Early in our relationship, I learned not to ask Erica a question that I don’t want an honest answer to.
“Am I putting on weight?”
“Yes, you are definitely getting thick around the middle and filling out in your face.”
As that single tear stained my cheek (kidding), she added, “You're also very sexy.”
She was telling the truth both times. I had gotten heavier and I did still look damn sexy.
She is never mean or malicious, just straightforward. I don’t think she could pull off unrestrained honesty if it didn’t come from a position of compassion. Erica never imposes her views or values on others, but if she is asked a direct question, you can count on her to give you a direct answer. I like it. The end result is unrestrained trust from the people in her life.
People who are dishonest in word are also likely dishonest in deed. So, if you have someone in your life who has a flexible relationship with the truth, don't give him/her access to things you hold dear. I know that those who lie a lot have deep-seated personality issues that have very little to do with me. However, I still take being lied to personally. I feel it is a communication from the liar that he/she thinks I am gullible, ignorant, or stupid. My repulsion for lying colors every aspect of my life from the way I vote, to who I allow in my circle of friends, to where I spend my money.
Erica and I recently purchased a motorcycle from a local dealership and learned in the aftermath that the salesperson lied to us throughout our time with him. We accepted that we had been gouged, but we will never again purchase anything from that particular dealership. I absolutely love my bike and highly recommend the brand to my friends, but I also advise any prospective customers to stay the hell away from the dealership we patronized.
In our book, A Guide for Aging Heroes, I share a story about a classmate from grad school who also used unrestrained honesty.
I took a group counseling class at The Citadel. During each class meeting, we would spend the first hour listening to a lecture and the second hour sitting in a circle as an actual therapy group. I was pretty unsure of myself when I was young and felt intimidated when we were in the group sessions. I don’t think I was the only one who felt that way. Each of us wanted to give the impression of being a therapy genius. The resulting group discussions were incredibly stilted. Late in a session, a quiet girl who was probably the youngest student in the class made a comment that shined a light on what was happening.
“You people act like you are full of shit,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
The class went dead silent, then burst into laughter. We all recognized how phony we were being. It was an “emperor's got no clothes” moment. After that, people started being more authentic in group sessions and the incident became one of my most powerful grad school memories. I admired that girl’s courage. She risked being rejected by the group to speak the truth, something I would have never done at that time in my life. I made it a personal goal to emulate her behavior from then on (but maybe with a little more tact). Speaking the truth can be a heroic act.
I made a conscious decision when I was 28 to speak my truth even when it diverged from what was popular. This was one of my better decisions. It did result in being rejected by some folks I had known a long time, but it also attracted admiration from the kind of people I wanted and needed in my life.
Erica’s unrestrained honesty is just her nature. One of the many things I love about her is that she is always uniquely Erica. My unrestrained honesty was a conscious choice. I was never a dishonest person but I was a people pleaser. As such, I went along with the crowd and tried to comply with what I thought others wanted of me. To a large degree, my efforts were an attempt to win my dad's approval. At 28, I think I accepted that my square peg nature would never fit in the round hole culture that was my family of origin and I had absolutely no control over my father’s subtle disapproval. The stronger my honesty, the closer I came to being who I am. There is great freedom and a type of maturity that comes with drawing an honest bead on yourself and embracing the singular gifts you bring to the world.
One potential advantage to growing older is the chance to release that childish need to fit in and to become a true individual. If you find that, by middle age, the majority of your values and beliefs are still the same as those you grew up with, you may miss out on an important opportunity. One of the underlying messages in A Guide for Aging Heroes is avoiding the number one regret of the dying, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, rather than the life others expected of me.”
Being successful at impeccable honesty requires pretty well-developed EQ, or emotional intelligence, and a good understanding of moral development. The characteristics of strong EQ are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Unrestrained honesty is not about blurting out every opinion that comes to mind. It is not about imposing your views on others. Unrestrained honesty must always be driven by regard for others and never by the desire to dominate. As you share your honesty, you must also appreciate others sharing theirs. The foundation of a developed mind is a willingness to change positions when the evidence opposing your view outweighs the evidence supporting it. Learning occurs in those moments when you realize you are wrong about something. In the absence of such moments, the intellect becomes stagnant and toxic.
The highest level of human morality involves testing your moral beliefs against universal litmuses like fairness, empathy, and whether or not harm is done. If your morality is a carbon copy of the morals you learned growing up, your moral code has been left up to chance. By chance, you were born into a particular culture at a particular time. Had you been born in Nazi Germany, your moral code would include the belief that non-Arians should be subjected to genocide. If you had been born in the anti-Bellum South, your moral code would have included that slavery is acceptable. Morality must start with the ones you were raised with, but if those morals are not tested against the universal litmuses, you may do great harm in the world. Let’s test slavery:
Fairness: Is slavery fair? Clearly, slavery is not fair.
Empathy: Would I want me or someone I love to be a slave? Definitely not.
Harm Done: Is anyone harmed by slavery? Without question, people are harmed by slavery.
Now, no matter where or when you were raised, you could determine that slavery is immoral. The potential good that can result from unrestrained honesty is limitless. Likewise, the potential for ill is equally limitless. Speak your truth. Employ unrestrained honesty, but make sure that your truth comes from a place of caring.
For Erica and me, unrestrained honesty is our standard operating procedure. Trust issues within our relationship are pretty much nonexistent. Being on the receiving end of unrestrained honesty might sting a bit every so often, but the payoffs are tremendous.