Can we be honest? (No, really. Can we?)

Xray of left side of chest, very bright in the centre, on lower part of spine.One night a few years ago, a friend called to invite me to her birthday party. She was gathering a large group of people, none of whom I knew, and going for a meal. She wanted to book a table the next day so she needed me to tell her right there, right then, if I was in.

Was I in?

I was… flustered. The idea of hanging out with a large group of people, none of whom I knew, brought me to the verge of a panic attack. Plus, although I liked this friend in small doses, when we spent extended periods of time together I often found myself sucked into a vortex of gloom.

For the most part she was upbeat and busy, so she always had stuff to talk about. But I never felt like we were on the same wavelength, or that I could reveal my real self without being judged. We’d be chatting about nothing in particular when out of nowhere she’d burst out with something like “So, what are you doing about your acne?” and bring the conversation to a halt. When I was diagnosed with depression, she didn’t understand it, telling me (repeatedly, though not maliciously) that she hadn’t got time to be depressed.

Despite her lack of tact, I didn’t want to open myself up to criticism by admitting that not only did the thought of going to her party make me anxious/nauseous, I just didn’t want to go. So I fabricated some family obligation and she hung up sounding disappointed and I hung up mentally berating myself.

I did the best I could in the situation given the limited communication skills I had and the pressure I felt under, but in retrospect, it seems silly that I couldn’t just say “no”.

I get it; people tell lies all the time. No big deal. Except it tied my stomach up in knots and I felt like a fraud. What’s more, it prolonged our so-called friendship unnecessarily. We kept in touch for a few more years, saw each other semi-regularly, and I continued to feel on edge around her. Then she got really mad at me one day when she was parking and I suggested saying “It’s not going to fit” over and over might not be the right attitude (probably annoying of me, but I’d had years of her suggesting I try to pray my mental illness away, so an eye for an eye) and she yelled at me to stop being so bloody stupid.

She never apologised, because she had no qualms about letting me know who she was. It was almost as if she didn’t understand the social contract I thought we were in.

Oh, riiiiiiiiiight. She didn’t. She didn’t get that I didn’t feel like I could be myself around her without being judged and criticised, but that I didn’t judge and criticise in return because I don’t think that’s what friendship is about. She didn’t know that I swallowed my true feelings and went along to get along, not telling her that I had no interest in her main obsessions (church, having kids, her sullen boyfriend).

But why should she? She didn’t ask me to act like someone I wasn’t; that was on me.

Finally we drifted apart and are now just social media friends (i.e. not friends at all). So I might as well have told the truth that day on the phone. I don’t for a minute think she would have been cool with my saying I couldn’t cope-slash-didn’t want to go. But at least she would have known who I was, and I wouldn’t have been shouted at in a car park.

It’s not like telling the truth would have killed me. Except somehow it always feels so life or death. We think we can’t possibly be honest, that it’s too risky, and we tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. But that’s just another lie.

We don’t want to tell the truth because of how it might make us feel: perhaps we’re letting someone down, or filling them in on something horrific, or just telling them that we hate parties and don’t want to come. Whatever. It all makes us feel vulnerable, opens us up to criticism, scorn, and rejection, and we don’t think we can cope with that. We might cry, or feel shamed, or have to confront some other deep dark emotion we’re trying to stuff inside. And our fears aren’t unfounded; that stuff can happen. But feeling stuff can be good, and will either lead to a real connection or the understanding that someone doesn’t need to be in our lives anymore. Both are liberating. And it goes both ways.

Someone close to me once lied for months about a big life change they were going through, apparently because they didn’t want to upset me. Instead, I spent months brooding about why they were acting so strangely. When I found out the truth, it was a bit of a shock, but there was a relief in knowing what was up, and I think it brought us closer.

Plus, most people are terrible liars.

A few years ago, someone asked my advice (don’t worry, they regretted it) about a friendship she wanted to let go of. Our mutual friends had recommended she phase this woman out of her life, never telling her what the problem was. But this woman wasn’t getting the hint, instead leaving loads of messages and blasting my friend with emails.  “Why don’t you say you don’t want to keep in touch so often?” I suggested, as a soften-the-blow compromise. My friend reacted as if I’d slapped her. That’s when I realised that as long as we lived, I’d never know how she (or our mutual friends) actually felt about me.

Sure, being honest isn’t a piece of cake (maybe it should come with a piece of cake?) and as we’ve established, I’m as bad at it as anyone. But I’ve also had the phase-out done to me, and not only was it baffling, it made me paranoid for every other friendship, wary of reaching out too many times in case someone was just humouring me. I also felt hurt by how patronising it was, as if I couldn’t possibly cope without them.

Of course, truth-telling isn’t always the answer: if it literally threatens your life or personal safety, tell all the whoppers you need to.

Sometimes it’s not so much that we’re lying as that we don’t know what the truth is yet. When I first became clinically depressed, I couldn’t tell my friends and family, because I didn’t get that I was ill; it just felt like everyone hated me and everything was going wrong.

And telling the truth can cause some real wreckage. Despite my search engine skills (I even Binged) I can’t find where it was published, but Oprah’s life coach Martha Beck once wrote that years ago, when she was going through a period of intense personal change (leaving her job and oppressive religion, cutting ties with her family due to her father’s alleged abuse, the usual) she decided to tell the truth, all the time, to everyone. Her life fell apart.

But in the long run, it was worth it, because now the people who love her actually love the real her, and not some pretence of a person. (Ditto the people who hate her.)

Handily, she has a plan for people who also want to be more honest but are less keen on the idea of everything imploding.

Part of me doesn’t want to do it, to tell the truth even if it makes me look bad or hurts other people. But there’s a difference between being mean (if you find yourself claiming “I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking,” you’re probably there) and unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings. Plus, I should give other people some credit: whatever it is, they’ll get over it. I’m not that important. I’m not Beyoncé.

But I do want to be honest. Martha’s plan starts with being honest to yourself, then noticing how that empowers you to be honest with others. It’s worth a try.

And please, if we know each other in real life or online, level with me. Tell me you don’t want to hang out, that I don’t resemble Sidse Babett Knudsen even a little, or that my teasing remark from this morning made you want to cry. Just be honest.

I promise it won’t kill either of us.

Probably.

Image: Peter Sheik on Flickr.

  • Another great post, Diane. And as for your friend, well, I’m not sure whether I’m more annoyed by the “so bloody stupid” comment or the “pray your way out of depression!” thing. I mean, SERIOUSLY.

    I also struggle with this, although not as much as Terry, who is a born people pleaser, and just CANNOT say “no”. We’ve had countless arguments about why he’s working at 2am, just because a client asked him to do something urgent, and he “didn’t like to” refuse… We also disagree about how to handle social invitations relating to things we just don’t like (ten-pin bowling, watching action movies at the cinema, etc…). His attitude us that if he’s invited to something, he MUST go, regardless of whether he wants to, or how inconvenient it is, because “that’s how friendship works”. Mine is that I should be able to say, “That’s not really my thing, thanks, but let’s make plans to meet up another time…” or something similar. I’m fairly sure my friends won’t drop me just because I don’t like action movies, and if they did…well, that would make them pretty sucky friends. I’m also really aware – after multiple trips to the bowling alley – that if you don’t just speak up and say, “Actually, I don’t like this,” you end up doing it FOREVER, and it becomes too late to say anything, like that thing when you don’t know someone’s name, but you interact with them so often it becomes impossible to ask them.

    All of that said, though, although I FEEL I should be able to say no to things, the reality is often different. It’s just HARD sometimes, you know? And there is always that little voice saying that maybe people WILL actually hate me if I’m honest with them. (I also think that ruthless honesty in ALL situations is almost never the best policy. If I went around being totally honest all the time, people really WOULD hate me, because I’m a cynical, easily-annoyed little snot.)

    In conclusion: social interaction is hard. Also: I should really get my own blog rather than word-vomiting all over yours again!

    • Haha! Your word-vomit is always welcome here (and that’s a sentence I won’t be typing again) (although the sentiment stands). Yes, the moral of the story really IS that social interaction is hard, but I think a lot of people feel the same way, and it’s actually pretty respectful to tell someone you don’t like bowling, or whatever. The older I get, the more grateful I am for people who are kind but honest with me. I just have to work on repaying the favour! Ps: I was looking to see if I could find the page proving the origin of my blog name (because you know, no one asked) and I diiiiid: http://www.foreveramber.co.uk/2006/10/do_ambers_pee_i.html (Now that’s honest.)