Why It's So Empowering, and Hard, to Say What's True
A Personal Perspective: Telling the truth out loud requires a warrior's spirit.
Posted March 9, 2023 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Lately, I’ve been writing on the topic of emotional exhaustion and burnout. As one remedy, I’ve been suggesting that women start practicing telling the truth in our relationships, saying how we actually feel and think—out loud, without micro-managing the results, apologizing, or controlling how we’re being perceived because of our honesty. For many women, telling the truth is a skill that hasn’t been developed much less practiced, and that also feels scary and dangerous to our emotional safety and belonging.
Recently, a 35-year-old woman asked me the question that sits at the heart of the whole problem: Why she should tell her truth and "be authentic" when she knew that doing so would cost her so much and that she would be judged and probably rejected for doing so. And when it was so much easier and more productive to just be likable. She told me that she’d recently gone on a second date with a man who had said something “creepy” that made her feel gross, violated, and unsafe. But in the moment, she smiled and pretended to find his remark charming and funny. She chose to stuff her truth down, to be “chill about it,” and to keep the date going smoothly. Most of us can relate to this experience and have done something similar on many occasions. This woman made nice and stayed silent because taking care of him felt more important than taking care of herself; taking care of him, in fact, felt like it was taking of herself. “If I had done what you’re suggesting and told him that his comment was creepy and inappropriate, he wouldn’t have called me again.” And then, through tears, she said this: “I don’t want to be single anymore and it’s just not worth it.”
And, she’s probably right, that he wouldn’t call her again, had she said her truth out loud on the second date. The hard reality is that there are real-life consequences for telling our real truth. People often don’t like it when we tell the truth if that truth is not what they want to hear. They like it better when we say something they want to hear, that makes them feel good about themselves and just plain feel good overall. As women, we know that life goes smoother and we get more cash and prizes, more praise and admiration when we sacrifice our real experience and focus on making other people happy, which generally means making other people like us.
If we tell the truth at work, we may lose our job; if we tell it on a date, we may end up single; if we tell it in the public space, we may get canceled. There are real consequences to telling the truth. That said, I understand completely why women choose to keep their mouths shut, and I have done it as well.
When I addressed this woman's question, I started off by reassuring her that I knew what she was going to hear from her friends and family on this problem. They would tell her that she didn’t want to be with a guy who would say something like that, that she was way too good for a jerk like that, and it was a good thing she found out who he really was so early in the relationship. I told her that I also understood that such well-intentioned advice was probably not that helpful when it came to telling the truth every time someone said something that made her feel bad. She already “knew” this good advice, but even knowing it, it still felt nearly impossible to take the risk of being honest in the moment.
The advice we offer each other doesn’t help. It doesn’t get to the core of why we throw ourselves under the bus to give other people a positive experience—or why we trade authenticity for likability.
The reality is we harbor a deep and primal wish or need, to be wanted and loved. At its root, it’s a matter of survival; if you like me, I won’t be rejected and abandoned; I'll survive and belong. Remember, it’s not rational, but it’s so.
What's remarkable is that we're equal opportunity pleasers. We need people to like us even if we’ll never see them again, we may not even like or respect them. It doesn’t make sense rationally, which is why the platitudes don’t help. Wanting and needing someone else to like us often has nothing to do with our liking them. A friend recently told me that she hadn’t asked the flight attendant for a blanket because she didn’t want to inconvenience the woman. Boiled down, she wanted the flight attendant (whom she would presumably never see again) to like her and enjoy having her on board. Another woman consumed the meal she hadn’t ordered because she didn’t want to be judged as high maintenance, neurotic, or controlling. She wanted, as she said, “the nasty waiter to approve of her.”
Of course, sometimes we choose not to tell the truth (or the whole truth) because we don’t want to lose our job or relationship—or because speaking honestly will elicit anger or conflict we’re not willing to endure. The thing is, we can still acknowledge our truth and also the choice to hold it inside. It's not black and white; sometimes, not sharing can feel like the better part of wisdom and the best way to take care of ourselves. That choice, when wise, is also honorable, and should not be something we shame or judge. When we acknowledge our actual experience with kindness and compassion, and also honor our right to decide whether it serves us to share that truth, at this moment in this situation with this person, then we are actively supporting (and not abandoning) ourselves.
But the question this woman asked still begs: Why would we tell the truth if it means giving up the benefits that come with being liked? If managing ourselves and everyone else’s experience of us works, why would we stop doing it just to tell the truth? We need to address this primary and relevant concern to trust that we should give up the pleasing approach that's worked in some ways all of our lives, and in other ways, not worked at all.
Often, we start telling the truth simply because we can’t continue not telling it. Being what everyone wants and needs us to be, and getting everyone to like us, becomes so darn exhausting and depleting that we can’t and don’t want to keep doing it. It stops meaning so much that the flight attendant or barista likes us; we just can’t use that approval to fuel us in the same way. We simply don’t have the energy for it. At the same time, we start telling the truth because living off the fumes of being well-perceived and liked at the expense of being real becomes unsustainable. And the split we live with—making other people okay when we’re not being honest, becomes unbearable.
But at the root, we start telling the truth because we want to experience ourselves, relationships, and life differently. More genuinely; we want to show up in our lives and be known in a more real way. And standing in our truth, saying what’s so for us is deeply empowering—a fierce act of compassion and support for ourselves. It’s the choice to stop abandoning ourselves in service of another, no matter what we have to face in the process. When we stop selling ourselves out to make nice and keep the peace, we affirm, with warrior-like strength, that we’re with ourselves at the deepest level. We're home. The truth, rather than likability, then becomes our new and hallowed ground. This changes our life and who we are; even the hardest situations become more tolerable when we're living them from our truth, on our own side. It’s worth everything and precisely why we do this really hard thing called telling the truth.