How many times has each of us received an emotional wound followed by the justification, “I’m only being honest!” “Honesty” is like other sacrosanct words like “love”, “unselfish”, and “caring” that have the ability to put people’s forebrains to sleep. The mere utterance of the word has the ability to rationalize many behaviors that would otherwise not stand up to close scrutiny. If you are trying to learn how to better defend your privacy and stand up for yourself, then honesty is something you had best get real clear.
The biggest reason to get this concept clear is that if you don’t, it will be used against you! How? By implying that if you don’t tell all, then you’re being dishonest. It’s always amazing to me how many of my clients struggle with feelings of disloyalty to others because they harbor feelings that they haven’t shared. I don’t know how the myth has been propagated but it seems that it’s something of a sin if you haven’t shared all of your feelings. If sharing feelings is being honest, then not sharing your feelings is dishonest, right? Wrong. Or at least more often wrong than right. Not sharing your feelings may be tactful, or considerate, or maybe just plain careful. Here’s something that may help. Honesty is not the same thing as openness. Suppose you see something that reminds you of an old relationship while you’re with a new partner. Suppose you know your new partner is a bit insecure and somewhat prone to jealousy. You have several choices. One possible choice would be to tell all about your feelings for the previous relationship. That wold be both open and honest. Another choice would be to make up a small “white lie” like nothing was going on with you, even though your partner has noticed a difference. That would be closed and dishonest. However, a third choice might be to say that you experienced some old feelings that had nothing to do with the present relationship but that you don’t feel ready to share them. That would be closed but honest.
To confuse honesty with openness is to deny that third option for yourself. It’s that third option of being honestly closed that allows you to set necessary limits in many relationships. It’s also sometimes referred to as maintaining your privacy. For some reason, I find that this is especially hard for some people to keep clear in relations with their parents. For many young couples, not telling their parents details about their present romance may seem like a form of dishonesty. I usually get much resistance when I counsel that they can be closed about many details without being dishonest. Perhaps it’s because they don’t want to risk rejection if they’re honest about maintaining a separate private life.
Of course it’s possible to be closed and dishonest as well. If you secretly break an exclusivity agreement by having an affair, that’s a clear example. Sometimes the agreements haven’t been so explicitly negotiated and then we get into the gray areas. But that will probably have to be the subject of another article.
Another reason to learn to keep some feelings private is so that you can be less tempted to share your feelings as a weapon – all in the name of being honest. If we’re truthful with ourselves, all of us can remember times when we’ve hurt or manipulated another by sharing our “honest” feelings. You know how it’s done. First act like something’s on your mind but only vaguely allude to it. Then when your partner asks you what it is, you tell them that you really shouldn’t have said anything in the first place and it really isn’t anything important. That double message will really hook ’em. Finally, when their curiosity has swelled to a feverish pitch, they’ll really press you. You finally have all the license you need and… SOCKO! Then share you feelings (and a lot of opinions about their shortcomings). “But you’re ooooooonly being honest!” If I sound a bit sarcastic, let me temper it a bit by saying that I don’t exclude myself from the ranks of the guilty.
A good word to remember in conjunction with honesty is “tact.” Tact implies consideration for the other in what you’re doing. It means you have to think about how you’re doing something and the consequences that might ensue. Is it really safe for you to “let it all hang out” or is this a situation where privacy can protect? Do you really want to give that person so much access to your vulnerable feelings? Have they demonstrated that they won’t manipulate those feelings to bully you in the future?… OR… Are you going to share information that will likely hurt the other? Will the benefit from the other’s knowledge outweigh the pain that it will bring? Are you thinking of a compassionate way to share the information? Have you looked at your own anger and your desire to punish? These are all questions to help formulate tact. With tact, we have to exercise more choices. We don’t let our unconscious lead us to impulsive action while we rationalize it as being honest. We can have tact and we can have honesty too. We just need to be clear that honesty is not the same thing as openness and that the latter is a personal choice involving our privacy.