Dear Alexander #11: A Moral Guide To Lying & Honesty
Lying is very powerful. You can manipulate the world around you with your language to get what you want or escape things you don’t want.
Why you should tell the truth?
“You can’t trust yourself if you lie. There’s going to be times in your life where you’re going to have no one to turn to except you. And if you’ve stuffed yourself full of lies you’re gonna be in a crisis one day and you’re going to have to make a decision — and you’re going to decide wrong, and be in real trouble because you won’t have the clarity of mind necessary to make the proper judgement because you’ve filled your imagination and perception with lies.” — Jordan Peterson
Moral of the story: tell you’re truth so you don’t fool yourself about who you are.
But where do you draw the line?
When does speaking the truth become harmful?
Are white lies morally acceptable?
What even is a white lie? Google defines a white lie as…
“A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.”
You used to believe that being wholeheartedly honest and transparent is always the morally sound way to act. You pride yourself on being pragmatic, to you this means being dispassionate direct, honest and expressing factual truth. It makes you feel good to finally express something you’ve been containing within you. How convenient that is, you get to displace you’re bottled up feelings off you’re chest under the moral illusion that it’s the right thing to do.
But telling the full truth can be so selfish. How?
By expressing frequent blunt honesty you have failed to consider what the other person is suppose to do with all that information? You have failed to consider how they are suppose to live with this information that they can no longer unhear.
“There are many cultures in which honesty means something very different. Honesty is not about laying it all out there, it’s actually about thinking about what the consequences will be for the other person to live with the truth” — Esther Perel
The question then becomes, what are potential consequences for the other person to live with this truth?
“Honesty is not about — I have to tell you everything I feel or everything I’ve done, it’s about what will it be like for you to live with the consequences of knowing? And so you don’t say certain things because you want to save face for the other person or because you just don’t see the point of it.”
Otherwise the person is left asking…
“What am I supposed to do with all of this now?”
Now this is where you used to feel so relieved for unloading you’re cognitive and emotional baggage.
‘So what am I suppose to do just bottle up all my feelings?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘You need a system to which you reconcile you’re thoughts and feelings without having to directly palm them over to others without thought of consequence. Guess what, you’re doing it right now with these writings.’
Understand: Saying everything, truth telling and transparency are not all that’s important.
“Sometimes keeping things to yourself is just as important — not everything must be said”
What about for you’re closest and deepest relationships? What about romantic relationships? You live in an culture that connects intimacy and love with honesty. They think…
“If you don’t say everything then you must be keeping a secret.”
Most come to the conclusion that you’re either fully transparent or you’re secretive. It’s not as black and white as you think, there’s a lot of grey area. At this point we’re no longer on the topic of white lies, as it’s no longer about morphing the truth but about maintaining privacy and autonomy of you’re own thoughts and feelings.
In the past you’ve felt comfort in oversharing. You pride yourself on over communicating in you’re relationships in the effort to create a strong value system that supports the foundation of the relationship. Learn to distinguish the difference between the problematic habit to overshare and healthy communication. A lot of the time the issue is not that of simple honesty but oversharing honesty.
“Sharing is problematic when you think that’s the definition of honesty.”
Does honesty or 100% sharing always equal caring for the other person or fostering intimacy?
No, I don’t think so anymore.
“Holding back, making space for the other person and dealing with your own feelings is so important”
You’re society has this idea that because you love someone you should tell them everything. Like love and honesty are mutually inclusive — they’re not. It’s as if not telling someone you love everything suddenly means you’re not as close. You’re not entitled to know everything a person is thinking and feeling.
“Those are invitations not rights. You don’t have a right to enter another person, you’re invited in.”
Ponder this anecdote that Tim Ferriss recollects.
“I remember having lunch with a close friend of mine about two years ago. He had a friend approach him who had cheated on his wife. He had had an affair and he was grappling with whether to tell his wife or not, and my friend’s advice was.
‘No that is your burden to carry and you carry that with you, it’s not fair to inflict that on her because you want to make yourself feel better’
After a very very long conversation that was his conclusion.”
Tim then asks Esther,
“When someone is grappling with whether to tell their partner or not how do you walk them through that decision?
She replies with something quite magnificent.
What is it that you want to tell your partner? Do you want to tell that you fell in love with someone else? Do you want to tell that you realized in having a fling with someone else how much you loved her or him? That you realized that you have been lying to yourself all these years? You realize that it’s time to get back into gear because you’ve become lazy and complacent? You realize that you have been keeping all kinds of sexual secrets that have nothing to do with non-monogamy but more with your history? What is it you want to tell you partner?
That’s the first thing. And do you want to tell something about what happened to you in the meeting with the other person? Do you want to tell what that meeting with the other person made you think about your life? We’re not just talking about a series of facts, we’re talking about the meaning and the motives of the transgression.
So that’s the first thing I ask. What is the meanings and the motives? Why did you do this? How did this happen to you? Where you’re looking for it? Did you choose it? Did you just stumble into it? Did you resist it? Did you not resist it? Are you living with conflict? What is the guilt that you’re feeling? Is the guilt that you realize that you don’t have desire for your partner? Is it that you realize that your partner must have been really terribly frustrated because you’ve been a terrible lover to your partner? What is it?
I don’t have to tell people do or don’t tell. I help people figure out what it is that they would tell. Why they would want to tell it. And what do they think will happen to the other person when they tell it to them? I think the notion that sometimes ‘not to tell’ is kinder than ‘to tell’ is also one of the many options. It’s not the only one but it is definitely in the repertoire.
Sometimes you tell to for your own conscience and then the other person can churn the whole night. So there is the positives and the liabilities and the positives of telling, and then there is the liabilities and the positive of not telling.
What do you think you’re partner would want to know, that’s the other thing. And when you want to tell do you ask yourselves ‘do you think your partner would want to know?’. Are you speaking because of your thoughts about the other person or are you thinking of speaking because of how you feel about yourself?
There’s a full spectrum of dishonesty — there’s simple omissions, there’s partial truths, there’s white lies, there’s blatant falseness and there’s mental hijacking. The secrecy can be a cruel and secrecy can be benevolent, and sometimes you lie to protect yourself and sometimes you lie in order to protect your partner.
And then there is the ironic role reversal in which sometimes you realize that you’ve been lying to yourself and it was you that you were deceiving and it’s all of that that you want to unpack — all those twists and tangles before you send people out because you can never take anything back. right you know
Slow down, sit with this ponder it, figure out what this was about for you. If it really meant nothing, what does that mean when you say it meant nothing? You mean to say it’s not supposed to threaten the future of your relationship this is not a person with whom you want to live? But even something that is meant to mean nothing has psychological valence. A lot of effort goes into making something not mean anything, paradoxically. Sit with that.
And then maybe we’ll write a letter, you’re not just going to go there and sit. You can write a letter and you’re first going to hand write that letter and you’re going to get your first version out which you probably won’t send in which you just cleanse your soul. You do you’re own conscience cleaning.
And the next letter will be the one in which you’re thinking about you less and more thinking about your partner and your relationship. That’s the steps.
Thank you Esther for eloquently articulating how to interface with honesty.
Thank you to Jordan Peterson (2:16:46) and Esther Perel (1:04:00) for inspiring philosophies.