Why Being Honest About Your Feelings is Not Always Right

Dear Dr. Hurd: I have read what you and others call the need to be “authentic” in personal relationships. At the same time, honestly saying what I feel doesn’t always work out. I try to be honest and say exactly what I feel at all times — but then it comes back to bite me. What am I missing here?


Reply: Actually, being authentic does NOT always mean saying exactly what you feel. Feelings have to be put into context. For example, just because you feel something doesn’t automatically make it true. Facts have to be set up against feelings before you discover if your feelings are even objectively valid or make sense.

In personal relationships or marriages, partners sometimes have the need to say, “You always do such-and-such and I don’t like it.” Think carefully before you say “always.” If you have a problem with the way your spouse acts, then you ought to be authentic and express this. But do so in a rational way, i.e. a way that conforms to facts. Take your time. Otherwise, what you say cannot be respected. How can you expect someone to listen to you when you — yourself — can’t endorse the accuracy of what you blurted out in the first place? Even worse, what you blurted out may have been grounded in truth. But that truth gets lost in your distortions or exaggerations. It’s a shame.

Yes, it’s true that “authenticity” means honesty. But it doesn’t follow that honesty means uncritical acceptance of every single emotion and thought you have as truth. Recently, a reader asked for my advice because his inner anxiety was leading him to speak more than he should, or say things he regretted. I advised him as follows: “Try a trick where you always pause before speaking. Make yourself evaluate on a scale of 1-10 the value of the content of what you’re about to say before saying it. You can always say something later, but you can’t unsay something once said. Some of these techniques can perhaps help indirectly with the problem of interrupting.” He reported back later that this technique was surprisingly helpful. I believe this is because it rests on the premise of what I’m saying here, to be objectively critical about what you say.

Some might respond, “It’s a fine line balance between being authentic and being objective.” Actually, that’s not how I see it. It’s not an arbitrary splitting of the two things, objectivity and authenticity. It’s more like this: Be authentic, but always objective while you do so. Speak the truth — making sure it’s the truth, and something you can stand by as the truth. In other words, don’t say to your spouse, “You always interrupt me” if that isn’t accurate. Instead say, “When we’re out with the so-and-so’s, you sometimes (often) interrupt me, and frankly that annoys me.” Be specific. Remember context and remember facts. Don’t draw a “fine line” between feelings and facts. Instead, make sure you’re factual and then feel to your heart’s content. And in that context, express those feelings.

Even when feelings or emotions are objective and rational, it’s not always wise or prudent to express them. That’s part of what I mean by context. For example, you might have an opinion about something that someone you know is doing. Does that automatically mean you should express that opinion, even if it’s a rationally defensible one? No. Again, it depends on the context. Does this person want to hear my opinion? Shouldn’t I at least say first, “Can I make an honest suggestion or give you some input?” Is there a history of giving this person my opinion and if so, how has it gone before? In all probability, will I make a constructive impact or will it almost certainly lead to a bad outcome, for myself as well as him/her? These are the sorts of things to consider before expressing your authentic and objective view of something.

It might sound like I’m talking here about how to talk to strangers, or people you don’t know very well. Actually, I’m talking even more about loved ones, including romantic partners. If what I’m advising is valid, then it’s even more urgently important you practice this with the people most important to you. Don’t blindly blurt out unverified feelings just because you’re having them. Save that for your counseling session, your diary or you own self-reflection time. It is sometimes necessary to “think out loud” in order to form more coherent thoughts and ideas. Sometimes even a spouse or close friend can play this “sounding board” role for you, at least if it’s about an issue or area of concern where you’re not in conflict about something. But trying to resolve conflict with a loved one by saying things you’ll later have to (and want to) take back is not the purpose of authenticity. The purpose of authenticity is to be real — in a rationally defensible, fact-based way.

Dr. Hurd’s book “Bad Therapy, Good Therapy: And How to Tell the Difference” (link to the right) talks about how to be a more rational person with yourself, and consequently in your relationships, while not sacrificing emotions.


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