You're telling a story, the wine is flowing, your friends are laughing and all of a sudden you catch yourself doing some verbal embroidery. Just a tiny, tale-enhancing embellishment - is it a lie or merely a sign you can spin a good yarn? No one, it seems, can agree on exactly what lies are, but there is a consensus that words spoken out of synch with our conscience tax the psyche and the nervous system. It's the new year and a time for self-reflection, a good time to ponder whether your fibs, big and small, help or hinder your personal voyage.
One thing we do know is that most of us twist the truth - a lot. A study by University of Massachusetts (Amherst) psychologist Robert S. Feldman showed that 60 per cent of people lie at least once during a 10-minute conversation. He also found that lies told by men and women differ in content: women are more likely to lie in an effort to make the other person feel good, while men lie to make themselves look better.
In general, experts say we lie to avoid wrath or disapproval and to pump up our own worthiness. It's an attempt to control others' perception of us. Those who obfuscate the most have the greatest burden. They're often very fearful people who have suffered severe trauma.
Fibbers get away with it, studies show, because we're all rotten lie detectors; most of the time we can't tell when someone is bending the truth. It's a wonder sometimes that human relationships survive the chaos at all.
To know if your fudging has gotten out of hand, you need to set up your own fib meter and read the data. Lying can be a big-time omission such as hiding an affair when you're in a monogamous relationship. Or it can be a subtle misinterpretation of the facts. Sometimes it might even spare others pain.
But even an attempt to avoid hurting someone can distance you from that person, and it's exactly when deceit disrupts closeness with people you care about that it starts damaging your life. And if you're spending too much time spinning reality, you're burning much too much energy. Remembering your lies, remembering the lies you told to cover your lies, and remembering who might be talking to whom is a full-time job. No wonder fabrication can trigger anxiety, depression and insomnia.
If we resolve this New Year's to tell the truth, especially to those who matter most, we're committing to finally accepting ourselves as we really are. Over time, this will make our bodies and relationships stronger. Here's to an honest 2004.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"If people are lying to themselves or to others, they don't feel good about themselves. They don't feel they deserve healing. Lying causes the body stress and anxiety. The immune system goes down and people don't have the resistance to viruses and colds that they normally would. People lie because they don't feel it's OK to be themselves, they don't feel safe telling the truth. Commit to be as truthful as you can. It's as simple as saying, 'Today I'm not going to lie about x, y or z.' That's the start of it."
SUSAN STEVENSON, holistic counsellor and healer, Toronto
"The definition (of honesty) really comes from individual judgment, from our ability to be honest with ourselves about our thoughts and feelings, combined with sensitivity to the feelings of others. Sometimes people use honesty as an excuse to hurt others. There are some rules. If we make a mistake at work, it would be a lie to deny we did it. But relatively few situations are that clear-cut. In the realm of feelings, it's a judgment call how open we should be. Psychological health means being flexible. Choosing not to disclose the truth can be fine in certain situations. (But) you can't make choices about what to disclose if you don't know what you're feeling yourself. If we feel we should be open to someone and we're not, we get into internal turmoil."
RICKEY MILLER, PhD, psychologist, Miller-Mistry Psychologists, Thornhill
"Radical honesty is about being honest with everyone you know personally. The way you know you should be speaking about something is if you don't want to. (That's because) we've all been taught by our parents and schools to lie, that who we are is our performance; we identify with putting on a show. But you can also (choose to) identify with yourself as the one who notices in the moment. That means valuing simply reporting what you notice rather than massaging the data to build your image. Your real friends are people you've told the truth to and stayed with till they got over (any resulting hurt). There's more relief from honesty than from all the world's painkillers. When people tell the truth, it relieves anxiety, insomnia, spastic pains and depression."
BRAD BLANTON, PhD, author, Radical Honesty, facilitator, A Course In Honesty, Luray, Virginia
"Theologians would argue that to be truthful is to be fully human. To the extent that we are created in the image of God, we are created to tell the truth. We are created to be in relationships with one another, and honesty is vital to healthy relationships. There's some profound wisdom in what we call morality. It protects relationships and community. Lying is hard work. You tell a lie and have to tell a number more to protect that lie. Truth-telling is in your best interest. I think the way to get to people (who are) nurturing a deceit is to remind them that their freedom is at stake."
ANDREW SHELDON, Anglican priest, Church of the Messiah, Toronto