Say It or Zip It? The Perils and Profits of Truth

Person in turtleneck with long ponytail holds finger to lipsWe have all experienced that uncomfortable moment when someone points out to us that something is wrong: our fly is open, we have toilet paper stuck to our shoe, or, horror of horrors, we have food stuck in our teeth. Typically we feel a surge of embarrassment and rush to fix the situation. We’re tormented by the questions, “How long has this been going on?” and, “How many people saw me?”

Hopefully the initial horror dissipates quickly, and we are grateful that someone told us about the problem so that we were able to correct it, avoiding further embarrassment.

For some people, this embarrassment can turn into shame or self-loathing, stirring feelings so painful that they may become angry at the truth-teller, preferring to remain blind to the problem and pretending it doesn’t exist … even if it means that it will continue.

Most people are aware of this discomfort and potential for conflict. If we’re the truth-teller, we may think it’s kinder to withhold the truth, protecting the person from these unpleasant feelings, staying silent to avoid conflict. However, this could mean that the problem will continue or worsen.

If we worry about telling someone about food in their teeth, imagine how challenging it is to point out a bigger issue such as a problematic personality trait or damaging behavior. For instance, how difficult would it be to tell someone that their constant complaining depresses you and makes you want to avoid spending time with them?

Even if we truly feel the need to say something, we often choose to stay silent because of the potential for a negative outcome—feeling the anguish of wanting to help someone but fearing their emotional reaction, hoping someone else will say something so we don’t have to be responsible for their feelings, or wishing they would discover the problem themselves.

Keeping the secret about how you feel can become a wedge in the relationship, impeding authentic connection and hindering the opportunity for growth and discovery.

If we can listen to the input of others without experiencing embarrassment, shame, or self-loathing, we can benefit greatly. When there isn’t a cloud of emotions getting in the way, our minds are able to discern more clearly whether input is valuable. We may find that other people can offer a valuable perspective that’s impossible for us to see from within.

For example, if you were an accountant incorrectly crunching the numbers at your firm, you would eventually be fired unless someone brought the errors to your attention and helped you to correct your mistakes. Likewise, if all of your relationships have ended because your partners felt ignored or neglected by you, you might want to heed that as important information that will aid you in achieving a life-long partnership.

So how do we learn to navigate the dangerous waters of giving and receiving input so that we can learn from others and have more honest, open relationships?

Change begins with the awareness that giving and receiving input is something that we’re going to need to get comfortable with in order to have happy relationships and be more effective in our lives. You become more comfortable with giving and receiving input after you’ve practiced it with other people and had positive experiences, unlike the negative experiences of your past.

Group therapy is an excellent environment to work on this task. Giving and receiving input is one of the main goals of most psychotherapy groups. The boundaries of the group, which discourages members from interacting outside of the group sessions, provides the safety needed for members to become more vulnerable and to try out new ways of communicating. A trained leader assists the group members in separating their thoughts from their feelings, encouraging group members to choose wisely how they would like to react to a situation instead of being led blindly by their emotions.

The combination of understanding and positive experiences can bring about important changes in your ability to navigate the perils of truth in order to reap the profits of truth.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rena Pollak, LMFT, CGP, therapist in Encino, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Vicky

    Vicky

    December 2nd, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    There is a such thing as being truthful without being so overtly brutal about it.

  • jd

    jd

    December 2nd, 2014 at 10:40 AM

    I agree that honesty is generally the best policy but while that is true there are also those people who need to learn a thing or two about communicating effectively and the best way to be truthful without causing any harm. I think that for some people they just think that they are gonna tell it like it is and that’s that. Sometimes this could be a great idea, and at other times, not so much. Maybe we could all from time to time do a much better job at breaking the truth to someone if only we could think about how we would feel if we were on the receiving end and how we can do this without causing too much hurt or pain. Because if causing hurt is your intention you are truly coming from the wrong place.

  • Rena Pollak

    Rena Pollak

    December 2nd, 2014 at 12:17 PM

    I agree with both of you. The point of telling someone the truth is for them to hear it, because you think it’s important. Most people instinctively shield themselves from brutality, so if you express yourself brutally, it is very unlikely that you will be heard.

  • grace

    grace

    December 3rd, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    And don’t forget that there will be those who don’t care about the consequences of hurting someone else,’They are only in this for the what it holds for them mentality and everyone else just has to deal with it.

  • Ginger

    Ginger

    December 3rd, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    I am the opposite of all of you truth tellers out there because I never want anyone to be embarrassed by what I say to them so I won’t say that I lie, but i could have been known to withhold certain information from time to time.

  • Marcia R

    Marcia R

    December 4th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    It’s all a delicate little balance that you have to maintain, one that allows you to be free and honest but without hurting other people in the process. Most of us are fairly good at this most of the time but there are always going to be those times when we mess up and really hurt someone’s feelings. Own that you have hurt them, apologize, and the two of you can move on together. But at least you will know that you trued, that you started with the truth and not with a lie.

  • Ric

    Ric

    December 6th, 2014 at 6:06 AM

    You don’t want to be the snitch but you also don’t want to be the person who lies to get ahead either. I think that most of us very clearly understand the right and wrong thing to do in any given situation after we give it some thought- it doesn’t make the choice that we have to make very easy, but I think that we will always know in our heart the best course of action to take.

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