In this post, writer Robert Kenneth Jones examines honesty and truth. Finding both under assault, he offers ways we can challenge young people to reset the standard for integrity – for themselves and the country.
How important are honesty and truth today? When we hear statements like “Truth isn’t truth” or that we should rely on alternative facts from our leaders, things start to get a little murky. It has even been suggested that we live in a post-truth era of blurring lines between opinion, fact and personal experience. Half-truths received from the internet, social media, cable television, and talk radio make it harder and harder to sort out fact from fiction. This all sends an especially dangerous and destructive message to young people. If honesty and truth are being publically devalued, the kind of foundation they will have upon which to build their futures will be unmaintainable. It is our job as adults to restore the sanctity of these virtues.
Dishonesty Has Survival Roots
Departure from the truth starts when we are very young. It usually comes when a child is experiencing anxiety or fear resulting from some behavior which has been deemed unacceptable or naughty. When asked or confronted about the incident, the feeling level intensifies to an extreme state. The denial, cover-up, exaggeration, or diversion relieves anxiety or fear. This relief is stored as a memory (sometimes hidden).
Memory is a complex function of the brain. The things we’ve done, learned, and seen are first processed in the cortex, and then, if we sense that this information is important enough to remember permanently, it’s passed inward to regions of the brain such as the hippocampus and amygdala for long-term storage and retrieval. As these messages travel through the brain, they create pathways that serve as the basis of our memory. Of course this all but guarantees that the behavior will be used again when similar situations present themselves in the future.
We all lie to one extent or another. It is important to own this fact and admit it when we are helping kids sort out ways of being honest in situations when the truth might be uncomfortable. I have developed a process for achieving honesty in my practice with kids and adults which might provide some help.
To Thine Own Self Be True
“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.” ~ e. e. cummings
I remember my first lie. It was clear to me that I would be found out because I carelessly left a piece of stolen candy from Liberty Market in my pants pocket and it was laundry day. My parents had raised a thief. I was in big trouble. How could anyone love me after what I had done? The only way out was to come up with a logical story before it all hit the fan. So I came up with alternative facts and when confronted, confidently told my mother that Mrs. Golden bought candy for Scott and me a couple of days ago. It worked. I was off the hook. Now I was a thief AND a liar. What a burden to bear for an eight-year-old.
What follows successful dishonesty can be even more insidious than the lie itself, because now we are in the business of keeping secrets as well as engaging in ongoing secret behaviors. These weave into our fabric to provide power over people, places, and things. The ego demands that we protect the secrets by creating more false narratives. Ultimately a web of illusion begins to mask who we really are. And ultimately we can begin to believe the lies and accept them as our own truth. As a result, good and intimate relationships become difficult to develop and maintain. Nobody really gets to know who we are.
Recovery from lies and secrets begins when we make a decision to get real with ourselves. This kind of personal truth and honesty requires courage because we know how inauthentic our lives have become. Uncovering ourselves behind the mask to reveal our brokenness is scary. It means we have to forgive ourselves. It is critical that we let go of self-blame and anger. We were doing the best we could with the amount of information we had at the time. Everyone makes mistakes but there is no reason to keep repeating them. Things just get worse and more complicated. When we do this work it is like waking up from a dream. The ability to be honest with others returns along with an ability to make better decisions. Parents and other key people in the lives of teenagers can shape how important honesty is in their lives. We can help them learn how being truthful in different social situations now will establish a foundation for future employment, and develop meaningful close relationships in the future. This will assist them in creating a foundation of universal moral principles to guide decision making throughout their lives.
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ~ Mohandas Gandhi
When we resolve within ourselves how dishonesty has poisoned us and compromised our dreams it becomes clear that we have an obligation to become truthful with others.
Honesty With Others
There are lots of ways to restore the practice of honesty when dealing with other people. The following are three steps that have worked for my clients over the years.
Watching for Little White Lies
Little white lies are often told in order to protect the feelings of another person. We tell someone we loved a gift when we really didn’t or that we enjoyed a meal when the food was not all that great. We slightly bend the truth in the name of compassion. But even these well-intentioned deceptions can cause those we have misled to doubt our integrity and lose trust in what we tell them when the truth is revealed. Serving up falsehoods isn’t the only way to kindly deceive…you might also simply leave out unpleasant facts. Dr. Julia Breur emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the way we respond to someone. The fact is, she says, that not telling the truth can take its toll on you. It’s not always about the person the white lie is being told to. Therefore, it’s important to ask ourselves when it is and isn’t appropriate to deliver the hard, honest truth, and when it’s best to step back and offer a more delicate response. More often than not, it’s about finding a balance between the two. Dr. Breur suggests the following regarding white lies;
- Instead of saying “I was stuck in traffic,’ consider telling the truth. Say that your son had a temper tantrum and you had to help him calm down, which caused the delay. You’re human after all, and these things happen!
- Instead of saying the turkey meatloaf is delicious, consider saying: “This is a new taste for me and I am enjoying eating something new.”
- Instead of saying someone’s outfit is “absolutely beautiful,” consider saying: “I enjoy seeing you express yourself through fashion – you are a unique and beautiful individual!”
Sort Out Your History of Dishonesty
It is important to understand the nature and history of our behavior if we want to avoid repeating it. The folks in 12 Step circles insist that it is necessary to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Though difficult and sometimes gut-wrenching, it sets up a new kind of preparation for living more honestly in the future. Creating a list of lies and deceptions provides a means for us to fess up and make amends wherever possible. It may be tough, but worth it in the end. According to the popular site, Lifehack.org, admitting your fault puts you closer to dealing with it and can be a critical step towards a successful turn-around. It shows that you’re someone with integrity and courage.
Integrity and Living Honestly
Integrity has been defined as a consistency, honesty, truthfulness, and accuracy in all of our affairs…even when nobody is watching. This requires intentionality and thought. When difficult situations show up there will always be a tendency to fix things with compassionate (or escapist) deception. Even painting a rosier picture may be harmful. So the idea is to hesitate and consider before speaking or acting. What good will come of putting your integrity and reputation on the line with a lie? Accepting responsibility for our part in the problem, or acknowledging the seriousness and damage done, allow us to foster relationships rather than taking on an ego-driven need to control things. It will take practice to learn to live this openly and honestly. Old habits, particularly protective ones take time to change. But before long, a trust will be restored with people who might have lost faith in what we say or do. We will be known as people with integrity.
You Can Handle the Truth
A powerful scene in the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men” in which Tom Cruise is confronting Jack Nicholson about his dishonesty leads to an explosion of uncomfortable truth. Nicholsons’ assertion that Cruise ‘can’t handle the truth’ is so memorable that it is often quoted today. But even in this era where truth and honesty might seem in short supply, they are really never old fashioned or out of date. We can handle the truth. With that in mind, it is so important to not only to teach but to live with integrity. Young people will never fall for the old adage of ‘do as I say not as I do’ nowadays. As responsible adults, we have to be real. We should never fail to praise honest behavior in kids and teens if we want them to understand its’ value. We also must risk being vulnerable enough to admit our own mistakes and deceptions.
Handling the truth is much easier in the long run than trying to handle a lie. For when we are honest about who we really are, we will lead and encourage young people to be truthful and honest as well. We have the opportunity to become agents of change for our children and for ourselves.
Robert Kenneth Jones
Innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse.
In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.
His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration and meditation.
Contact Bob Jones on Linkedin
Bob Jones’ blog An Elephant for Breakfast