“Your history of silence won’t do you any good – did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty. Why don’t you tell them the truth?
Say what you wanna say and let the words fall out – honestly.”
“Brave” by Sara Bareilles
“Be honest with me.”
At one time or another those 4 words have been directed to all of us by a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover, a spouse – maybe even a teacher or boss. And, if you’re like me, you’ve probably said them a time or two (thousand) yourself. But, the older I get, the more convinced I become that while all of us profess to want others to be truthful and to speak the truth ourselves, very few of us are actually willing or properly equipped to handle the sending or receiving of it – at least not the whole truth. Don’t get me wrong, all of us would be at the front of the line if we knew the “truth” that was about to be dispensed was of the flattering, self-affirming, joy-producing variety – not to mention truth that mirrors our vision of what it “should” look like. But I’m just as guilty as the next person of literally wanting to run and hide from truth that is a little too honest, too real, too thought-provoking – truth that is soul-bearingly raw, that makes me uncomfortable, challenges my beliefs, threatens to expose things about me that I’d rather not spend too much (any) time dwelling on. And, I suspect, I’m no different from most in that respect. In fact, I know I’m not.
Why is that? Why are we so afraid to be honest with one another? Why can’t we accept the fact that others’ truths are just as real as our own – and validate them? Why, instead, are we so quick to take another’s truth about us or, more specifically, the way our behaviors or words have affected them, so personally? Why, in the face of the truth, do so many adults react like teenagers, if not children who’ve been caught doing something they shouldn’t be (e.g., grow angry, disavow any responsibility, slam things, storm out of the room, etc.)? Why, rather than listen intently when afforded a glimpse into another’s soul, particularly one belonging to a loved one, is our first instinct upon hearing the truth to strike back, to become defensive – to seek to “prove” that the truth-teller is anything but? Why when confronted with another’s truth in the moment do we so often try to shift the focus, if not the blame, by reaching into the past for another day’s truth of our own that we can use as a sword and a shield? Why do we repeatedly play the shame or the guilt or the “you’re breaking my heart” card, as a means of discouraging others from telling us the truth we claim to want so desperately?
I confess that I don’t fully understand the “whys” of it, but I do know that much of the way we deal with the truth (or don’t deal with it as the case may be) is terribly unhealthy. One example should suffice to make the point. Several years ago, I was sitting in a group counseling session when a beautiful young woman, who quite obviously had swallowed her truths for much of her 19 years on the planet, finally mustered the courage with the support of her friends to give “voice” to it in a room full of strangers that included her mom and dad. And speak it, she did. Listening to her words was like having a front row seat at a movie about the breaking of a little girl’s heart. It was excruciatingly painful to watch (and listen to), but no one could question the honesty with which she spoke. Much to my amazement, however, no sooner had the final syllable crossed the threshold of her quivering lips, than the girl’s mother leapt in to “set the record straight” – first by “correcting” what she deemed to be several “factual inaccuracies” in her daughter’s account of her childhood experiences and later by going to great lengths to “prove” to all of us that she wasn’t the mother her daughter “suggested” she was.
By the time mom was done, her daughter’s countenance had fallen in lock step with the tears that were silently streaming down her face and her body language reverted to what I imagined it looking like the last time she tried to share her truth with someone. I and everyone else in the room could see “the sequel” to the movie we’d watched only moments earlier taking shape before their eyes. You see, mom had completely missed the point, as had I and countless others before (and after her): When it comes to human interaction, perception is reality. Put more simply, two people can hear the same words in a conversation or experience the same events and walk away from them with very different truths – neither one of which is truer or more real than the other. Each is its holder’s reality about what just occurred. In our illustration, for example, mom and dad could have had the best of intentions for saying what they said or doing what they did to their daughter, but it was her perception of those words or actions that became her truth and framed the feelings and, in some instances, behaviors that flowed from them. That truth and those feelings are deserving of validation – however “misaligned” they may with our own truth. If they are judged instead, especially if they are judged harshly, they will be “swallowed” with ever increasing regularity and replaced with silence.
How should mom have handled this situation – for that matter how should any of us respond to a solicited or unsolicited truth that doesn’t jive with our own whether it’s in a therapy room, the family room, the marital bedroom, the lunch room or the corner coffee store? In my fantasy, mom would have paused long enough to allow her daughter’s words to find their way to her soul and then greeted them with compassion and a few of her own: “Thank you for sharing your heart with me. It’s obvious you’re in a great deal of pain – and it hurts me to know that something I did or said may have contributed to your sadness. I can assure you, I never intended my words or actions to cause you harm and I’m sorry you interpreted/experienced them the way you did. I only wish you had felt comfortable enough to tell me the truth about how they made you feel at that moment, so that I could’ve tried to correct any misunderstanding. I want to work on our relationship, so that both of us can learn to share our truths in a more open, loving and constructive way. In the meantime, I want to encourage you to continue to use your voice to speak your truth – always.”
In a perfect world, maybe she even seals it with a hug – okay, let’s not get too crazy!