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Telling the truth with tact

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” — Ephesians 4:15

Do you recall the television game show called “To Tell The Truth?” Three people on a panel claim to be the same person with some unique experience or skill. Contestants try to guess which person is not an imposter. ABC announced recently that it plans to revive the show again later this year.

Have you ever felt like your relational reality is a bit like that television show? This happens when you know someone who likes to tell “little white lies” on a regular basis.

White lies are those little distortions in the truth that supposedly protect someone from a painful reality. Think, “Does this dress make me look….”

I recently had a couple in my office and the conversation went something like this: The wife said, “I can’t believe you have a secret credit card with a $5,000 balance on it!” The husband quickly responded with, “If I had told you about that card you would have flipped out—I had to keep it to myself or you would have been really upset.”

The husband’s excuse for hiding his credit card was allegedly to protect his wife, but in truth there were at least three offenses to his wife in this little exchange.

First, there was the deception of opening a credit card account without his wife’s knowledge and running up a secret balance. Second, hiding this fact to protect her was the white lie. And third, in blaming her for his deception, he avoided taking responsibility for the lie.

People make mistakes in life, but the bigger error comes when we lie to avoid responsibility and, in so doing, place the blame on someone who is innocent.

Think of it like this: Having integrity means being transparent. Lying to protect someone else’s feelings is considered a “white lie.” But when that lie is really about protecting ourselves, then it quickly darkens to other shades of gray or black.

I would argue that there really are no white lies—that all lies are really self-protective in some way. You tell enough white lies and after a while you start to grow color-blind.

Research has shown that by attempting to change someone else’s reality by distorting the truth, you run the risk of actually believing the lie yourself. If you tell enough lies, you lose the ability to distinguish truth from fiction. This is actually the definition of insanity—an inability to distinguish reality from fantasy or fiction.

Additionally, these little white lies prevent improvement that can follow useful feedback. A lie denies access to reality, making it impossible to develop good solutions through accurate information.

You don’t have to share every negative thought when someone asks for feedback, but sharing the truth in a gentle and loving way, even if it hurts in that moment, is superior to believing something that is false.

Even when it’s painful, reality is our friend because then we can learn, grow and mature. Caring people will confront others in kind ways rather than avoid conflict just to “keep the peace.” Conflict-avoidant individuals often carry wounds from the past that motivate them to change reality. Ironically, they often have to deal with more conflict than they would if they had simply told the truth in the first place.

There’s also a clear connection to emotional intimacy here as well. Risking the truth about one’s feelings and opinions allows others to really know us at deeper levels.

Have you ever known someone who only says what they think you want to hear? After a while you start to take their feedback with a grain of salt. It’s the gentle confrontations in life that mean the most to us, even if they do sting, but also because they point us in the direction of improvement.

To tell the truth is the challenge for anyone who seeks personal integrity, intimacy with others, and Christ-likeness.

Dan Jenkins

— by Daniel Jenkins, Ph.D.

Jenkins is a licensed clinical psychologist at Lighthouse Psychological Services in Mission Valley. He is also a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. Learn more at www.lighthousepsy.com.

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