In my time hanging out with personal development-oriented folks, I’ve met a few people who followed the philosophy of “Radical Honesty”.
Radical Honesty involves basically always saying the truth. According to proponents, lying is a great source of stress in our lives, and holds us back from emotional growth. If we speak the truth all the time, even about taboo or uncomfortable subjects, then we can break through socially imposed barriers and become much freer. Probably, if we lose friends that way, they didn’t have to be our friends in the first place.
My trouble with this philosophy is that in my experience, it causes people to say some pretty unpleasant and unnecessary things.
I admit that I can find criticism uncomfortable, though I am always open to it if it is presented kindly and in a sensitive way. What I’ve found with Radical Honesty practitioners is that they often think that honesty means that they shouldn’t also think about how they deliver their opinion. They just deliver it bluntly, and I find that can hurt my feelings. Even when it doesn’t touch a sore spot, I do get this impression that the other person doesn’t intend to care for my feelings, and that feels unpleasant too.
The worst encounter I had with a Radical Honesty practitioner was with one who not only felt she had to state her feelings honestly, but that she had to state basically everything she was feeling, no matter how unpleasant. She could say “I hate you” as easily as “Good morning”.
One time she asked me to come talk with her, and treated me to what would have been an hour-long tirade of what she hated about me – if I didn’t cut her short. I should point out that she wasn’t attempting to be constructive with what she was saying, she just wanted to express herself, no matter how uncomfortable it made me. I told her I didn’t want to listen to this sort of stuff, and that she could write it in her journal or something, but not say it to me. This made her angry. I got the impression that she felt oppressed by my unwillingness to listen to all of her emotional vomiting.
A Very Honest Person
I am not a Radically Honest person, but I would say I am a very honest person. I lie to bureaucrats and policemen, but not to my loved ones. When I have nothing to gain or lose, I often even state uncomfortable truths to strangers (such as the fact that I am trans and mostly lesbian) just because I figure that if they can’t take it, they wouldn’t make very good friends anyway. I share a lot of uncomfortable truths on this website, because I can’t know exactly what people want to read but I know from experience that the truth inspires, almost in and of itself.
The truth is very important to me in intimate relationships. I don’t think I could be very close to anyone who couldn’t tell me the truth in everything important. And I can’t lie to people who are close to me. Doing so would feel like I’m creating a barrier between us, and true love couldn’t flow anymore.
When I get close to lying in an intimate relationship (e.g. withholding something important), I find myself very uncomfortable. I can’t feel at peace with myself unless I find the bravery to share the truth. Always, in these cases, I find sharing is much better than withholding. In my life, I’m generally lucky enough to have partners who accept me pretty much unconditionally. The fears are basically just in my head*.
*Polyamory helps. I used to have to lie a lot when I was in monogamous relationships, and not because I cheated; because I loved and was attracted to other people. Now that my relationships are not exclusive, I feel I can be much more true to myself.
Outside of intimate relationships, I very rarely lie. If I do lie, it’s because someone is my adversary. If I believe a law is unjust, for instance, then I have no qualms about lying so that I can break it. That prevents me feeling intimacy with said adversary, of course, but I’m not interested in that.
Lying is basically bad vibes. Sometimes it makes sense to use it in response to the bad vibes of others. Still, I think it’s a better general strategy to avoid bad vibes as much as possible in the first place, and that’s what I do. Because of this, I rarely find myself in the situation where I have to lie.
True, Necessary, And Kind
I liked something I read recently, which was attributed to the Person poet Rumi (though I haven’t been able to confirm the source):
Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.
At the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’
At the second ask, ‘Is it necessary?’
At the third gate ask ‘Is it kind?
I think this is much more complete than the philosophy of Radical Honesty.
The sort of blunt criticism you get from Radical Honesty practitioners would be avoided, or modified, if they asked the question “Is it kind?”
And my friend who tried to make me listen to an hour of hate could have avoided that if she had asked the question, “Is it necessary?”
If you think about it, you can say a thousand different things which are true. You could read a whole encyclopedia aloud if you wanted to, and what you said would be true. But that doesn’t mean you usually should do that.
Evaluating What We Say
I usually express myself according to what I feel is important to say in the moment. Asides from being true, what I have to say needs to be relevant and timely. I attempt to be aware of the needs of other people and I respond to those needs with the content of what I say. I’m also sensitive to how what I say could sound, and attempt to deliver it kindly.
Sometimes fear comes up, and that is usually what poses a challenge to truth, necessary information, and kind speech. Sometimes out of fear I will feel tempted to withhold necessary information. When I become aware of that fear, I usually attempt to push through it and do what is right anyway.
Overall, I think Radical Honesty is way too simple an idea, and way too cerebral. I think it is much better to respond to things with instinct and sensitivity and spontaneity, not a rigid adherence to a philosophy that just exists in people’s heads and not in the real world. We should evaluate what we say from many angles, not just one.