Opinion piece

Mental health: Lying to avoid unpleasant consequences

“A lie may take care of the present, but it has no future.”

– Author Unknown

A parent asked me if I would talk about lying behaviour. A basic element of trust in any relationship depends on hearing the truth from the other. Once someone has lied to us, it is very hard to have total faith in what they say in the future. Even though we may have decided to forgive and forget, nagging doubts may pop up from time to time.

Why do people lie? Generally, it is to avoid unpleasant consequences. Perhaps they have done something that they know would bring an angry response, or they want to do something that they know would create disapproval. And lying seems to be the easy way out.

Where did this idea come from? Could it be that as a child they overheard an adult making a polite excuse to get out of a social engagement? Or perhaps a parent told the child to tell the person on the telephone that they weren’t home. Maybe mom or dad said the chocolates were all gone, and then the box mysteriously re-appeared a couple of days later.

Lying behaviour is learned, and we need to openly acknowledge how much of it there is around us. How often do we say “yes” when we really feel “no”? How often do we keep silent when we really feel there is an injustice? And do we ever tell others what we think they want to hear, rather than what we really believe? Let’s face it, there are a lot of lies floating around out there.

So what do we do if we want truth in our relationships? The first, and most difficult thing, is to move out of our denial about any lying we might be doing. We can tell those with whom we want honest relationships, that we are moving into our truth, and invite them to do the same. If we want to do this in safety, we must agree that we will receive truth gently, even if we do not like what we are hearing. A punishing response will not encourage truth. Others must be able to trust us with their truth.

If you cannot be truthful in a relationship, then it is not a relationship in a meaningful sense, but rather a kind of charade. You are showing your partner an abridged version of who you are. If you are lying, what are you hiding, and why? In adults, lying is copping out on being a mature adult and being responsible for your actions.

Whether you are the one lying, or being lied to, you must ask yourself if lying, or putting up with lying, is worth the energy it takes. Loving honesty builds trust and can be very energizing, even when difficult. So, it may be time to begin gently speaking your truth and inviting others to do the same. It is more effective, by far, than standing and waiting, just around the corner, with a big stick.

Gwen Randall-Young is an Alberta author and award-winning psychologist.