Most people like to think that they are honest. Of course, there are times when little white lies are necessary, but in general, honesty is believed to be the best policy. So why do we have so much trouble being honest with ourselves?
Human beings have many quirks and oddities, but to me, the most fascinating one is our ability of self-deception. While self-deception can play an important role in protecting our self-esteem, honesty really is the best policy, especially when it comes to being honest with ourselves, because it helps us live more authentic, fulfilling and happier lives.
In this article, I’ll take a look at what self-honesty is, why it’s so hard to achieve, and three examples why you need it.
A significant part of your happiness is a result of your personal outlook. Being aware of your own emotions and mindset is a vital step towards happiness. This is covered in-depth in the section Internal Happiness in the biggest guide on how to be happy available online.
What is self-honesty?
Self-honesty is a type of self-awareness. Self-awareness is the knowledge of self as a separate being, and it allows us to assess ourselves. Self-honesty, to me, is the best form of self-awareness, because it allows us to see ourselves in the most realistic way.
Self-honesty isn’t only a psychological notion or a keyword to sell self-help books: fundamentally, it’s also a moral decision. Jeremy Sakovich argues in his Master’s thesis that self-honesty is a moral duty. He writes:
The reason self-honesty is a moral obligation is because self-honesty is a form of self-respect. It is impossible for us to show ourselves respect when we are deceiving ourselves.
We tend to equate honesty with respect, so this statement, while very extreme, makes sense. By being honest with yourself, you are giving yourself a chance to learn and grow, which are important parts of respect.
Why is self-honesty so hard to achieve?
Let’s remove the word “self” from all this for a moment. Honesty is something people value. We want people to be honest with us and we strive – or at least we think we do – to be honest with others.
But every once in a while, we find ourselves telling little white lies. We might say that we were late because of the traffic, not because we slept in, because that would reflect badly on us.
When someone asks about a recent breakup, we might say it was a mutual, friendly decision, even if it was anything but, because we can’t or don’t want to share the details.
We might tell our spouse that we got the new fancy curtains on sale when they actually cost way too much, because we know that our spouse doesn’t like needless spending.
These are all fairly common lies and there’s nothing wrong with them, per se. While some philosophers like Immanuel Kant may argue that all lies are inherently immoral, it would be foolish to expect that people are ever going to be 100% truthful.
We lie, deceive, deny and omit things for all sorts of reasons. Maybe we want to preserve our reputation or image, or avoid hurting someone.
Self-honesty is difficult for these same exact reasons: we want to protect our self-esteem and avoid hurting ourselves.
Since self-deception can serve such an important purpose, changing our deceptive patterns can be extremely hard, but not impossible. A 2015 study reports that self-deception diminishes over time, but only when self-deceivers are repeatedly confronted with evidence of the true situation.
However, the study also found that after this confrontation and temporary diminishing of self-deception, people are still prone to future self-deception.
Why do you need self-honesty?
With all this talk about how difficult self-honesty is to attain, you may be ready to declare these grapes sour after all and give up altogether. However, I implore you to stick around for a little while.
I find that it’s easier to commit to a change if you know why you are making it. For example, you are more motivated to work out if you are working towards a goal. The same applies to psychological changes, so let’s take a look at some examples of why you need self-honesty.
1. To avoid further pain
As we’ve learned, one of the reasons why people self-deceive is to avoid getting hurt. However, failing to be honest with ourselves can cause further hurt down the road.
The end of my last relationship dragged on for an unnecessarily long time for a lot of reasons, but one of them was my lack of self-honesty. While I recognized the troubles we were having and even discussed them with my partner at the time, I kept thinking that we can fix everything – without actually doing anything to change the status quo. In hindsight, I know that I was just protecting myself from potential pain, while looking at the whole situation through rose-colored glasses.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that by shielding myself from the possible hurt of a breakup, I was causing myself more pain in the process. The constant stress of being in a crumbling relationship that culminated in an angry breakup anyway almost pushed me to burn-out.
Had I been honest with myself from the beginning, my relationship would have probably ended sooner, but the break would have been cleaner and less taxing for both of us.
2. To learn and grow
People are like plants, but with more complicated emotions. Just like an orchid needs certain soil, nutrients and light to grow, people also have some prerequisites for thriving and learning.
For example, I often meet students who are struggling with a certain subject, but they won’t accept extra tutoring from the teacher or study tips from me because they believe that they can handle everything themselves.
Even though this may sound arrogant on their part, I know that often, that front can hide uncertainty and shame that stops the students from asking for the help they need. For most people, this description may be quite familiar.
However, whatever the reason, you can’t expect yourself to thrive if you don’t have the necessary resources. Sometimes, self-honesty can take the form of humility that helps us swallow our pride that stops us from seeking help. Sometimes, self-honesty can look like courage that trumps our shame.
So whatever your endeavor, if you find yourself stuck, take an honest look at your progress and your resources to figure out what you need to go forward.
3. To find clarity
Being honest with yourself means taking stock of yourself: all of your strengths and weaknesses, your needs and wants, your likes and dislikes. Self-honesty helps you really know yourself.
Self-honesty also means separating your needs, wants, goals and priorities from those of others. Do you really need the newest iPhone or do you just think you need it? Do you want to study IT or is this something you feel you should study, because it will give you a profitable job? Do you really want to have a big wedding or are you just overwhelmed by Pinterest dream weddings?
Of course, there are times when you have to go the other route, but being honest with yourself will give you clarity and in general, decision-making will be easier, because you’ll be guided by your own values, not someone else’s.
For example, I had a bit of an identity crisis at the end of my bachelor’s studies. I was disillusioned with psychology and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue studying it. I considered switching to theater studies or English literature before realizing that the problem wasn’t psychology at all.
Instead, I was unhappy with my results and felt that if I wasn’t the top of my class, I wouldn’t make a good psychologist, because I had a couple of professors who strongly implied (there is no correlation there, by the way). It took about 17 brutally honest journaling sessions for me to realize that, but in the end, I had clarity.
Self-deception is easy and it can make us feel safe and better about ourselves, but in the long run, honesty is always the best policy. It’s not easy to break out of the cycle of self-deception and denial, but once you do, it’s worth it. Self-honesty helps us learn, make clear, value-driven decisions, and live better, happier lives in general. So what’s the first truth about yourself that you’ll be facing?
So, what do you think? Are you honest to yourself, or can you recognize yourself in some of the examples mentioned in this article? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
Maili TirelSchool psychologist
School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“