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5 Things I wish I'd known about why we lie


If there’s one ability that no human being needs to be taught, it’s knowing how to lie. It seems to kick in pretty much as soon as we learn to talk. And yet most of us hate being lied to, so what’s going on? Here are a few challenging things I’ve learnt which might help you to understand.

1. Lying vs truth: a black and white issue

Just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, so there is also no such thing as a little bit of a lie. I know that concept doesn’t sit well in our politically correct world, but something is either true, or it’s not. If you find yourself reading that statement and reacting by thinking “That’s rubbish!”, then you might like to consider why the idea of not having degrees of truth is so uncomfortable for you.

2. Lies are a defence mechanism

We all like to be seen in a good light. Have you ever exaggerated your abilities or achievements to make yourself look better, or hidden a past mistake or shortcoming because it might work against you? We like to say that we’re simply marketing ourselves well in a competitive world, but it doesn’t matter how we dress it up or justify it, the reality is that we’re lying.

3. Lies help avoid something or someone unpleasant

This is the point at which lying can become easy to justify. After all, surely it’s kinder to make up an excuse to avoid attending an event with a co-worker, rather than to tell them we think they’re a jerk! Right? Certainly we don’t set out to deliberately hurt others (hopefully) but are we really serving their best interests by manipulating the truth?

We can practise the art of diplomacy and show compassion, but not at the expense of personal integrity. Respect and trust are closely linked, and we risk losing both for the sake of a “white” lie, which we thought would spare someone’s feelings.

“Sue” was a client who was chronically unfaithful. When I met her she had been married and divorced four times as well as taking countless lovers. Now she was seeking validation from me that it was ok to launch into marriage number five. She had been through a very painful history and was desperately looking for love and acceptance.

When she asked me to give her my seal of approval, I suggested that she didn’t need approval from me, but rather from herself. She protested that she had expected me to want her happiness. My response was to question if she felt that another relationship would give her the happiness she craved. She accused me of being negative and critical and stormed out angrily, complete with slamming of doors. But six months later she came back to work with me.

The bottom line was that, although she didn’t like what she heard from me, given time she recognised the truth of it, and felt safe to trust me with her challenging issues. For me that’s the real payoff, rather than fleeting approval.

4. Lying to gain something

This one is hard to resist, especially if we only see the benefits for ourselves.

“Peter” was a hard-working and loving single dad. Due to his personal convictions, he chose not to have his children vaccinated. But when the child care centre he used introduced a policy which would exclude children such as his, he was in a dilemma. His kids were happy at the centre and had made friends there, and he really couldn’t keep his job if his kids were not in care.

So he did what many of us may consider doing, and got creative with his children’s medical records. After all, he took great care of his children and safe-guarded their health. But childhood illnesses don’t play fair, and when his children came down with measles, Peter found himself in a world of trouble. He lost the services of that centre and found it difficult to find other placements since word spread rapidly. But more damagingly, he lost his good reputation.

You might say that you would never do that, but have you ever accepted credit for something you didn’t do, or stretched the truth in order to be eligible for an undeserved prize? Who does that hurt? I guess the better question to ask is “Next time I want someone to take my word, will my own track record be spotless?” Remember, I did say at the beginning that the things I’m sharing would be challenging!

5. The noble lie

This is when we hide or contradict the truth in order to protect someone else. But I guess we really need to be considering what we’re protecting them from and whether that is actually what is best for them.

The scenario that most people would use at this point goes something like this: “Say a completely innocent person was being hunted down by someone who was likely to harm or even kill them and I knew where the first person was, surely it would only be right for me to lie about their whereabouts in order to protect them?”

My response to this would be that that is a very different scenario. In reality, how many of us have ever found ourselves in that situation, or are likely to? My guess is that it would be an exceedingly small number.

What seems to happen more commonly is that we may decide to lie in order to do what we believe is best for someone else. The problem here is that the concept of “best” is incredibly subjective. If, for example, I have a friend or relative who has committed a significant crime, and I help to hide them from the police who have the power to put them in prison, am I really serving their best interests?

And what about the interests of others such as their victim, or even society in general? On a more likely level, am I really helping my child/partner if I lie to their teacher/boss about why their work is not done?

This dilemma brings us full circle, back to the point of lying to preserve being seen in a good light.

It’s a complicated pattern, but one which it’s helpful to understand. I’d be interested to know how you may have been impacted by lying.

Now, I'd love to know...

What's your best idea for dealing with people who lie to you?

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