When I was a kid, before the advent of cell phones, I remember listening in on my dad’s conversations as he chatted away on our old rotary kitchen phone, which allowed very little privacy since it had less than three feet of cord. If presented with an out-of-the blue request, sometimes he’d respond in a way that made me feel… weird. He was a professional musician who regularly received demands from people who wanted him to play for free. Rather than saying, “Ya know, I can’t do free gigs because I’m supporting a family,” he might respond, “That sounds fun, and I’d really like to, but our family has plans.”
No big deal, right?
Early on, I started telling “fibs” to spare people’s feelings or to save myself from unnecessary social awkwardness. When I didn’t want to hang out with a friend, this consummate people pleaser, couldn’t summon the courage to say—hey, not gonna happen. Instead, I’d avoid the discomfort by ignoring the request altogether or come up with a fabricated excuse when pressed. My mom won’t let me. I’d explain it away as a harmless white lie.
It wasn’t until my early 30’s when I found myself caught in my own dishonesty traps—
that I finally realized I had a bad habit that required attention. Not only were these white lies creating unexpected pitfalls for me to navigate, I also started to see that my lack of honesty was chipping away at my soul. My character was suffering—I had such an abhorrence of social discomfort or letting people down, I said things I didn’t want to. I might say sure, when I really meant NO WAY. In many cases, I lacked the integrity and assertiveness to simply be myself. As a new parent, I knew I didn't want to pass that onto my fresh-faced, innocent children. That kick-started some soul searching and personal growth.
The character strength of honesty, like all virtues, requires intentionality. And if we don’t go out of our way to practice regularly, we will resort to knee-jerk bad habits. Like all virtuous living, honesty is the intermediate sandwiched between two extremes—boastfulness (or lying to play up yourself or your situation) and understatement (or mock modesty). But when we strive for truth we are hitting the glorious sweet spot.
As Aristotle said, “In itself, what is false is base and blameworthy, whereas what is true is noble and praiseworthy.” In other words, honesty is something to celebrate!
So, let’s say goodbye to white lies while uplifting the truth for the whole world by asking the following simple questions when life gets a little... sticky. These three prompts have helped me remain intentional in my pursuit for truth. Hopefully they offer you the necessary guidance to hit the sweet spot of honesty, while modeling it to your impressionable kids, who—like it or not—are always listening in.
3 Questions to Break the Cycle of White Lies:
What are my triggers so I can spot warning signs?
If you tend to lie when you feel like you’re caught off guard, have a pat answer ready to roll. Ya know, I’m going to need to think about that. Buy yourself time so come up with a kind, but honest response. Once you’ve identified some triggers, you can come up with mindful ways to respond to them. It just takes a little prep work.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Go down the path of how a lie may impact everyone involved. If your friend doesn’t respect boundaries and you offer a lie to get out of her overreaching request, you’ve merely kicked the can down the road. She’s potentially doing this boundary crashing with others and she may become even more emboldened. The truth may be tough in the short term, but it pays off in the long haul, whereas lying exacerbates a problem.
What are my comfort zones or boundaries with regard to this particular ask or this person?
By considering our boundaries before answering, we can practice being assertive with honesty. This week’s not good for me, but check with me next week. It’s not about postponing an answer, rather giving it some thought so you’re honestly addressing your own boundaries.
It’s as easy as that. When I curbed my habit of telling white lies, things became a whole lot simpler. That's an undeniable truth not even my dear old dad could dispute.
If you’re looking for fun ways to model character strengths to your kids and begin living them as a family, you’ll love our Adventure into Character subscription box experience. Every other month, your family will come together around a new character strength. The boxes are full of tools, resources and engaging prompts that spur on discussion and action. In no time, you’ll experience more pitching-in, cooperation, respect, generosity and more. You can’t put a price on that!
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