or wrong. Most people when asking for the truth want it to be their truth, especially when it concerns them. And when someone asks for the truth, it ALWAYS concerns them. Maybe it’s better to ask, “What is your opinion?” and then one can then decide whether or not to discount what you say based on their opinion of your grasp on the subject. Or maybe the “truth” just needs to be wrapped in kindness before it is delivered. Because obviously we are only talking about negative “truths” here. Perhaps it is just kinder to allude to the truth and let the receiver of the truth come to the realization at their own pace and in their own time.

  7. Stephanie Kirschner says:

    You so hit the nail on the head! Even when people ask for the truth they really don’t want it (let’s say, most of the time)! Thank you for telling it like it is – from your perspective of course!

  8. Martha Carr says:

    I once had a couple that came to see me. The woman wanted me to be like Laura Schlessinger and “tell it like it is”. Then she proceeded to tell me which subjects were off the table……hmmm.
    Me thinks you speak the truth Rachel!

  9. Debbie says:

    WOW!!! You said it! Wonderful insight re: what most of us mean when we say “just tell me the truth; i really want to know”. Riiiiiight, NOT.

  10. Jim Palmer says:

    Enjoyed your latest blog, I have given the subject some thought myself…..How a person reacts when truth conflicts with a persons core beliefs. It seems denial comes easy to most, followed by hostility in many cases… I would be interested in your professional opinion on the subject.

  11. Jim Palmer says:

    Maurice….your link to the song wouldn’t work….Is this the song you were refering to ??

  12. Loved the post…probably will quote it someday (giving you credit of course)…what I find fascinating about the truth is it “doesn’t usually set you free” but provides you with the insight to see more shackles you have to shake loose…

  13. This is some wonderful writing, I had no idea. It’s funny you gave the example of a woman in an abusive marriage. One of my friends is in one and whenever she complained or cried I’d say, leave the rat, you deserve better…etc, and she’s still there and it finally hit me that she really, like your pal, wanted me to comfort her rather than carry on about leaving. Truth, it’s suppose to set you free but I’ve heard it said, it kicks your ass first. Maybe it really kicks the ass of the person declaring it. Nice post indeed.

  14. I do like the old large bowl of flowers analogy regarding truth. That being said, if I bothered asking the question I’m looking for an analysis. Maybe it is all the years in 12 step programs. My favorite people are “step-nazi sponsors” who will indeed kick your ass to set you free and who will not “sign off on your shit.” And having studied a LOT of kinesics I already know when someone is lying to me based on posture, gesture, eye contact, etc. Or at least I do in the verbal world. In the world of ASL I’m not that good, because ASL involves so much kinesics just to function.

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