Changing My Life With Radical Honesty

Simply telling the truth isn’t simple at all… but it’s worth it.

When I first met my partner Nicky in May of 2011, I was finalizing my divorce. We met online, choosing to ignore the social stigma that pervades the world of Internet dating, even in the information age. We talked back and forth via email and instant messages, and as fate would have it, she was also going through a divorce.

Fortunately, our common experience did not become a defining aspect of our relationship, even in the early days. Of course, we shared war stories about our failed marriages, both of which were built on shaky foundations of lies, deception, and poor decisions. Although we were always quick to commiserate with one another about the events of the past, one thing we both agreed on right from the start was the need for complete honesty at all times.

During one of our early dates, Nicky introduced me to a concept developed and popularized by Dr. Brad Blanton, author of Radical Honesty: How To Transform Your Life By Telling The Truth. Neither Nicky or I have ever read Dr. Blanton’s book, nor do we plan to. One day, purely by chance, Nicky overheard an interview with Dr. Blanton on the radio. As he spoke, Nicky felt the notion of radical honesty was one that she wanted to apply to her own life, and was in fact largely doing so already.

The primary motivation behind radical honesty is to eliminate the stress we experience when lying to others, regardless of our motivations. Even as something as innocuous as an insincere compliment can cause real emotional harm, if Dr. Blanton’s work is to be believed. Radical honesty centers on the notion that an individual should be honest with other people in their lives, at all times, without limitation or restriction. Having survived a failed marriage in which lies, both well-intentioned and malicious, were pervasive, I certainly found it an appealing concept. However, the reality of how society conditions us to be sensitive to the feelings of others and maintaining established social and behavioral norms can make adherence to the principles of radical honesty difficult, counterintuitive, and sometimes downright uncomfortable – especially for introverts and those who consider themselves shy, polite, or reserved, as I do.

At first glance, many people mistake radical honesty for rudeness or inconsideration. The bluntness with which practitioners of Dr. Blanton’s theories express themselves can often lead people to make incorrect assumptions about those they encounter, dismissing them as arrogant, conceited, and rude. No matter whether we are tempted to hold our tongues when confronted with minor disappointments or serious infractions, radical honesty compels us to speak our minds and air our grievances.

What many people do not realize is that being radically honest creates its own set of problems. In many instances, telling someone how you truly feel can require even greater tact, diplomacy, and restraint than a “typical” interaction, in which we tell the person what we think they want to hear. Practitioners of radical honesty, whether the homegrown version Nicky and I adopted or the formal teachings outlined in Dr. Blanton’s book, are faced with a unique dilemma – candidly telling someone how they feel, while giving deep and thoughtful consideration to that person’s feelings, without compromising either their own integrity or appearing callous. This, I learned, is a considerable challenge.

As difficult as it was for me to embrace the practice of radical honesty in the early days of my new relationship, I did find Nicky’s candor refreshing. She spoke her mind – and still does – openly and without fear of consequence. In comparison to the interactions I engaged in with other people in everyday life, this was a profoundly different experience. However, that is not to say that, at least in the beginning, Nicky’s honesty was not a little challenging to accept. It would also be remiss of me to fail to mention Nicky’s own struggles with balancing truthfulness with tact and consideration. As in any relationship, she has learned to read my emotional cues and predict my reactions, as I have hers, but we remain committed to the principle of being both honest and respectful. This is arguably the most important aspect of radical honesty within the context of a relationship.

My previous marriage of almost eight years had been based on lies, deceit, and a constant battle for moral superiority that, sadly, many people will identify with. My ex-wife and I rarely spoke our minds, and when we did, things had already escalated to a point at which rational discourse was impossible. While I was far from used to speaking my mind when Nicky and I first got together, the ability to do so in a non-judgemental way that both parties would feel comfortable with was, and is, incredibly liberating.

As time went on, I struggled to apply the principles of radical honesty to our relationship. That’s not to say I was intentionally deceptive or withheld the truth. Having conditioned myself over the years to conceal my emotions and bury my feelings deep beneath the surface, I sometimes struggled to articulate myself as quickly, or as honestly, as Nicky did. I’ve come a long way, but my journey is far from over. Today, I am much more comfortable in being open and honest with Nicky than I was when we first met, and I am proud of the progress I’ve made.

Of course, we still indulge in the petty behavior that is common to most relationships. Being radically honest with one another hasn’t elevated us to the fabled realm of domestic bliss. From time to time, we can still be passive-aggressive toward one another. We still hold grudges. We have, however, managed to learn to disagree in a more healthy, productive, and honest manner.

One aspect of radical honesty that was much harder for me to truly understand, and apply to our relationship, is that of personal accountability. During my first marriage, I engaged in the same emotional warfare that many dysfunctional couples do. I often refused to accept blame, eagerly pointed out my ex-wife’s flaws or misconduct, and rarely admitted my own failings. One of the most profound epiphanies I experienced in my relationship with Nicky was that I had to be radically honest about my shortcomings with myself, not just quick to point the finger of blame or thoughtlessly voice my dissatisfaction.

Many people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or how healthy their relationships are, will identify with this struggle. Both men and women are taught to conceal their feelings; men are expected to adhere to the outdated notions of masculinity by hiding their emotions and vulnerabilities, while women frequently compromise their own feelings for the sake of retaining a partner. In the face of such insurmountable expectations, how can radical honesty fit into these antiquated, yet well-defined, gender roles? In my experience, wrongdoing, failure, or even sadness have been tremendously difficult to admit, let alone verbalize. In light of established societal expectations, some might argue that the benefits of radical honesty outweigh the potential gains.

In my experience, the pros definitely outnumber the cons. We don’t purposefully use silence or emotional distance as a punishment. We don’t have to guess how we may have offended the other. We don’t cling to bitterness and resentment to the point at which arguments become explosive. We can, however, count on each other to be honest, open, and supportive, no matter how difficult the truth might be to hear. We hold each other accountable, and we’re quick to admit our failings.

It is all too easy to use the principles of radical honesty to our advantage when it suits us. We can easily abuse the great privilege that comes with open communication to embark on lengthy tirades about the things we’re unhappy with. When it comes to turn the magnifying glass of truth upon ourselves and our actions, however, we’re not always so quick to judge.

It is in this regard that radical honesty has made me a better person; not just in the context of my role as a partner, but in everyday life. Assuming greater accountability and being ready, willing, and able to accept my failures and shortcomings has had a tremendous impact on how I see myself, and how I behave. Even in those moments when I fail – when I find myself judging others, when I shirk responsibility for my actions, or when I fail to do the right thing – being able to openly and honestly account for those actions makes it much easier to try and improve those behaviors.

Nicky and I rarely fight. When we do, it could hardly even be described as bickering. Both of us are committed to seeing not only the flaws in how we act, but also of how we react. It’s much easier to say sorry – and genuinely mean it – when your partner is just as willing as you are to shoulder some of the blame for how the disagreement escalated in the first place.

When I think back to the years I spent masking my feelings, holding onto resentment, and pretending everything was okay when it clearly wasn’t, I don’t lament the failure of the marriage itself. After all, if we hadn’t divorced, I wouldn’t be where I am now, nor would I currently be in the most satisfying, rewarding relationship I’ve ever experienced. When I recall those difficult years, I view them in terms of how much my ex-wife and I could have grown as people, if only we were courageous enough to be radically honest with one another, and ourselves.

Adopting a policy of radical honesty is not for everyone. Some people may never be able to overcome the way that society, previous relationships, and gender identity have conditioned them to think, behave, and perceive themselves. Those who can, however, may find that speaking their mind in a way that is mutually respectful and understanding could be the best thing that ever happened to them and their relationships.

 

Photo—ssoosay/Flickr

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About Dan Shewan

Dan Shewan is a fiction writer and essayist currently residing in New England. His nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Vol.1 Brooklyn , Sundog Lit, and Hippocampus Magazine, and he is a regular contributor to The Rumpus, Full Stop and LitReactor. He is currently working on a series of short stories and personal essays, in addition to a longer work of fiction. You can follow him on Twitter @danshewan.

Comments

  1. Many times when I start to say something to my partner and it begins with, “I’ve been afraid to tell you this… ” it goes better than I feared. Last time I did this, my partner already knew what I was telling him but hearing it from me made the difference.

    • Sometimes it goes worse that you expect. As for my wife, marriage counsellors, friends and family when they all asked for the truth; I went instantly to old Jack’s famous line: “You can’t handle the truth.”

      “Tell us what’s eating you!!!” If I do, you’ll reject me, think me to be flawed, never look at me the same again, etc. I thought some things did in fact need to be masked and muscled into submission and repression. I was right. Too bad I didn’t follow my instincts.

      Injured man is best-off painting only beautiful pictures of his reality. If someone catches a glimpse of that demon in the background, just have a wet brush at the ready to smear over it. No one wants to see certain truths. no one!

      • Man I hate to hear this…..I guess my instinct is to say that anyone who doesn’t accept you for who you are isn’t a person of quality. But I know the practical side can be pretty taxing. As in, you might end up with extra stress/hassle. For me it’s been important to be honest with myself first and foremost about what I can live with and that sets the tone for everything else.

  2. I know what you mean about people interpreting radical honesty in different ways. I have an adult son that speaks his mind and doesn’t usually follow the social traditions of false compliments, etc… I’ve noticed many people don’t know how to react and consider it rude or stark behavior.

    Dan @ ZenPresence

    • The “radically honest,” can enjoy what they wish. They can see it as “me being me.” I fully get that. It just becomes a problem when people expect adherence to normative social code. I hope he’s not surprised when people interpret his behavior as “rude or stark.”

      I loved the lines from Seinfeld (TV Comedy) when they use to insert the caveat “if it were socially acceptable.” e.g: “If it were socially acceptable, I’d wear 100% velvet all the time!”

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. “That kid sure is ugly,” could be radically honest, but it’s unnecessary.
    For some folks, who, when called on it, say with injured innocence, “But I was only being honest.,” radical honesty is ‘way like fun.

  4. This is uncannily like my own experiences. I too had a similar relationship, and my new partner is also very straightforward and honest.

    Well worth reading on this subject – and quite short and palatable – is “Lying” by Sam Harris.

  5. I like the concept this article is talking about but not its nomenclature. I think calling it “Radical Honesty” (which Blanton likely adopted as a way to sell books) gets in the way of the point this article is trying to convey. What this article is talking about isn’t “radical” — it’s what I suspect many people aspire to and many think they live up to without realizing that “white lies” and denying our own feelings is just as dishonest and damaging as “real” lies. It wouldn’t sell as many books, but I’d call what the article talking about as simply living with integrity and being one’s self. Some of the comment writers seem to have missed the author’s explanation that at the same time as he tries to be honest, he believes it to be just as important to be respectful and tactful — it’s true that comments like “the kid is ugly” are not necessary. But they’re also not respectful or tactful so I suspect that’s not what the author is talking about. Personally, I try to draw the line between being honest (e.g., Do you like this dinner? “It’s not my favorite”) and being brutally honest (e.g. “This is the worst food I’ve ever tasted in my life. What is this, dog food?”). I’ve personally experienced some pretty awful reactions to being honest about my feelings and beliefs even though expressed in a way that wasn’t brutal at all, but that wasn’t what the other person wanted hear. But the price of dishonesty was far greater.

    • Thank you. I thought “candidly telling someone how they feel, while giving deep and thoughtful consideration to that person’s feelings, without compromising either their own integrity or appearing callous” was a pretty clear statement of the idea, though obviously easier said than done.

      I guess I’m just struck by how quickly so many commenters seem to have reacted with “honesty? why that would be totally callous and cruel” despite what the post says.

  6. wellokaythen says:

    I read one of Blanton’s books, and I’ve heard him interviewed when he was running for Congress. I think he’s very right about how much people lie to each other in hundreds of different ways, and he’s right that lies tend to feed on each other.

    My impression, though, is that his practice of radical honesty is best as a kind of radical treatment for turning one’s life around, and not so much as a long-term strategy for life. It’s sort of like electroshock therapy, or chemotherapy – a giant blast of powerful stuff that otherwise can be somewhat toxic. When I went through a kind of midlife existential crisis a few years ago, I considered turning to radical honesty, but I opted for something less drastic but still honest.

    My memory of his book was that he considered not speaking as a form of lying. Radical honesty is more than just not speaking an untruth, but speaking your mind when you feel like saying something, no matter what. Keeping something to yourself in order to spare someone’s feelings was a form of lying just as bad as telling an overt lie. I can’t quite agree with that. Some people use the truth as a weapon, when speaking the truth has no more goal than causing pain to someone else.

    Blanton’s approach is definitely very disarming and refreshing. He will answer any question any reporter asks him, even answers that would embarrass any other public figure. He admits to drug use, all sorts of sexual adventures, living in a nudist camp, etc., things that no one else running for Congress would ever admit to. In that way, he is basically scandal-proof. He wastes no energy running from his past or trying to cover up his past behavior. I imagine he lives a life where he feels incredibly free.

  7. It seems like the “radically honest” need some extraordinarily tolerant people in their lives. If I was radically honest, I have a feeling I’d have no friends in fairly short order, and my family would probably stop speaking to me. Sounds kind of lonely. Maybe a good way to end dysfunctioal relationships, but who do you replace those people with? I don’t really know anyone who likes being told the honest truth.

    • I don’t really know anyone who likes being told the honest truth.

      Funny… just about everybody I know likes being told the “honest” truth (“honest?” as opposed to some other kind of truth?) but they don’t like being dumped on or wounded with words.

      Seems to me that there may be some options other than just either telling people what they want to hear or totally scathing them.

    • wellokaythen says:

      It may not surprise you to learn that Blanton himself is on his fifth marriage at this point. His book also suggests that you bluntly tell your coworkers whenever you find them sexually attractive — another recipe for disaster, in my book.

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