Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a strange relationship with truth. I grew up Catholic, and the first lie I clearly remember telling was in second grade, when we had to confess our sins to a priest. I didn’t want to tell him my real sins, like wishing bad things would happen to the girls who teased me. So I made up sins, like fighting with my brother. I felt guilty and decided I would never lie again.
But of course I did. In adulthood, the tug-of-war around honesty was less about confessional fibs and more about my frustration with my inability to be straightforward. I greatly valued sincerity and demanded it in others, yet in secret, I wondered about my own integrity. Didn’t I often say what I thought someone wanted me to say? Exaggerated to boost my ego? Beat around the bush in order to save face? Didn’t I post filtered versions of my life on social media? This tug-of-war ran like background noise in my life as I got married, had children, and continued building my career. Yet I found myself growing increasingly frustrated at what seemed like a more and more corrupt world. Political leaders were untrustworthy. Corporations were practicing deceitfully. Everywhere I looked, there were scandals, cover-ups, and shadiness. What had happened to honesty?
Facing the Facts
Finally, one day, it occurred to me that I should stop pointing fingers and assess the integrity of my own life. When I did that, this is what I saw: I was the mother of two wonderful kids who were the most important thing in the world to me, yet I did a pretty bad job answering their most difficult questions. I was a wife who loved her husband, yet I struggled to communicate candidly with him. I was a writer who believed in being straightforward, yet I so often failed to tell people how I really felt, because I feared being rude, standing in a difficult space, or being judged.
That combination of shame about my own lies and anger at the ones I saw around me made me feel misaligned, hypocritical, and foolish. I had to figure out once and for all what it truly meant to live a more genuine life. To help me find my way, I decided to do something that was simple and yet not easy: start an honesty journal. I would write down every single choice I made throughout the day regarding the truth for at least one month. On day one, I discovered that I shaded the facts, uttered unexamined statements, and caught myself before I said something that wasn’t sincere at least a dozen times.
The Honesty Journal
As the weeks wore on, I noticed several things. First, I told a lot of little fibs to spare someone’s feelings. I avoided telling the truth when I didn’t want to be a jerk, cause a confrontation, or embarrass myself. I also noticed plenty of small instances of fraud that I “fudged,” and could easily rationalize.
For example, at one point, I almost kept the extra dollar in change that a McDonald’s cashier gave me. I justified it by saying it was only one dollar — until I remembered that I was paying attention to veracity. Over and over again during my period of journaling, I found that being honest was deeply meaningful, both in social situations as well as inside of my more intimate relationships. For a few years, I had been very conflicted about my marriage. I felt like my husband wasn’t there for me emotionally when my father died. During that time, the friendship I had developed with another man slowly started to tip toward more than friendship. When the other man told me he was getting divorced, it pushed the situation to a crisis for me.
For weeks, I agonized in my honesty journal, trying to figure out how to be open with my husband. I didn’t know what to do, right up until the moment I just decided to be brutally honest and tell him everything. Though it was hard for him to hear, it forced us both to confront issues we hadn’t dealt with. Those difficult and candid conversations about why I had developed feelings for someone else helped us move forward. We never would have gotten to a better place had I not forced those forthright (but often painful) moments.
More Present Parenting
I also began to feel more engaged with my kids, who were then 7 and 9. It’s not as if I was a detached parent before keeping the journal. But I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to the value of my conversations with them, particularly when it came to the answers I gave to questions they asked about difficult topics.
When my daughter asked if putting the cat to sleep meant that I killed him, instead of brushing it off with a “Don’t worry about that; he’s in kitty heaven,” or “It’s complicated,” we had a real conversation about why I wouldn’t want an animal we loved so much to suffer and what it meant to put a pet to sleep. For his part, my son — who is more precocious — asked me an uncomfortable question about what a certain sexual slang term meant. Instead of freaking out and reacting by saying, “Where did you hear that?” I merely answered his question matter-of-factly. My hope is from now on, instead of going to Siri or YouTube or even a friend for answers, my kids feel like they can ask me.
Unlearning the Little White Lies
Doing this work has changed me in other ways as well. I don’t hem and haw around situations. I always look for ways to be kind — because I value kindness — but I’m able to be more direct. For example, my daughter once witnessed me telling the checkout clerk at a retail store that I didn’t have an email address when the clerk asked me for one. Now I simply say, “I don’t want to give you an email address, thank you.” Instead of making up an excuse about why I don’t want to buy something or do something, I have embraced simply saying, “Not for me, thanks.”
I also find myself paying more attention to my pro-social lies — the ones we tell for the benefit of others. I’ve realized that some of the fiction I thought was for the benefit of others were actually for my own benefit, such as to avoid a difficult (and, yet, necessary) conversation. I want to build empathy, be kind, and focus on the positive aspects of a situation. And often there’s a way to do that without uttering a single falsity.
For example, if a friend talks about how much she loves a new purse she just bought and I don’t like it, I can simply say, “It’s great when you buy something new and you love it!” I’ve noticed that I do still resort to deception sometimes though. For example, if I sense someone feels ashamed by a mistake they made, I might say something like, “I’ve done the same thing — don’t worry about it!” It matters that I’m aware I’m doing it, and that I am actively deciding, versus living on autopilot.
The Mindfulness of Honesty
Noticing your honesty is a practice not unlike mindful breathing. We think sincere communication should be a natural thing that decent human beings are able to do. But in fact, it takes focused attention, because the modern world and our lives are so distracting and full of opportunities to speak and share while only barely noticing what we’re saying. After I stopped keeping the journal, I continued to focus on honesty. I had internalized it to the degree that I didn’t need to keep writing it down as much. If you want a place to start though, I highly recommend keeping a journal, even for a short amount of time.
I think back to when all of my focus was on bemoaning what was going on around me. I see now that I was being reactive instead of proactive, and that there is great power in saying, “I want a more authentic world, so I’ll start with me.” No matter the deception you see around you, all is not lost in this world. Your relationship with honesty matters. Your interactions with people matter. Not only do they matter for your own health and happiness and sense of empowerment, but I believe cultivating this awareness for yourself can actually change the world. How honest will you be today?
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Mindfulness for Women.