I still remember the moment when I was 12 and my mother called my friend David’s house to say that my father would be picking me up shortly. Why is that so memorable? Because my parents had caught me lying about my whereabouts. I was supposed to be at Bonnie’s house, but instead I went to a party at David’s up the street. I don’t think I had ever seen Dad so mad. After we got home, he literally tossed me around the room. (The rules on parental punishment were very different back then.) I don’t remember how long I was grounded afterward, but I will always remember the intensity of his rage.
Fast-forward to my final high school English paper. A friend and I had “senioritis” and decided to submit essentially the same paper. But then the teacher, Ms. B, came in to graduation rehearsal to talk to us. Oops! Caught.
Shame. Embarrassment. Relationships forever tainted.
That was the last time I ever tried anything like that. The price was simply too high.
Forty years later, I still am secretly embarrassed by my lies back then and the impact that they had on both my relationships and my own self-esteem. Yet I seem to be one of the few people bothered by lying, since there sure is a whole lot of it going on in this world. And I’m not even talking about politics.
Some truly sad stats…
- Approximately 20% of men and 13% of women have cheated on their spouses.
- An ABC News poll found that 43% of 16- and 17-year-old students have cheated at school.
- A 2002 study at University of Massachusetts found that 60% of adults can’t have a 10-minute conversation without lying .
The truth is, there is likely not a soul walking who hasn’t lied at least a little at some point in his/her life. Where does it start? In the most benign ways…
We have friends who used to take their kids to New York City on the train, and they would regularly lie about the kids’ ages in order to avoid paying the full train fare. It’s not that they couldn’t afford it—they just were trying to save the money. But what message did that send to their children? Lying is bad unless it helps you save money? It’s OK to steal from a big company? Nice. Was it worth the few bucks? Were the children embarrassed by their parents’ actions? And did they become liars because their parents modeled that behavior?
What’s the impact of all this lying? Besides the destroyed relationships and the loss of people’s trust in you? Your own self-worth.
Research shows that people generally lie in order to preserve their self-esteem. They want to look good to their family, friends and, especially, their coworkers.
But in my view, it’s the other way around, and it starts with the most basic of human principles—we want to pursue pleasure and avoid pain.
So think about my lies—I wanted to go to a party (pleasure)…I didn’t feel like doing a final paper (avoid pain).
A spouse cheats (for pleasure)…a teenager lies about drinking at a party (avoid pain).
A child tells his parents that he did well on a test that he actually failed (avoid pain).
An employee says she needs to be out of the office for a family emergency when, in fact, it is for a vacation (pursue pleasure).
But what happens internally when we are driven to lie in order to satisfy those internal forces? We remember. We are embarrassed for ourselves. And we know that we didn’t give it our all. If self-esteem is “confidence and satisfaction in oneself”, then inherent in lying is the destruction of self-esteem. We don’t trust that we can do it…we are not satisfied with our efforts…and we end up living in shame.
It’s a downward spiral and a self-fulfilling ride. You lie to avoid shame, yet you feel ashamed when you lie. No one trusts a liar. So when liars look in the mirror, what do they see? How do they feel about the person looking back at them?
This can be a lifelong sentence unless you can find the vision to see the self-destructive nature of lying and the inner strength to break the pattern.
As in every recovery program, the first step starts with acknowledgment.