by Michael Raitt -
SGN Contributing Writer
Everyone I know unequivocally declares that they value honesty in their relationships with family and friends. They also talk about how much they want people to be honest with them and no one I know likes it when they feel they have been deceived. Honesty is a verb. It is a noble act yet it is very hard for some very good people to do because it creates an uncomfortable dilemma.
Many people who extol the virtues of honesty quickly follow up with a comment like, 'But I can't say that! I don't want to hurt their feelings!' Herein lies the dilemma: how can one be honest and act according to their values and not cause someone hurt? Honestly, it's impossible! It really does come down to either being honest or hurting someone you care about. Most of us don't want to hurt people we care about.
What's behind this dilemma and how do we make it work? Fear is a huge motivator and most of us are afraid of hurting another for various reasons: fear we'll create a scene, fear they won't like us anymore, fear there will be a fight, fear they'll say something hurtful to us, and, ultimately, fear that they will leave us. Most of us really don't like rejection and therefore, we do what we can to avoid it, which means avoiding being honest with others.
How do we make it work, then? First, we have to understand intent. We all have the capacity to be hurtful. People get in moods where, at the time, it seems like it would feel good to rip another apart and make them feel bad. As hard as it might be to admit, we want them to hurt or, equally as bad, we don't care whether someone is hurt. If we are truthful, most of us have had this feeling. I'm very clear when I'm in this mood! People who are on the receiving end usually know as well. When I've been ripped apart in a hurtful way, I know. I know because it comes with such hostility and hateful words.
However, when one knows that there is something important to talk about with another, the intent is about honesty and problem solving and it comes with the feeling of care and respect. This kind of conversation doesn't come with intense hostility and isn't usually accompanied by spiteful language either.
Another piece of this is context: how each looks at the interaction. For example, in my business, I have to be honest with people all the time. They understand that my feedback (albeit difficult to hear sometimes and which, for some, could be perceived as hurtful) comes from a caring place and is given respectfully. Doctors do the same. They have to talk openly and honestly with their patients and the ones I know do it with respect. Interpersonal relationships are no different. This is completely about how the people in the interaction choose to view the interaction. I've had people come to me and say things that were hard to hear but when I remembered they were doing it because they cared, I was able to receive what they were saying.
We take risks when we are being honest with others. There is no way around this risk. Whether we are honest or dishonest is about our character and, even though we may intend care and respect, the other may not be able or willing to hear what we have to say. I had a friendship for 20 years and I would frequently not speak my truth for some of the reasons I listed above. Finally, one day, I was honest about how I saw a situation with this friend. He was unable to hear it and he hasn't spoken to me in over two years. However, I walked away feeling good about myself because I was acting in a way that I value and I know my intent was not to hurt him while acknowledging that he did get hurt. In a scenario like this, when people can, working through the hurt is possible.
Self-esteem comes from esteemed behavior. At the end of the day, how I see myself depends upon how I showed up in my relationships with others. If I say I value honesty, then I have to be honest and deal with whatever comes out of it. In the end, though, I can say I was the type of person I wanted to be.
Reflect upon how you deal with the dilemma of being honest and hurting another's feelings. What effect does it have on you? When you can't be honest, do you get angry? Passive-aggressive? Distant or sad? Our unwillingness to be open does have an effect on us. Think about how you want to feel at the end of the day. You might end up deciding to take a risk. Your relationship might become stronger. Yes, it might end as well. Regardless, it ends up being about how you feel about yourself.
Michael Raitt, M.A., LMHC, is a therapist and a contributing writer to the SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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