Expert Source: Lisa Firestone, PhD, clinical psychologist, senior editor at PsychAlive.org, and coauthor of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice.
“What do you think of my new haircut?”
It’s a question that begs to be answered with praise, so if you think the haircut is less than flattering, your response may be more polite than truthful. Clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, PhD, views minor tactful lies like this as pro-social gestures — responses offered to protect the feelings of others. And these kindnesses have their place.
Yet frequent truth-tweaking can have the opposite effect, bruising feelings and diminishing trust. You tell your partner that the expensive appliance you bought was on sale, when it wasn’t. You exaggerate the details of a traffic accident you witnessed to add drama to your story. You feel like spending a night at home, so you beg off from attending an event by claiming you’re not feeling well. These fibs may seem harmless in the short term, but over time they can trigger increasing unease as you work ever harder to keep your stories straight.
Shading the truth can be a tough habit to break, yet coming clean offers some surprising rewards. Firestone explains the impulse behind our little lies — and the pleasures of sticking to the truth.
Challenges to Overcome
- Devaluing honesty. While the occasional tactful lie isn’t a problem, says Firestone, “experimenting” with other kinds of small dishonesties “can give us the idea that we don’t really have to be honest. Then we begin to feel inauthentic, which takes a toll.”
- Trouble with self-acceptance. When we shade the truth to look good or fit in, it may be because we feel inadequate. Such lying indicates that “it’s not OK to feel the way I do about something, or to think what I really think about it,” Firestone says. “I have to think something else, be someone else, to be acceptable.”
- People pleasing. Low self-esteem often correlates with a habit of saying what we think people want to hear. This can lead quickly to falsehoods. “People pleasing is rooted in the idea that we ourselves aren’t enough,” she explains. “Of course, very often people are wrong about what would please another person.”
- The inner critic. You may harbor an internal voice that never lets you off the hook. “This critical voice seems friendly, especially when it’s encouraging you to tell a little lie to ‘protect’ yourself,” Firestone says. “But the voice always plays both sides of this coin: First it says, You’d better tell this little lie and then, Look at you! You’re not a very genuine person!”
- Force of habit. If you become accustomed to telling minor lies, they may slip out before you’re even aware of them.
- The tangled web. Maintaining any lie, big or small, requires that we remember what we’ve said, and to whom. This can create the temptation to lie a little more to support a false statement. It can soon become hard to know when to stop.
- Self-protection. We often tell subtle lies that we think make us look better, smarter, or more accomplished than we really are, says Firestone. But then we cheat ourselves out of the kind of honest feedback that may be hard to hear — which is usually the feedback that can help us improve and grow.
- A desire to seem trustworthy. You may be reluctant to confess to a lie once it’s out there for fear that someone you care about might not trust or confide in you in the future.
Strategies for Success
- Pay attention. Awareness is the first step to breaking a habit, says Firestone. Whether you’re about to fib or you just did, acknowledge it to yourself. What were you thinking and feeling when the impulse arose?
- Back away from your inner critic. When you notice the impulse to lie, your inner critic may try to take over. But you need not engage with it. “Don’t overidentify with the thoughts and feelings voiced by your inner critic,” she suggests. Simply noticing the voices, without battling them, will reduce their influence.
- Practice self-kindness. “Develop a friendly attitude toward yourself,” says Firestone. “Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend who felt inadequate and like he or she had to lie.”
- Tell on yourself. It’s hard to admit an untruth, but candor can strengthen a relationship, she notes. “You’ve just told a friend you can’t go to her party because you’re ill. You can stop and say something like this: ‘You know, I’m not ill. I’m an introvert, and I felt embarrassed to tell you that I’m just not in the mood for a party tonight. I need to stay home and recharge.’” That kind of self-revelation can create deeper intimacy with your friend.
- Tell on yourself to yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable enough with a particular person to admit you’ve lied, you can still admit it to yourself, she says. Then do a reality check. “Step back and say to yourself, ‘The lie doesn’t represent how I really feel; I checked in with myself and this is how I feel: I just want to stay home.’” Then do your best to be honest next time. This also helps stop the spiral of cover-up lies.
- Rehearse. Because revealing fibs is awkward, it helps to practice the phrases you’ll use to own up. Not only can this make an admission easier, Firestone explains, “but we’re more likely to actually do anything we rehearse and imagine.”
- Examine your motives. “Honesty is rooted in self-acceptance, so you may need to look at the deeper reasons for feeling that it’s not acceptable to be who you are,” says Firestone. “It might go back to your childhood.”
Psychotherapy can help in that case, she adds, “especially if you grew up in a family in which there was a lot of lying or secret-keeping. Making sense of those things can do a lot to make you a more honest person with yourself and with others.”
This originally appeared as “Little Lies” in the October 2017 print issue of Experience Life.