Are you perfectly honest about everything all of the time? Probably not. I wonder if anyone really is. Most of us never reach a criminal level of dishonesty, unless you consider speeding to be a form of lying. But, who hasn’t told a loved one what we thought they wanted to hear from time to time? Or, pretended that we knew something that we really didn’t? Or, said that we were fine when we were anything but?

You might say that some of these instances are harmless or even a good idea. As a violin teacher, I’ve been encouraging to students right before a competition or performance in ways that you might consider less than perfectly honest. I don’t think you could convince me to do otherwise. You can probably give me good reasons for similar situations you’ve found yourself in.

But, what about situations in which people repeatedly lie or misrepresent themselves? Or hide information that would damage a relationship? Or cheat, or steal? Are people who do these things just bad people? Do they actually enjoy doing these things?

I think that no matter where along the continuum these forms of dishonesty lie, from the mildest to the criminal, they all come back to the feeling that being dishonest is the only means of survival in that situation. You might be thinking, “Really? Someone could feel that their survival depends on lying?” Yes, I think so.

Our survival mechanisms get set up very early in life, before we have any choice in the manner. It happens before we have any thinking capacity that would allow us to decide that dishonesty might not be the best way for us to move through life. During these early years, from conception until the age of 2 1/2, we all absorb the feeling that there is something wrong with us being just the way that we are. This Learned Distress becomes the automatic, generating force behind our negative moments and situations. And, at the time we are absorbing this negative feeling, our brains also develop a survival mechanism that allows us to move through life and deal with the situations that Learned Distress generates.

There are a few typical pieces of Learned Distress that can lead us to feel that dishonesty is the only way to survive:

“I’m not capable of achieving what matters to me.” In this case, someone might lie or cheat to get what they feel they need to survive.

“I have to be perfect.” This person might pretend that they did something perfectly, even when they didn’t.

“I have to know everything.” This person might pretend to know something they don’t.

“I have to win at everything.” This person might cheat in order to come out on top.

“My life has to conform to some ideal.” This person often finds themselves saying, “It’s all OK,” even when it really isn’t.

“I need everyone’s approval.” This person might just tell everyone what they want to hear in order not to upset them.

“I need to fit in.” This person may be a chameleon, even lying to themselves about who they really are, just to fit in.

“I have to rebel against everyone’s rules.” This is probably obvious—survival comes from breaking the rules for this person.

Does any of these things ring a bell for you? If so, are you cringing a little? Just remember that the Learned Distress you feel and the survival mechanism you developed to deal with it were put into place before you had any choice in the matter. The choice that you do have is in unlearning your Learned Distress.

Just this week, I had a couple of clients who told me about major shifts in this area. One is feeling more able to be honest about who he is and how he operates in groups he is a part of. He said he feels more engaged in the world, as a result. The other client said that he and his wife are being more transparent in their marriage and are realizing that times they were less than honest to save the others’ feelings haven’t really served them, in the long run. Both are finding a new freedom in really being themselves that they have never felt before.

How do you feel when you consider being completely honest in every situation? Does it produce a little anxiety? The clients I mentioned above would tell you that they felt the same way, but that removing the Learned Distress in this realm was completely worth it and opened up whole new ways of being themselves.