Lying is hazardous to your mental health

It’s probably safe to say that we all tell lies at one time or another. Most likely they’re ‘little white lies’ to spare somebody’s feelings, or to get out of some commitment—either work, or a promise we should never have made in the first place.

I’m going to make another guess: Much of the time, you feel a little guilty after telling a lie. Why? Well, maybe it’s because you took advantage of somebody’s trust in you. You knew they cared enough about you to believe what you said, and now you have, in some small way, betrayed them.

Lies fall into several categories. The first is the lie we tell because we don’t know how to say ‘no.’ We are asked to do something, and we say ‘yes’ because it’s easy and it feels good at the time. But when the chips are down, we don’t follow through. How many times have you been stood up by a service person, a friend or family member who simply chose not to follow through? They might have said ‘yes’ before, but they didn’t mean it. Did their lie increase your respect for them? And what do you think lying did for their own self-respect?

The second category is a lie told specifically to mislead or cheat. Whether it’s your spouse, a close friend or a business associate, the more regard that person has for you, the more likely they are to believe you. In most people, the insidious combination of betrayal and deception can lead to a pervasive sense of guilt—lingering long after the short-term benefit of the lie has worn off.

Either way, lying can be hazardous to your mental health. As kids, we are duly instructed not to lie, but usually without any explanation other than, ‘it’s wrong.’ But as adults, when lies can so conveniently become woven into the fabric of our daily lives, it’s important to realize that lies can not only damage our self-esteem, but also bring about a sense of unease and anxiety. Let’s face it: It takes enough energy to keep up with the things that are real, much less having to keep track of things that are fictitious and untrue!

Honesty isn’t simply a blind commitment to ‘doing the right thing.’ Honest behavior is the end result of habitual self-awareness and a clear understanding of what’s going on in your mind. Becoming more self-aware can consist of keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings; thoughtful participation in psychological counseling; or having close personal conversations with trusted friends or family. The result is a better understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing, and the capacity to question yourself when necessary. And that leads to honesty. When you’re honest, you have nothing to hide from yourself or anyone else. When you’re honest, you not only achieve a major component of self-esteem, but also serenity. You feel good about yourself.

It’s pretty obvious that a key aspect of mental health is a solid grounding in reality. We tend to think of people as ‘crazy’ when they’re wildly out of touch with facts, logic and reason. What better way to ground yourself in reality than to know the truth, and have the courage to act on it?

For example, a friend or relative asks you to stay at his house when you visit from out of town, but you’d actually prefer to stay in a hotel. Do you tell him that? Or do you ‘suck it up’ and do what you think he wants you to do instead? What purpose has been served by making your stay less enjoyable?

A person puts substantial lies on her resume in order to get a job she wants. She now has to live with the nagging apprehension that someone might discover her deception. Maybe it would have been less stressful to simply state the truth, and make a case as to why she felt she was best suited for the job. The threat of being found out is like an emotional time bomb—maybe one day it will go off, or maybe it won’t.

For people who are self-aware and honest with themselves, lying feels foolish, unsafe and contradictory. They want no part of it, because they don’t like feeling that way. They understand that once they lie to somebody else, they become dependent on that person’s ignorance of the truth in order to maintain the lie. Relying on the ignorance of others doesn’t sound very healthy to me!

For people who are emotionally repressed, it’s easier, in the short run, to fudge and fabricate. But in the long run, they feel conflicted all the same. Most people who lie are not con artists or criminals; they’re just plain unhealthy, psychologically speaking. They’re not comfortable in their own skin, and, until they stop trying to make themselves up, they never will be.

More than an ethical issue, honesty is a psychological matter. It starts with self-awareness and introspection. Honesty grounds you in reality. Instead of faking parts of your identity, or telling stories to get out of what you don’t want to do, an honest person looks at the facts, draws conclusions and sticks by them without apologies. All the platitudes and childhood lessons aside, honesty is truly the best policy. It is a tribute and a compliment not only to yourself, but to your friends and loved ones alike.