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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

Honesty and Personal Growth

by John Lawson © 2000, 2010

One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps…  But it is necessary to be able
to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler…

 Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

    Honesty has not always been deemed a virtue.  We may remember the “royal lie” advocated in Plato’s Republic or recall the legend of the cynic Diogenes who carried a lighted lamp in broad daylight to aid him in his search for an honest man.  The traditions represented in many cultures teach us, often in a charming way, of the virtues of deception.  This is true, for example, of the Native American tales of Coyote or of the European folklore collected in the stories of the Brothers Grimm, such as “The Mighty Tailor” (who killed seven with one blow).  It is true that there are those who argue that honesty is always the “best policy,” but who among them dares to assert that he or she always adheres to such a policy?  Most of us, at times, have recourse to deception, and most of us are honest enough to admit it. 

    Dishonesty, however – in spite of its ubiquity – is not a natural tendency in human beings.  Rather, it is typically a defensive measure born of anxiety.  To the extent that we are afraid, we will always be inclined to seek refuge in deception as a means of self-preservation.  A problem of a different order arises, however, when we consider the phenomenon of self-deception.  How does it happen that people so frequently lie to themselves, deceive themselves, “mislead” themselves?  What are the roots of this problem of self-deception, and is it really a problem?  In seeking to answer these questions, let us start at the beginning, with a newborn infant.

    Every baby is born free of dishonesty.  We know that this is the case, for in order to be dishonest, one must know the truth and consciously subvert it; no newborn infant knows the truth.  The infant does not distinguish between “true” and “false, for he or she does not gain the cognitive ability to do so until significant growth and development take place and language is acquired.  With growth and development comes the capacity for concealment and pretense.  At the stage of infancy, the new person merely functions as a living, growing organism - either in health or with disturbances.  We might say that the baby is the truth or is in the truth; there is no disharmony between who the baby is and who he or she appears to be.  In the language of psychology, we can say that there is insufficient ego development at this time for the baby to be able to lie.  In its natural dependency, the healthy baby remains open to the world and forthright in its self-expression.  On the basis of this openness, he or she then grows into a healthy young child; and it is during early childhood that the young person develops the capacity to distinguish between truth and lie. 

    One of the developmental tasks that the young child faces is that of gaining an increasing capacity to function as a separate person, as an individual.  Progress in accomplishing this task becomes increasingly evident as the young boy or girl learns to walk, to use language, to coordinate complicated movements, and to gain control over his or her bodily functions.  By the eighteenth month, the healthy child has differentiated himself or herself considerably from the surrounding world.  He or she is avidly engaged in the adventure of establishing a personal identity rooted in a more differentiated sense of self, and this is reflected in the fact that the child’s favorite word at this time is “no.”  The child’s enjoyment in the use of the word “no” stems from his or her enjoyment in getting to “know” who he or she is as a unique being, as an independent “self.”  Children at this stage delight in games of “peek-a-boo” and in early versions of “hide and seek.” [1]  Part of the healthy developmental process during this period involves concealing oneself, making oneself invisible.  As babies, young children have already learned to identify various parts of their bodies – eyes, nose, toes, fingers.  Now they are learning to become separate, whole persons.  Learning to hide the truth - to lie - is an important aspect of this task.

    Alexander Lowen has written that, “Generally speaking, the ability to be deceitful is an asset in all situations of opposition or contention.” [2]  Inevitably, in a world of other people, every child will meet with both opposition and contention.  Such situations – if not excessively stressful – help to spur the development of the capacities for self-awareness, self-control, and self-direction.  To take increasing control of his or her life, the child must explore the possibility of deception.  To say “yes,” one must be able to say “no.”  To be honest, one must be capable of being dishonest.  Lowen asks: “Can a person gain this ability to discriminate truth from falsehood without exploring the realm of deceit?”  He answers in the negative, and I would agree.
    R.D. Laing once commented that there are many good reasons not to lie, but not being able to lie is not one of the good reasons.  There are people who are so overwhelmed by feelings of guilt that the thought of lying is abhorrent to them, even for the purpose of self-defense or the defense of loved ones.  On the other hand, there are individuals who seem unable to tell the truth.  To them, lying is a way of being.  Such individuals are generally classified as psychopaths.  Most of us have encountered such individuals at one time or another in our lives, either in person or via the news media.  The political arena is a notorious realm for the flourishing of such types. [3]

    To understand the increasingly psychopathic culture in which we live, it is helpful to consider both psychological and sociological factors.  The process of accelerated social and economic change which began with the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the eighteenth century and progressed through the twentieth century has led to the “global” society of the present day. In this “new world order,” the pace of competition is furious and seemingly unrelenting; and there is great pressure to produce, sell, and make a profit – at any cost.  The old adage – “it’s either eat or get eaten” – seems to apply.  “Externalities” - such as the destruction of the natural environment and the melting down of diverse cultural traditions into a homogenous mélange of sameness - seem a small price to pay for survival and “growth.”  A key role in facilitating this competitive process is played by the advertising industry.  The goal of advertising is persuasion, and the means of persuasion utilized often involve the purveying of lies, either directly or indirectly.  In our present culture, this situation corresponds to the tendency of many people to see themselves as commodities and to promote themselves as such – even in their most intimate relationships.  Such people tend to “re-invent” themselves to suit the needs of the moment.  Words and images become tools of manipulation.  Uniformity becomes "diversity,” lies become “truth” and, to use a popular legal term, communication becomes “parsing.”  In a world of “virtual” reality, whatever can be “sold” is “true.”  In such a context, the value of personal honesty becomes questionable.  When this happens, human beings are confronted with a serious problem.  This is necessarily so, because honesty and healthy functioning go together.  When a basic sense of honesty is lost, we are entitled to conclude that people are in trouble.  Such a conclusion is justified by the deeply rooted nature of human honesty itself.

    In spite of appearances to the contrary, personal integrity and forthrightness are grounded in the biological depths of the human organism.  No healthy person freely chooses deception over honesty as a way of being.  It is only when he or she learns that honesty is penalized and devalued that manipulation of the truth becomes a preferred course of action.  Typically, this takes place in childhood as part of the socialization process in the family, at school, and in the society at large.  One of the consequences of this process is that one learns generally not only to be dishonest with others but with oneself as well. [4]  In human terms, such a situation is dysfunctional; in practical terms and in the short run, it has survival value.

    In serious personal growth work, the question of honesty is a crucial factor.  Breathing, for example, needs to become deeper in order to increase the energy level and potency of the person; but deeper breathing leads to increased feeling, and if an individual is not prepared to be honest with himself or herself, how can he or she face the emergence of repressed feelings?  The same holds true at a verbal level.  In order for constructive change in personality to take place, a person must be prepared to question his or her established self-image; but how can this occur if any challenge to one’s self-image is felt to be insulting and threatening?  Both somatically and verbally, an individual may desire healthy change, but at the same time, he or she may be of the opinion that any transformation in his or her way of being entails unacceptable risks.  In such instances, a person may indignantly raise the objection: “What right do you have to question my reality?  I’m fine!  There’s no problem!”  Such an attitude represents a defense against unpleasant self-confrontation.  With greater personal honesty, change would be less complicated and easier to achieve, but that is the problem.  It is this very lack of personal honesty – the presence of self-deception - that inhibits constructive growth and development.  Beneath the level of self-deception lies the pain of having been lied to, betrayed, and manipulated during one’s formative years.  One has been sold a false bill of goods.  One then “makes the best of it,” internalizes the process of deception, and “re-invents” reality.  It is a devilish bargain, born of a devilish situation, and it results in the type of confusion described by Shakespeare in the tragedy of Macbeth:  “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” 

    It is important to recognize that there is no simple solution to the problem of dishonesty, and this is true in the context of serious personal growth work.  By its very nature, such work requires honest communication between client and instructor.  Rooted in defensive self-deception, the client’s resistance to discovering unpleasant truths may present a formidable obstacle to honest communication. [5]  The art of confronting resistances is, to a considerable extent, the art of calibrating the degree of forthright communication that is established with the client and brought into play in the interest of deeper self-understanding and improved personal functioning.  In this process, one must be aware that the client’s thoughts and feelings may well be similar to the attitude expressed by Danton, confronting his fate during the French revolution: “Truth, bitter truth.” [6]  Nonetheless, the gradual emergence of the truth of one’s life, elaborated through dialogue and clarified in the context of the client’s overall personal history, can lead to an increased capacity for honesty and a deeper commitment to the truth of one’s being.  Genuine movement in this direction represents the challenge and the reward of personal growth.  

[1] See Caplan, F. and Caplan, T.  The Second Twelve Months of Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1980).
[2] Pleasure: A Creative Approach to Life (New York: Penguin Books, 1970), Chapter 6.

[3] See Lowen, Alexander.  Psychopathic Behavior and the Psychopathic Personality (New York: Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis, monograph, 1976).  Also see Meloy, J. Reid.  The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1992).

[4] See Laing, R.D.  The Politics of the Family and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1971).

[5] See Lawson, J. “Confronting Resistances” in The Affirmation of Life (Portland, Oregon: Ardengrove Press, 1991).  This chapter is available at the “Publications” page of

[6] Words ascribed to Danton by Stendhal at the beginning of his novel The Red and the Black.

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