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Emotional Honesty

We wear a mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

Introduction to Emotional Honesty

How Society Discourages Emotional Honesty

Emotional Honesty and Parenting

Stories about Discouraging Emotional Honesty

Emotional Honesty, Life and Death

Emotional Dishonesty at 16 Years Old

Body Language


Everyone Was Unhappy

I Would be Happy to Water your Plants

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Emotional honesty means expressing your true feelings. To be emotionally honest we must first be emotionally aware. This emotional awareness is related to our emotional intelligence. It is our emotional intelligence, combined with the necessary learning, practice and experience, which gives us the ability to accurately identify our feelings.

Emotional intelligence may also give us the ability to decide when it is in our best interest to be emotionally honest by sharing our real feelings. There are times when it is not healthy or safe for us to be emotionally honest. In general though, I believe we would be better off individually and as a society if we would be more emotionally honest.

If we are more emotionally honest with ourselves we will get to know our "true selves" on a deeper level. This could help us become more self-accepting. It could also helps us make better choices about how to spend out time and who to spend it with.

If we are emotionally honest with others, it may encourage them to be more emotionally honest. When we are emotionally honest we are more likely not to be asked or pressured to do things which we do not want to do. We will also find out sooner who respects our feelings.

Here is a quote from Gerry Spence, one of the most successful (based on number of cases won) lawyers in American history. Source

"Openly revealing our feelings establishes credibility"

How Society Discourages Emotional Honesty

It takes emotional awareness, self-confidence, even courage to be emotionally honest.

This is because, in many ways, society teaches us to ignore, repress, deny and lie about our feelings. For example, when asked how we feel, most of us will reply "fine" or "good," even if that is not true. Often, people will also say that they are not angry or not defensive, when it is obvious that they are.

Children start out emotionally honest. They express their true feelings freely and spontaneously. But the training to be emotionally dishonest begins at an early age. Parents and teachers frequently encourage or even demand that children speak or act in ways which are inconsistent with the child's true feelings. The child is told to smile when actually she is sad. She is told to apologize when she feels no regret. She is told to say "thank you," when she feels no appreciation. She is told to "stop complaining" when she feels mistreated. She may be told to kiss people good night when she would never do so voluntarily. She may be told it is "rude" and "selfish" to protest being forced to act in ways which go against her feelings.

Also, children are told they can't use certain words to express themselves. I have seen more than one parent tell their child not to use the word "hate," for example. And of course, the use of profanity to express one's feelings is often punished, sometimes harshly. In some cases the parent never allows the children to explain why they feel so strongly.

As children become adolescents they begin to think more for themselves. They begin to speak out more, "talk back" more and challenge the adults around them. If these adults feel threatened they are likely to defend themselves by invalidating the adolescent's feelings and perceptions. There is also peer pressure to conform to the group norms.

Through all of this the child and adolescent learns they can't be honest with their feelings. They gradually stop being emotionally honest with their parents, their teachers, their friends and even themselves. They learn it just doesn't pay to express one's true feelings.


Emotional Honesty and Parenting

Parents can create an emotionally safe environment, where the child and adolescent is free to be emotionally honest, or they may create just the opposite. The way we were parented is probably the main factor in how emotionally honest we are later in life.

The primary way to create an emotionally safe environment is through emotional validation. When we are accepted and validated emotionally we aren't afraid of being rejected or punished for expressing any feelings, thoughts, questions or perceptions we might have. We are free to be ourselves, and our parents get to know us as we really are. When we are accepted as we really are, and not just as the image we believe we need to portray, we feel a strong sense of inner security. We can be more emotionally honest with others because we are not as afraid of their rejection. Since we feel secure within ourselves, the acceptance or rejection from others is simply not as important to us. We are more free to be ourselves with everyone. This quality attracts other people who are also secure and can be themselves. Therefore, we are likely to be surrounded by secure, self-confident, emotionally honest people as the years go by.

On the other hand when we, as children, are discouraged from being anything less than fully emotionally honest, the parents don't see the true "us." Over time, some children drift further and further away from their parents emotionally. During adolescence this distance often becomes more evident. Then when the adolescent is legally free to leave the home they avoid contact with the parents, or they may stay in contact only out of a feeling of obligation or guilt rather than a desire to share things with them. After all, the parents don't really know the person who was living under the same roof with them for all those years.

Worse yet, the parents might really believe they do know their children. They may then be confused and frustrated by the things their child or adolescent does. They might say, "I don't understand how you can do so and so!" But the reason they don't understand is because they don't really know their son or daughter due to the many years of discouraging emotional honesty.

We feel most understood when someone understands how we feel. But if we have not been allowed to express our true feelings, then it is impossible for someone to really understand us. Especially during the adolescent years it is important for us to feel understood by our parents. Parents may believe they understand us "from head to toe," but the child does not feel understood, and this is what matters the most.

(See related story on understanding.)


A Few More Thoughts on Emotional Honesty

- Emotional dishonesty also requires more energy than emotional honesty.

- When we are emotionally dishonest we lose out on the value of our natural feelings

- When we are emotionally dishonest we are going against the forces of evolution rather than in harmony with them

- When we are emotionally dishonest we are being false, unreal and in opposition to reality. it takes energy to oppose reality, nature and evolution

- Emotional dishonesty, inauthenticity and falseness creates distrust and tension in society

At the same time, part of a highly developed EI is knowing when to be emotionally honest, when to remain silent and when to act in line with or counter to our true feelings. There is something of a continuum of emotional honesty which includes unintended repression, full disclosure, discretionary disclosure, and intentional manipulation and emotional fraud. Furthermore, there is a constant trade-off between our short term vs. long term interests, our needs vs. others' needs and our self-judgement vs. judgement by others. Because all of this is largely an emotional problem to be solved, and a complex one at that, I believe emotional intelligence is being used when we make our decisions about when and how much to be emotionally honest. In my experience, approaching full emotional honesty simplifies my life, helps me see who will accept me as I am -- which in itself is a freeing discovery -- and offers me the opportunity for a rare sense of integrity, closeness and fulfillment.

Nathaniel Branden writes:

If communication is to be successful, if love is to be successful, if relationships are to be successful, we must give up the absurd notion that there is something "heroic" or "strong" about lying, about faking what we feel, about misrepresenting, by commission or omission, the reality of our experience or the truth of our being. We must learn that if heroism and strength mean anything, it is the willingness to face reality, to face truth, to respect facts, to accept that that which is, is. (Psychology of Romantic Love p. 148)

Excerpt from an article by Lynn Lott, a marriage and family counselor in the USA

If something is on your mind, it's O.K. to put it on your lips and say it, including saying no when you want, setting your limits and boundaries, and telling another how you honestly think and feel. This may not be easy, because you may have lost the ability to know what a feeling is or the courage to say what's inside because you were told to stay quiet as a child or corrected and told you didn't really feel a certain way. But emotional honesty is a skill that can be learned. It starts when you believe you have feelings inside of you, that feelings aren't right or wrong, and that you can use words to communicate your feelings to others.

This can be very frightening to be honest about your feelings. You may be concerned about hurting someone's feelings or making yourself vulnerable. Not all people around you are good listeners. They too have learned ways to be indirect and show their displeasure by sighing, pouting, screaming about something else, or attacking. You can encourage them to listen and let them know that what you say is simply information about you and that you don't expect them to agree or fix anything. What you are hoping for is that they would try to understand what is going on inside of you so they can know you better.

Most people find that when they take a risk and practice emotional honesty, they feel closer to others and worry less about trying to maintain an image of perfection. The more you practice emotional honesty, the more you are practicing self acceptance, self love and mutual respect. You soon realize that emotional honesty works two ways. In addition to saying how you feel, you realize that others have feelings, too, and need to be heard without being judged, criticized, fixed or having to defend themselves. (from http://web.archive.org,,,,) - Here is Lynn's site

Stories about Discouraging Emotional Honesty


The six year old who hated her teacher

One day I overheard a six year old child say "I hate my new teacher!" Her mother immediately said, "I don't want you to use that word! That is not a nice word. I don't like to hear you using it. It is rude and not something for you to be saying." The child was silent. When the mother came out of the room I asked what her daughter didn't like about the new teacher. The mother said, "I don't know, but I don't want her using that word. I just don't want her talking like that. She doesn't need to use words like that. She can find something else to say. I don't want that kind of language in my house. I want this to be a house where we talk about love, not hate. There is already too much hate in the world. I don't want it in my house too. I just won't allow it."


The fourteen year old

I once heard a 14 year old pleading with her father to let her do something. She said, "But I really want to do this!" He told her bluntly, "It doesn't matter."

This sends the clear message that her feelings don't matter. Not even to her own father. The more she believes her feelings don't matter, the less likely she will be to share them with others and the more worthless she will feel as a person.


The sixteen year old and his younger brother

While staying with a family one week I noticed that the teenage son, David, age 16, did not share his true feelings with his parents. If his parents were present when I asked him how he felt about something, he would look down or away and say something evasive such as, "I don't know" or "Okay, I guess." But when we were alone he would open up and tell me how he feels using my scale of 0-10. For example, while sitting at the dinner table I asked him how interested he felt in his history class. He thought for a moment and then just shrugged his shoulders. I sensed he was afraid to answer in front of his parents, so later I asked him again in private. He said, "Not at all. On a scale of 0-10, it is a big fat zero. He is the most boring teacher I have ever had." I asked him why he didn't tell me this earlier. He said it was because his parents don't want to hear that. They want to hear that everything is wonderful.. They tell him to stop complaining and that things are not as bad as he makes them out to be.

The next day I overheard the mother say to the youngest boy in the family, Jim, age 8, "You don't say that!" Later I asked her what was going on and she told me he said he hated one of the teachers at school. I asked why he didn't like the teacher and the mother said didn't know. She said "He really doesn't even know her, it isn't even his teacher." (Notice that this is nearly the same thing the mother of the six year old girl said above.)

Trying to give the mother a hint to be more interested in her son's feelings, I said "There must be some reason why he feels so strongly." I was hoping the mother would say something like "Yeah, I suppose so you are right. Let's go ask him why he doesn't like her." But the mother did not pick up on my hint. In fact she seemed to feel defensive by my questions and comments. She repeated several times that she didn't believe her son her should use such a strong word as hate.

As I thought how Jim would now be afraid of expressing his true feelings in the future, I suddenly understood exactly why his older brother had initially refused to tell me how he felt about his history class.

Children are born with an innate desire to share things. Most probably, they are also born with perfect emotional honesty. There is plenty of time to "correct" the way they express their feelings. What is important is that we first allow them to express themselves freely. It is these kinds of small incidents which discourage the natural tendencies of freely sharing emotional honesty. When the desire to share emotions is frightened out of a child, the child and the world both suffers a small, but signficant loss. This loss will negatively affect both the child's ability to know himself and to succeed in his future relationships. This is especially likely in his intimate romantic relationships where knowing oneself and emotional honesty are two of the keys to a successful relationship.

The stories above show missed opportunities. The opportunity that is lost is a chance for the parent to become closer to the child. Also lose is an opportunity to understand their children and to help the child or teen feel understood. Instead, the communication lines were cut. The parents were was more interested in "correcting" their children's way of expressing themselves than they were in getting to know their children. This reminds one of Haim Ginott's advice that the parent never deny the child's perception of things.


Lack of emotional honesty leads to miscommunication

Someone told me about a time when he and his girlfriend were on a date. She asked him if he were ready to leave. He thought she was asking him because she was ready to leave herself. So he said, "I guess so," even though he really would have preferred to stay. He then asked her if she wanted to leave. She said, "Yeah. I suppose so." So they left.

Later they talked about it. They discovered that when she asked the question about leaving, she was simply feeling afraid that he was bored. She said that actually she had wanted to stay there longer too!


Emotional Honesty, Life and Death

This is a story about Mary. It is based on a true story which happened in Sherbrooke, Quebec.


One day a teacher noticed Mary crying softly. She went over and asked what was wrong. Mary wiped her eyes and said, "Nothing. I am okay. Really. I am fine."

The next day the gym teacher noticed several long scars on Mary's arm. She asked Mary how she got the cuts. Mary said, "My cat scratched me." The gym teacher said, "Are your sure? Those don't look like cat scratches to me." Mary said, "I am sure. I am fine. Really."

The next day the gym teacher decided to tell the school counselor about Mary's cuts. The school counselor called Mary into the office. She asked Mary if she was feeling okay lately. Mary said, "Yes. I am fine. Really. I promise." The school counselor said, "Are you sure? Is everything okay at home?" Mary said, "Yes. Everything is fine. It is perfect. Really."

The next day at home Mary started walking towards the door. Her mother said, "Where are you going?" Mary said, "For a walk." Her mother said, "You look depressed. Are you okay? Don't lie to me." Mary said, "Yes. I am fine. I am just going for a walk. I promise. I will be back soon." The mother said, "Are you sure everything is okay? You have been acting very strangely lately." As she walked out the door Mary said, "Yes. Everything is fine. It is perfect. Really."

Mary walked over to her father's house. She took out her extra key and went inside. She knew he would not be home yet because he always worked late. She went to the closet where he kept his hunting rifle. She took it out and loaded it with the cartridges from the top shelf. She sat down on the floor inside the closet and closed the door. She pointed the gun to her head. She closed her eyes and told herself, "Everything is fine. It is perfect. Really." Then she pulled the trigger.


A little background information.

At 12 months old Mary was told to stop crying.

At 2 years old Mary was told big girls don't cry.

At 6 years old Mary was told to stop complaining.

At 12 years old Mary was told she was being melodramatic.

At 14 years old Mary was found dead in her father's closet.


See one person's reaction to this story


A Reaction to the Story About Mary

This is a copy of an actual chat when I showed the story about Mary to a teen I was counseling:

misunderstood says:	yeah. i used to do that all the time. the worst part is being the person who says it's fine cuz you feel so lost and 
				depressed and no one's there. and no one's there cuz they don't know. it's scary.
steve says:			u used to tell pple u were fine?
misunderstood says:	yeah... every day
steve says:			like who?
misunderstood says:	teachers, neighbors, my mom. i was always scared if i told anyone like the teachers or neighbors or anyone 
				that my mom was hitting me, that they'd tell her. and then my mom would hit me. and if my mom knew i was 
				hurt by what she did, she'd hit me again. 
misunderstood says:	once in second grade the teacher wrote something on my report card about how my grades must be 
				failing because of the things going on at home. and when my mom read it, she thought i told the teacher. 
				and she hit me. so after that i told everyone that everything was fine so no one would get upset, so i wouldn't get hit.

From a 16 Year Old in the USA

"I'm not going to school. I don't feel like facing the smiling faces and laughter....it makes me feel even more lonely when the world around me seems happy. Also, I don't want anybody to know that I am slipping back into the little quiet world in my head. I feel myself slipping more and more everyday, and it's scaring me. I just need to smile, and make sure that my eyes are looking towards the ground. Eyes, after all, are the window to one's soul, and I sure do not want anybody to know what's in my soul...


Everyone Was Unhappy - Based on a true story

For many months a father was excited about taking his 17 year old daughter skiing in Canada. He loved skiing and he did not get to see his daughter often because they had lived in different countries since his divorce 10 years earlier. The daughter did not really want to go, but she knew how much her father wanted to. Also, her mother had also been subtly pressuring her to go by telling her how important it was to spend time with her father, reminding her of all the nice things he had done for her, all the presents and money he had sent her, etc. A few weeks before they were scheduled to leave for the trip, the daughter started dating someone. It was her first serious boyfriend. The more she thought about being away from her boyfriend for two weeks, the less she wanted to go to Canada with her father, especially since it was the only vacation time she would have before school started again, and because her boyfriend would be leaving to go to a university in another country before she got home.

The father knew she had started dating, but he didn't approve because her boyfriend was older and also from another culture and religion. The father was afraid to ask how his daughter felt about going and the daughter was afraid to tell him. He just kept on talking about how good it would be for them to spend time together and how much he was looking forward to the trip. Her best friend, though, saw how miserable she was feeling and asked her how much she wanted to go from 0-10. She said 0, but she added that she could never tell her father that because it would start an argument and it would hurt him too much. The friend suggested she at least tell her mother, but she said that if she did tell her, she would have to lie and say that it was more like a 5 than a 0, since she knew her mother wanted her to go and her mother also disapproved of her relationship. She said it was simpler if she just went.

The mother, though, could tell that the daughter wasn't very excited about the trip. She knew her daughter did not like the cold and did not like to ski. She knew her daughter would rather spend this time with her new boyfriend, but she never asked her daughter directly how she felt about going. Instead, she suggested to her ex-husband that he ask her. But of course the father was afraid to ask because he was afraid of what he might hear. So the daughter ended up going on the trip, trying to pretend to enjoy it, and crying herself to sleep nearly every night. In the end, everyone was unhappy because the mother and father felt guilty and defensive, and the daughter and her boyfriend felt disrespected and resentful.

I Would be Happy to Water your Plants. (True Story)

Sandra checked her answering machine when she got home. There was a message from a friend of hers who asked if she could water his plants while he was on vacation. When she heard this she said, "I really don't want to do that." Then she called the freind. She said, "Patrick, I would be happy to water your plants."



Links on Brill's Emotional Honesty Page

* Poem is by Paul Lawrence Dunbar