on radical honesty

Honesty is a quality that most everyone values as one of the most important qualities in their relationships, right? If our partners, friends, or family members are dishonest with us, we feel betrayed. We interpret dishonesty (and its sister, secrecy) as completely one-sided actions, with the liar as the villain and us as the victim. We feel angry, righteous, and, depending on the topic of the dishonesty, probably a host of other negative emotions as well.

I want to propose an alternate outlook on honesty. Rather than seeing it as existing in a vacuum (e.g. it’s simply a factor of someone’s “good” or “bad” character), I believe there is a direct correlation between the amount of honesty given to us, and the level of acceptance we display. 

If you want to foster radical honesty, embody radical acceptance.

Think about it—many of us tell our friends things we wouldn’t tell our partners, or tell our partners things we wouldn’t tell our parents. It doesn’t make us fundamentally dishonest people. We’re operating based on the reaction we anticipate. If people in our lives have shown judgment (and maybe not even towards us, but towards anyone!) we will be reluctant to take the emotional risk of submitting ourselves to that judgment.

We want our children to tell us the truth. We may think we live out the values we expect of them, setting a good example by not lying to them. But have they ever heard us speak judgmentally about others? Have they ever told us something sensitive, only to be scolded or lectured or, perhaps even worse, laughed at?

The best way to raise honest children is to model radical acceptance in our daily lives.

Of course, we are up against a societal tidal wave of morality in which our every action is judged and criticized. If a person has done something or has a problem that society at large considers shameful, then please understand that that person may still have tremendous difficulty sharing, even if you personally have done everything to demonstrate acceptance. This is not their fault. This does not make them a bad person. They are probably doing their best to exist in a world in which shame is heaped upon us at every turn.

The next time someone you love is untruthful with you, or you discover a secret, before allowing yourself to get angry, righteous, and to feel like it’s all about you (i.e. that they wanted to hurt you; that you have been wronged), step back and ask yourself: can I truly say that I’ve made this person feel emotionally safe enough to share with me? And, even if you can answer a sincere yes to that question, you should also ask yourself: has society made that person feel their secret was something to be ashamed of?

Shame is a poison we attempt to avoid at all costs. Empathy is its antidote, and we should dispense it liberally.

Lastly, please don’t forget to apply this to yourself. The best way to feel comfortable enough to be honest with others is to practice radical acceptance and empathy on yourself first. By being kind to ourselves, we can negate and override society’s harsh judgments, and feel courageous enough to share things that are painful or embarrassing with those closest to us. Doing so will open up a new level of intimacy we may not have imagined possible.