How to Be Honest When the Truth Feels Risky
10.31.17
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi with illustration by GraphicaArtis via Getty Images.

If we’re being honest, I lie all the time. I lie about why I’m late, why I’m bailing, where I’m going, what I was doing when I didn’t pick up the phone. I lie about things that could potentially hurt feelings, and where I don’t lie, I withhold. But these are white lies — the kind we learn are acceptable just after we master the concept of telling the truth. Step one in a child’s journey to becoming a better human: Don’t Lie. Step two: Don’t be an asshole. The first step is straight-forward enough, if idealistic. This second step becomes far more complicated as we get older and develop our own values. How does one combine the two?

A thousand Pinterest angels got their cross-stitched-pillow wings the day Kristen Bell said in an interview, “Honesty without tact is cruelty.” The internet loved it because its relatable and validating. “Honesty without tact is cruelty” not only accounts for the sting of truth, it proves that all those white lies we sing every day aren’t just fine, they’re kind.

Over the last few years, relationships — platonic, romantic, even work-related — have made me reconsider how I approach the truth. Time has shown me that interactions between two complicated humans are so much less messy when you’re straightforward about what you want, need, require, expect. It’s a lovely, freeing revelation that, when practiced, allows me to operate as the savviest version of my most enlightened self. But when a situation is particularly tangled, it’s the how of honesty that still chokes me up — as in, how the hell do I tell the truth without making this person mad, without ruining things, without making things awkward?

How do you “just be honest” in the stinging aftermath of having your feelings hurt — when things are mostly otherwise okay between you and the person who hurt them? How do you “just be honest” when a friend says, “I’d like your honest opinion on this monumental life decision,” and your opinion is contradictory to her plan? How do you “just be honest” when you feel threatened? Or when it feels like telling the truth could mean your job is at stake?

Ilene V. Fishman, LCSW-R, ACSW, was recommended to me by a colleague for the topic of honesty in particular. When I asked for Fishman for her professional opinion on Kristen Bell’s comment, she put it into her own words: “Honesty is an art.” And to master the brush strokes, she says, you have to know yourself.

Fishman is staunch in her belief that honesty makes life simpler. During our conversation, every time I counter with the merit of white lies (they soften blows, for instance), she directs me back to the virtues of honesty and doubles-down on the benefits of self-reflection. She explains that the better you know yourself, what you’re feeling and why, the more likely you are to express yourself honestly, without the need for calculated tact. She gives an example: “If we’re not in touch with our own anger, then we express honesty that’s aggressive, or passive aggressive.”

It makes so much sense. Even when mad, I’m calmer when I’ve identified the root of what’s pissed me off. From that place, I’m able to articulate what frustrated me and open up the floor for healing dialogue. Still, the “how” continues to haunt me — it’s much easier said than done — so I asked Fishman for a guide, so to speak, to use the next time I find myself needing to be honest when the truth feels complicated.

Step 1: Endeavor to understand your own feelings.

“We have to give ourselves permission to feel a range of emotions,” she says. “We’re not simplistic beings. We feel love and hate simultaneously. We feel gratitude and anger. It’s a mistake when we try to make ourselves simpler than we are. The better we know ourselves, the better we can communicate how we wish to express ourselves.”

She explains that once we understand the root of our own emotions, the next step (communicating them) comes a little easier. It allows us to assess whether we need to say something — those guttural flags that shout, “Something’s not right!” — or whether this one can be brushed aside. (For example, if your little sister paints you an ugly picture, you do not need to tell her that you won’t be hanging it on your fridge later.)

Step 2: Choose the most respectful approach depending on the situation.

When I bring up that old childhood saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all,” Fishman tells me it’s not a rule to live by. “Not speaking up could backfire,” she says, while noting there could also be consequences to honesty. In every scenario, Fishman advises you prioritize self-protection and filter your honesty through the lens of integrity.

As for finesse, the art part of honesty, Fishman says to ask yourself some questions: “Am I being sensitive? Am I being kind? [In the case of friend or partner], am I being loving? Am I saying it for the right reasons?” She points out that if no one asked themselves these questions, the whole world would be in chaos.

Step 3: Express your own vulnerability.

Where it’s appropriate, here’s your tact: Communicating, “I’m taking a risk by telling the truth,” allows for complete honesty without sugarcoating, but it lets the person you’re being honest with know you’re coming from a place of vulnerability.

Step 4: Be open to the person’s response.

“But what if the person I’m trying to be honest with — a close friend, for example — gets mad?” I ask Fishman.

“Be willing to stay in there,” she says. “Don’t just drop your honesty and run away.” In other words, if you’re going to be honest with someone, come prepared to express yourself. She explains that your “mad friend” may counter-argue, get defensive, get upset, but that doesn’t mean the conversation’s over. You deserve to tell your side of the story. You deserve to speak up. And for what it’s worth, she suggests using language about how you feel, rather than what your friend did “to make you” feel that what. Remove accusations and the recipient of your honesty is less likely to go on the defense.

Step 5: Ignoring your emotions won’t help your cause.

“You’ll have a bigger mess later if you repress your feelings,” says Fishman. She suggests trying to clean them up as you go along. Don’t swallow your emotions. Identify, respect, validate and feel them. You deserve to voice your truth. Which brings us back to step 1: Knowing yourself.

“It’s really scary to be honest,” she says. “It’s hard to be authentic. Stand up for what you believe. To be really real, I think, is courageous.”

Since our conversation, I’ve tried to “practice” tactful honesty: honoring my feelings, saying what I mean, being kind in these interactions while staying true and remaining staunch in my beliefs. (This sounds dramatic but it can be as simple as, “I prefer the color blue.”) It takes creativity in addition to the introspection, but as Fishman says, it’s an art — and sometimes artistic expression is difficult. You don’t go from child to better human immediately, so when in doubt, I remind myself: just don’t be an asshole. It’s a start.

Ilene V. Fishman, LCSW, is a founder of NEDA (The National Eating Disorder Association) and also a current board member. Her upcoming book, The Good Therapy Advocate: Empowering Your Psychotherapy With and Without A Therapist bears her signature message: that psychotherapy can be an incredibly powerful tool when used effectively. She is a fierce advocate for full recovery from eating disorders and in particular fights for women to find their voice from a place of personal empowerment. Ilene has been in general private practice in New York, NY and Montclair, NJ for more than three decades.

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  • Mel

    Thanks for this article – this is something I’m working to get better at
    too. The understanding your own feelings part is surprisingly hard
    sometimes. But what I’ve started to realize is how much I’ve
    internalized the idea that I, as a woman, should prioritize the needs of
    others and act as though I don’t have needs myself. That’s only gotten
    me a giant mess in my marriage. It’s scary to be honest, but inside I
    know that respectfully giving people my honest self is a much better
    gift (to both of us) than giving them less.

    So there’s my honest
    reaction. 🙂 A book that has helped me a lot in this process is called
    Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I highly highly highly
    recommend it.

  • Brittney Thompson

    Really appreciate this article. I have been reflecting on the ways that I do and don’t express my feelings, and this makes things more clear going forward.

  • Emily

    honestly is definitely the best policy in interpersonal relationships, I’ve found. when I was dating, if I wasn’t interested in a guy or didn’t feel ready to date them i got into just being as honest as possible – i’d say something like “I think you’re really great, cute, interesting, whatever, but I just had a bad breakup [true] and am not feeling ready to date right now, I’m sorry.” It was ALWAYS well received. People appreciate the honesty, and it’s a much more mature and kind way of handling things. In my friendships and romantic relationships I’m trying to do the same thing too. I want [kind] honesty so I expect my loved ones do too!

  • JessK

    Thank you for this article. I always err on the side of not expressing what I’m thinking to avoid confrontation or hurting someone else’s feelings and frequently end up frustrated. These are good practices that I’m going to work on adopting.

  • And saying “No Offense” before you drop a bomb does not negate the cruelty of your honesty…

    • Bo

      I concur! Whenever somebody says “no offence” I honestly think it has the opposite impact. It’s like the speaker knows that their words may be interpreted as hurtful but just can’t be bothered to work out in their own head how to say what they want to say in a kind manner.

  • Georgia Booth

    Thank you for this very timely article, Amelia (and Ilene). I have a good friend who wants to spend all next year doing something I don’t particularly understand or believe in and is in need of money to help her do this, for which she will be hosting a small fundraiser for and asking us friends. I want to be honest with her about why I will not give her money, but don’t know how to do it without causing offence or damaging the friendship. 🙁

    • Bo

      It’s always tough when money’s involved. I don’t know how I’d go about that – make a very small donation perhaps, and explain that’s all your finances can afford? Or just make a principle out of it: one of my close friends was once tangled up in one of those stupid makeup party franchise (aka ponzi) schemes and was always trying to get me to buy stuff that I didn’t even like. I ended up telling her that I didn’t like having friendships where money changed hands and she took it pretty well. That was the truth and we’re still friends too!

  • C. Killion

    Kindness is strength with a velvet hand.

  • Selena Delgado

    Having children transformed my way of thinking of “lying”. Prior, set rules were; be kind, do what’s best for everyone, etc. and honesty is not always the best policy. This resulted in a recurrent theme in my life, as was iterated by others; which was that I was passive-aggressive. What I realized after having children was that when people want to have a relationship with me, and I am honest, concise, with some finesse and humor, the truth really does set you free. I have never been more honest with myself and others in my life than I am now. If an experience doesn’t suit me, the awareness of my own internal honesty (what I owe to myself) will overpower the need to please others. It is incredibly freeing..