Intelligent Lies | Emily Hightower

Issue #27

We had a girl in our class growing up who would lie all the time. Ridiculous stories that she seemed to believe. “I can’t run today, coach, my dad ran over my knee with the lawn mower”. “I didn’t finish my homework because my dog almost died this morning”. 

I ran into her in our twenties. She had a wild look with hair past her bum and said she had been living in the jungles of Mexico dealing with some kind of psychotic breakdown. While that made perfect sense I couldn’t fully believe her. The power of her word had eroded long ago for me.

The truth is, we all lie. 

We start when we are very young children. It’s an inherent protection quality that actually shows intelligence. We are also taught how to lie from parents who leave the house arguing and tell everyone at the party “We’re GREAT thank you how are YOU?”. Parents tell us they like our drawings when we know they’re crappy, and say the Easter Bunny hides eggs and poops jelly beans.

Meanwhile we are told lying is bad. Is it? In the book “the Secret Power of Yoga” Nischala Joy Devi writes about a yogic principle called “Satya” which can be interpreted two ways; “non-lying” or in her more approachable terms “benevolent truth”. She explores how truth is never black and white. In her example, if a friend is about to walk down the aisle and appears glowing before you in a wedding dress you find distasteful to ask “How do I look?”, what do you say? There are many truths in that moment you can choose to focus on. The most benevolent one is probably “You look so happy and radiant!” even though another truth is “Wow, that dress looks terrible”. Are you lying if you don’t tell her what you think of her dress? What would telling that truth do for her or for your relationships? There is no commandment or ‘right’ answer here because the truth has many facets. The power of the human being to interpret and create meaning is at the heart of the story we choose to ‘tell’. 

Everything that comes out of our mouths is a story that reveals more about ourselves than any single “truth” out there. If the story you are telling is not true for you, you know it instantly in your own nervous system. The nature of YOUR truth and how that comes out of YOUR mouth affects how you relate to yourself and how people relate to you. Can people trust you? Can you trust yourself?

According to authors of a research paper called “Developmental profiles of children’s spontaneous lie-telling behavior” from January – March 2017, “prosocial lies” protect a relationship. These start when we are young. We learn that words can hurt feelings and start choosing half truths that make others and ourselves feel better. “I like your dress.” We later develop working memory and learn deceit to protect ourselves from pain.

“Antisocial lies” emerge to protect the self in denial of something true that is scary. These truths are not as negotiable. These lies can be very harmful. Think: cheating on a test or cheating on a lover. Not telling the truth in these instances erodes relationships first to the self, then to others. These lies are designed out of fear. The truth feels terrifying. Your nervous system wants to fight or flee. Being honest would create pain but leave you with lessons and integrity. Following the fear by telling the lie saves you temporarily but costs dearly over time.

There is an underlying instinct in all of us encoded in our nervous systems. We just KNOW when someone is a cheat in these more selfish, fearful lies. We can feel that something is ‘off’. If you have tried to keep an antisocial lie you learn you have to keep on creating more lies to protect the original one. It’s a zero sum game that usually ends with crumpled relationships and a long road to regain trust in the self and with others. 

We have an innate social fear of shame that can perpetuate antisocial lies. Yet the shame of hiding the truth is like a pebble wearing down a great dam over time. When that water breaks, the shame can drown you like a flood. Facing the shame comes either way; through a quick burst of initial honesty or a long drawn out game of internal erosion. Repairing the damage can be beautiful. I know this from growing up around substance abuse recovery communities where owning past deceit becomes a potent form of self-realization and bonding. Rarely is someone protected from the urge to hide from themselves and a truth that can hurt. Most of us learn the hard way. 

Regulating the nervous system is a key skill in learning how to read beyond fearful stories to reinforce alliance with reality (truth) and personal integrity. When you practice reading and regulating fear in the nervous system to be comfortable with reality you can rest in a truth with not only courage but ease. You know the cost of hiding.

In lies there is a human quality that is a super power; the ability to choose narratives and create worlds. Like any Tony Stark technology in a Marvel Comic these powers can be used for good or evil. Only the user can choose what world they create through the power of aligning with courage and benevolence or fear and selfishness. Reality finds us either way.

The ‘truth’ lies in your own nervous system. Think about the irony of that phrase!

Seeking Benevolence,

Emily H.