“The most common form of despair is not being who you are.” —Søren Kierkegaard
You know when you hear a new song – something that’s been around forever but it sounds new to you – and then you begin to hear it simply everywhere?
That happens with me and words as well. I stumble over a new one in a book and then see it popping up in random places almost immediately. And it’s always a word in common usage which I somehow hadn’t clocked before.
This, I like to think, is the universe ensuring I pay attention to something I need to learn.
So, similarly, a few months ago, I kept hearing the term “radical honesty”. My new favourite podcast host, Kim Anami (not for the faint-hearted, though I am riveted by her) talks of it often. Every book I recently picked up mentioned it too. My therapist promotes it as a non-negotiable policy.
Now, I’ve never thought of myself as dishonest. I think people around me would even consider me quite blunt (in that cheerful, clueless Sagittarius way, never in the out-to-get-you stinging Scorpio way).
But sure, I tell a white lie now and then to not hurt people’s feelings; that’s meant to be a kind gesture, surely?
And okay, I do hold back from saying something if I think it will just lead to a lot of unnecessary discomfort. Who, after all, invites needless confrontation?
But radical honesty? What does that even look like?
I have a long work history of managing sensitive, colourful personalities (everyone who works in film is a sensitive, colourful personality). This has meant training myself to be tactful and diplomatic. But I also advocate for direct and swift course correction.
So if someone is doing something I don’t think is working well, I speak up early. Because time is money, etc etc. But also because I genuinely believe that’s the kinder thing to do in the long run. It also gives the other party a chance to quickly understand what my expectations are.
So it’s not like I don’t know how to do this – I see that I (mostly) do, at least when it comes to work.
But it took a deliberate exercise of checking in with myself over the course of only a few days of my normal daily life to learn – oh fuck me, I don’t tell the truth. In fact, I barely tell the truth.
There are the seemingly trivial white lies, such as “sure, I’d love to read your script/watch your film and give you feedback.” (This is not true unless I specifically want to work with that person, because doing this takes dedicated time, energy and focus away from my own work; and almost inevitably they push back on the feedback anyway, making it a frustrating and futile exercise.)
There are the lies of omission, like when I don’t share having a sudden scary depressive episode (because I don’t want to be a burden to other people, and what can they do anyway, etc etc). While I’m of course not obliged to share everything with everyone, bit by bit it does drive a wedge between people, when you begin to believe that others are not there for you (yes, because you won’t allow them to be).
Then there are the lies which I chalk down to “kindness” – not telling a friend I was hurt by something they said or did – but which builds up over time to ultimately destroy the connections altogether.
I lie to protect myself from feeling uncomfortable emotions. I am – like anyone with a tendency towards addictions – a master of suppression. If someone does something disagreeable, my impulse is to minimise my own pain. It feels easier to excuse their behaviour in order to keep the peace.
Perhaps I also lie because by overstepping my own comfort to oblige someone else, I think they’ll like me more.
Or maybe I’m just socially conditioned to living in a society that expects women to be accommodating and submissive. To forever sit primly and patiently and politely. To grin and bear it. To bite my tongue. Because a mute woman is a powerless woman.
When we think we’re the only ones feeling the way we do, we feel ashamed for feeling what we feel. Certainly in the case of sexual abuse, the perpetrator relies on that shame to keep us silent. And because secrecy is a tacit form of agreement, it keeps us bonded to the abuser instead of to the truth.
So, sure, telling someone you don’t mind their coming over and taking over your one free evening of the week when you really, really need to sleep is one thing. But further along the same chain can be the things that can damage not just one night but a whole life.
Whatever the impetus, the thing about lying is that it takes so much work to keep a lid over it. We are carrying with us decades’ worth of unresolved hurt, anger and shame, to name just a few. That’s a colossal weight. No wonder life can feel as if everything requires massive effort (hence addiction as a coping mechanism).
Just ask anyone who hasn’t come out yet. Or someone who hates their boss they have to see every day. Or anyone in an unhappy marriage.
Indeed, I remember the period when I first separated from my husband. I had felt way more alone in my marriage than I ever had when I was single; I had numbed myself into denial in order to carry on for all those years. As I began to rid myself of the layers of bitterness and shame, I felt and looked 10 years younger.
And I inexplicably couldn’t stop singing. And I’m a terrible singer. But I’d go out with an umbrella and do rounds in the park, just singing at the top of my lungs which the English rain would drown out. It was exhilarating to get it all out of me.
But speaking (or singing) up isn’t a one-time act, of course. It needs to be done daily, hourly. It needs to be as natural as inhaling and exhaling. I breathe therefore I speak the truth of who I am.
Being radically honest is not, however, a licence to go around wrecking carnage under the guise of “this is how I feel, now you deal with it”. That pot-stirring is less truth-telling and more emotional incontinence. It’s not anyone else’s job to clean up our mess. Real honesty is a way of taking ownership of who we are.
All well and good, but to speak up means doing two terrifying (to me) steps. One is to pause from giving an automated response (sure, fine, no problem, all good, etc) and actually check with myself how I really think and feel.
Identifying the feelings – sad, frustrated, scared – is surprisingly hard. It legitimises them whereas I’ve spent a lifetime brushing them off and acting as if I’m just peachy and can take on all the burdens of the world.
And the second step, of course, is to let the person know.
I used to believe being honest would hurt other people. But by not speaking my truth, I’ve been hurting myself.
In (admittedly rare) alert moments, I’ve used this handy metric for speech: is it true? Is it kind? It is necessary?
I had always thought of it in terms of how it affects the other party. Is this kind to them? Is this necessary for them?
But now I believe I need to also ask this of myself when I speak: is it true for me? Is it kind to me to say it? Is it necessary for me to share this?
I’ve done this a few times so far, and it’s surprised me every time.
I have been heartened by how readily people meet you in an honest place, even though I’d fretted it could sound confrontational. I think they appreciate the sincerity, as well as the courage it takes to speak up. I’ve tried to not go in with arms raised in battle, but with my palms outstretched in offering.
On each occasion, the other parties have stepped up and apologised for their part. That recognition of my truth from them (though I know it may not happen every time) has gone a long way in bolstering me to continue.
However, I suspect I may well end the year with a lot of relationships – and perhaps various work and other plans too – up in smoke.
But maybe a mass culling is what’s needed now anyway. It’s like the quote: Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.
I’ve been using the term “speaking my truth” but of course, I really mean more than that – it’s about embodying it. Living in my truth. Being my truth. Being me, wholly, even if and when I feel broken.
For me, it’s not just radically honest, it’s honestly radical.
“The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.” — Brené Brown
Although I am no longer active on social media, I’m more than thrilled if you choose to share this post on your end, thanks!
In one of my favourite Sex and The City episodes, My Motherboard, My Self (S4, Ep 08), Carrie’s laptop crashes, and she’s freaking out about losing everything she’s ever written (clip here). Everyone keeps asking her when she’d last backed up her hard drive. And – apropos to hearing about something for the first time and then seeing it everywhere – she finally says to Miranda, “You know, no one talks about backing up. You’ve never used that expression with me before ever, but apparently, everybody is secretly running home at night and backing up their work.” An oldie but truly a goldie.
Kim Anami hosts her excellent podcast, Orgasmic Enlightenment. She also has a blog and a YouTube channel, which I plan to work my way through. The theme of honesty runs in her podcast, and is captured in this blog post, Is Marriage Obsolete? where she says: “I’m into radical honesty and transparency. You’d think that would be a given in a relationship, but it’s not. I cannot tell you how many marriages are based on the tacit agreement of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Are you truly ready to expose the deepest parts of yourself for healing and transformation? To see the same in your partner and hold them without judgment? When you do, the impact on your lives is massive. You allow each other to self-actualise.”
Oh, the cost of keeping a very big secret hidden when you’re an uppercrust British politician and leader of the Liberal Party, as Jeremy Thorpe was in the 1970s. The BBC’s A Very English Scandal (now on Amazon Prime in some territories), directed by Stephen Frears, is a three-part mini-series based on that true story. Hugh Grant is impeccable as the repressed, tormented and entitled Thorpe.