In all my years as a practicing therapist, one thing stands out as a most important factor in promoting wellness: honesty. Human beings have an incredible capacity to lie, including the ability to deceive themselves. Recognizing that fact and committing ourselves to be truly honest in our dealings with others as well as ourselves is key not only to our emotional health but also to the integrity of our character.
Now, as I state in Character Disturbance (p. 141), we’re never obliged to say things that might be technically true when to do so has no potential benefit or would cause only needless and destructive hurt or suffering. For example, we don’t have to tell someone how hideous we think they look in a particular outfit. Nor is it appropriate to broadcast every unseemly thing we know about someone else. But if we’re to forge a character of integrity it’s crucial that when it really counts, especially within the context of a relationship, we don’t con or manipulate others and we don’t lie to ourselves.
Whether I’m dealing with character-impaired individuals or neurotics, I’m always on the lookout for the lies at the heart of trouble and for tactful but direct ways to confront those lies. The “evil” that invades a person’s life is almost always vested in a lie, and it’s no accident that philosophers, religious sages, and other writers who sought to personify pure evil (i.e. “the devil”) rightly cast the creature as the “father of lies.” My experience has taught me not only that evil exists but also that a lie is often its closest companion. Although I take issue with some of the unfortunate and unnecessary fabrications and self-serving manipulations in his book, I appreciate that Scott Peck also sought to emphasize this point in People of the Lie. And in my work over the years, I’ve found that it’s impossible to truly deal with evil without confronting the lies that so frequently spawn it.
Character-impaired folks have particular problems with honesty. Most of the time, they’re aware of their dishonesty and consciously and deliberately seek to deceive others for the purposes of exploitation and control. But to the degree they have any neurosis, they might also deceive themselves about what they’re doing. Sometimes, they can be so habitual in their self-deceptions and get so comfortable with the lies they tell themselves that they actually begin to believe those lies. But to the degree they’re simply character-deficient as opposed to neurotic, the less need they have for self-deception and the more concerned they are with conning others.
Some of the most seriously disturbed and disordered characters lie so habitually and so casually (and often, seemingly unnecessarily), that we often speak of such lying as “pathological” because of how irrational it seems. But as illogical as their lying might seem, most disturbed characters have a rational purpose in lying, namely to maintain a position of advantage over others (for more on this see the sections in In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance as well as the blog articles: Lying: Manipulation Tactic 1 (Part 1), Lying: Manipulation Tactic 1 (Part 2), Seeing the World as They Want to See It: The Self-Deceptive Thinking of the Manipulative Character, and Lying – Another Look at This Character Defect).
Neurotic folks owe many of their unresolved emotional conflicts to the self-deceptions they engage in unconsciously. Sometimes things happen to us that hurt and sometimes we make mistakes that cause us pain. But when out of fear or pride we deny or repress instead of acknowledge and deal with the various things behind our pain we inevitably create even more trouble for ourselves. In a very fundamental way, all of our neurotic “defenses” are really deceptions. And at the heart of traditional therapy for neurotics is setting an atmosphere in which it feels safe to honestly self-reckon. A good therapist’s first duty is to prove him/herself trustworthy and accepting, which allows the necessary helping relationship to develop. But the client’s primary burden is to muster the courage and commitment to honestly reflect upon and deal with their issues. In so doing, they truly promote their own healing.
When dealing with character-impaired folks, lies must always be confronted directly, albeit tactfully. Then the character-impaired person must be “invited” to try out a more adaptive, alternative behavior. In other words, they have to be taught to seek what they want in less underhanded, destructive ways. Of course they have to learn a lot more than that, too, but the main point here is that absolutely nothing can be accomplished without them demonstrating the willingness to stop deceiving, conning, manipulating, and trying to manage impressions.
So here’s the tried and true axiom that years of experience have validated: Honesty has power. Truth has the power to set the neurotic soul free. And it has the power to expose the “evil” in the character-impaired person’s typical modus operandi. It’s also an inevitable trust and respect-builder. Still, dealing truthfully with issues in a manner that’s courageous and firm yet devoid of all malice and unnecessary judgment is a most rare and difficult to hone skill. But that, as the great Fromm might say, is the “art” in loving.