In his fascinating look at humiliation in the Social Age, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson explores the split between analog humanity and digital behavior – how different we are as people and profiles. As part of his exploration, he takes part in a workshop in Chicago lead by a psychiatrist who preaches the gospel of “radical honesty.” Its a topic explored by another favorite writer of mine, AJ Jacobs, in a piece for Esquire a few years back and I was uncomfortable reading that as Ronson seemed to be in his experience.
The crucial point of radical honesty seems to be that lies are dangerous, they break down social structures and cause more harm than harsh truths ever could. Both Ronson and Jacobs walked away from there experiences skeptical of the approach and uncomfortable with the very idea of telling lies to others. As a reader, I walk away feeling those things, but also curious about the merits of the lies we tell ourselves.
Everyone lies to themselves. We tell ourselves we are ‘too fat’ or ‘too skinny,’ ‘successful’ or a ‘failure,’ ‘smart’ or ‘clueless.’ Sometimes we tell ourselves all of these things at once, sometimes we go back and forth. We tell ourselves we are under-appreciated or overly relied upon. We tell ourselves we are take-no-prisoners-ass-kicking-machines and that we are scared and just doing what we were told.
The point is, we lie. A lot.
But is that a bad thing?
I know I often write about having conversations with friends, so excuse me if I do it again here. But, I was having coffee with a friend this morning. We try to do it every week or two and I always walk away invigorated and optimistic. This morning, we were talking about people and how we work together.
I work with a lot of people and clients and, by and large, I think I do a pretty good job of managing those relationships. But sometimes, I tell myself that where tension exists in a working relationships, I will be able to iron it out. It’s a lie. I am guilty of being overly confident in my ability to make anything work, being able to work with anyone. I will remain quietly discontent in a working relationship hoping that, through silence, determination and a swallowing of emotions, I will be able to work through it.
I am a young Christian Bale in one of the final scenes in the film “Empire of the Sun” desperately performing CPR on a clearly deceased friend, muttering the phrase “I can bring anyone back, anyone” as I pump away. It is a hopeless situation made worse by naive determination.
My friend is much better at confrontation, at dealing with problems head-on and moving on. To him, the lie would be in believing too much in the power of persuasion. He just doesn’t believe it.
So, why do I lie to myself when I understand his truth is probably a better solution?
It has to do with the truth I want to believe. I want to believe that I am the kind of person that is eager and easy to work with. I want to believe in the truth of the majority of my experiences and am willing to turn it into a lie in those outlying occasions when I am not.
It’s wrong to thing of truth and lies as binary, as one thing or the other, especially when the audience for those truths and lies are ourselves. The same belief can be bedrock and dishonest, depending upon the situation. A truth we want to believe may be the lie that keeps us motivated.
I think about this with clients all the time. I believe I have a solution to their needs. I believe my work can provide unique value to them. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be able to walk into their office with anything approaching confidence. When that truth is incorrect, it is the belief behind it that keeps me motivated to find the right solution. The belief is both truth and a lie, but one which will, hopefully, become a truth.
The problem with the radical honesty experienced by Ronson and Jacobs is that it is binary. There is truth and there are lies and no room for belief. Fact or fiction. Black and white. But the truth is lies can become truth if they serve as motivations. I can lie to myself and say that I can so speak Spanish. If I only tell myself that without action, it will always be a lie. But if telling myself I can speak Spanish gets me to spend 20 minutes a day on Duolingo, then the lie motivates the truth.
I can tell myself that I can work with any client but if that means disregarding the clients who challenge me, it is a lie. However, if that lie motivates me to find new ways to work with those challenging people, it becomes the truth.
We lie to ourselves a lot. We tell ourselves all sorts of things that don’t reflect reality. It’s not the lie that is destructive, it’s what we do with them that matters.
And perhaps that realization is more radical than radical honesty.