Expert Q&A: When Is It OK to Lie?
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Q: I've always been taught that lying is wrong. When is it okay, or even beneficial, to lie?
A: When we were young, we were taught not to lie. Yet, as it turns out, there are benefits of lying--and sometimes it's even a necessity. The "white lies" we tell to others serve as the social glue that allows us to sustain and enrich our relationships. For example, if your great aunt asks how you like the fruitcake she gives you every year at the holidays, you don't tell her it is too sweet and gooey. Instead, you "lie" and tell her how much you like it. This "fib" is good lying. You don't need to be truthful because she is not really asking for the truth. She is asking for confirmation that she is valued and important, so when you say something positive such as, "It's great how you always put your heart into things during the holidays," you're not lying.
In addition to sometimes telling good lies to others, we also tell good lies to ourselves. These good self-lies are the engines that allow us to get up in the morning and go on with our lives. We "lie" to ourselves by pushing aside the fact that the world can be a dangerous place and that life can change in an instant. If we didn't filter out these possible truths, we might pull the covers over our heads.
A certain amount of these lies of denial are necessary for survival--after all, the caveman had to say to himself, "I'm going out there again because I killed one animal for dinner, so I know I can kill another." But these kinds of lies have a way of leading us to the border of good/bad self-lies. For instance, sometimes we're not realistic to ourselves about how unhappy we are in our marriages and relationships, how much we dislike our bosses and jobs, or how bored we are with our lives.
We maintain these lies because, on some level, we sense that seeing the truth about the situation might require us to risk making unwise decisions. Many long-term happy marriages, for example, go through periods of dissatisfaction and emerge stronger-so it would have been a mistake to have gotten divorced. On the other hand, this good/bad border might also make us maintain our blinders and prevent us from taking steps toward change. A woman might stay in a bad relationship because she fears that if she breaks up, she won't find another man. Her self-lies have made her buy into the belief that having just about any kind of man is better than not having a man at all.
Yet, soon this frontier of good/bad self-lies can become self-destructive. We lie about how much we or our loved ones abuse alcohol, gamble, get violent, or eat unhealthily. These lies are bad because they can have negative consequences that are detrimental to our health.
It's easy to see how easy it is to lie Let's look at the most common ways we apply these lies:
1. We lie to ourselves about our finances. We often don't know how to manage money, so we avoid looking too closely at our situations. We may also lie to our spouses about how much we spend.
2. We lie to ourselves and others about how much we eat and what types of things we eat.
3. We lie to ourselves about our weight. We tend to see ourselves as not thin enough or not overweight.
4. We lie to our partners about how faithful we are to them.
5. We lie to our friends about our opinions about them. For example, we tend not to tell our friends that their new girlfriend or boyfriend is bad for them. We might tell ourselves that it is not our business or that we really don't know the new person. In fact, because we are so afraid of being judged, we tend to back away from being seen as judgmental. We are also very competitive creatures, so if we sense that someone else might be miserable in love, we might refrain. After all, jealousy of another's happiness can be most unpleasant. Despite television shows such as Friends and Sex and the City, true sisterhoods of women are hard to come by. Our early heritage of social competition for resources-including males-can make women refrain from giving another woman an edge. The result is that we might not tell them the truth about their hair or outfit.
6. We tend to lie to our families--parents, children and in laws, for example. We might not reveal our unhappiness or problems in love, finances and health. We often don't know when to talk about these hot topics, so we remain in that good/bad lie border and often do nothing.
7. We lie about to ourselves about our health. We often put our heads in the sand and don't get proactive in getting yearly check ups. We also tend to tolerate for too long serious symptoms like nagging coughs or shortness of breath. It often takes a crisis to force us to the doctor--and then sometimes it's very late in the disease progress. This lie occurs because we fool ourselves into believing that what we don't know can't hurt us.
As you can see, the world of lies can be very confusing. Use this quick guide to help you evaluate your lies. Ask yourself:
Am I lying in a kind and healthy way to protect another person's feelings?
Am I lying to deceive myself?
Am I lying in a healthy way to myself to postpone or avoid a panic that would lead me to act hastily?
Am I lying to avoid being a true friend?
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships. For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."
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