Honesty, defined as “a person or action who/that is “fair and straightforward and free of deceit or morally just”. It is an attribute revered by nearly all countries, cultures, and religions. It is constantly discussed throughout life, from all figures: parents, teachers, coaches. All urging you to be honest. To tell the truth no matter what.

As a child it’s easy. Did you eat that? Yes. Did you brush your teeth? No. Are you listening to me? Maybe… Adrian! Yes.  

But, as we get older, we start to doubt or avoid the truth. We begin to manipulate it in different ways, searching for the line, perhaps crossing it just a little to skew the deck in our favour. Lying about brushing our teeth may afford us an extra 5 minutes of play time before bed and that’s valuable currency at age 6 when you have not yet made the connection between poor oral hygiene and cavities. 

The older we get the more liberal we are with the truth. We may outright lie to avoid punishment or fail to tell the whole story to ensure we are painted in the proper light. Or, it might be well intentioned, perhaps we omit the truth to spare the feelings of someone we care about. These instances of dishonesty are undoubtedly wrong even the well-intentioned situation. We can identify the immorality in these instances, even if we don’t feel remorse for the action.

In many ways outward dishonesty is easier to identify but it is not the only kind we must be ready for. There is a second category of honesty which is much more painful, yet easier to hide and therefore easier to avoid facing. I’m referring to honesty of self and it is far more important than the omissions you may make outward. Not because lying to ourselves is worse than lying to others but if we are truthful with ourselves the decision to be honest with others is already made. 

I have been mulling over this topic for a while, both as it relates to my personal life and how others can use it. And I hope to explain or at least unpack it in a way that makes it more accessible. The lies that we tell ourselves are the most dangerous of all because we often do not realize how far away we’ve gotten from truth

The Truth of a Lizard 

There is a theory of brain evolution that was developed in the ’60s by neuroscientist Paul Maclean called The Triune Brain. The basic idea is that our brain has a hierarchal progression beginning with the most basic level – Survival and progressing to Higher Level Thinking. – The demand for abstract art and philosophical debates is pretty low if we aren’t first breathing and aware of threats to our survival, and it’s these first two levels of the brain that have allowed us to develop and achieve a position in the dominance hierarchy that gives us the opportunity to use our Neocortex – higher thinking. Unfortunately, what our Neocortex tells us we want and what our survival instincts want are often seperate things.

Let me explain. 

Seth Godin and Stephen Pressfield – both better writers and more experienced thinkers than myself- have discussed this topic at length. What Mr. Godin calls the lizard brain, Pressfield has termed the Resistance. They are essentially describing the same thing, it’s the natural self-preservation instinct that prevents us from executing on our goals and task. We are eternally terrified of being judged or looking stupid, of failing or disappointing others. We think ourselves into a petrified state and the only movement we can make is backward into safety. Then, once safe we berate ourselves for our cowardice, force ourselves back to cusp of action only to repeat the cycle. It’s a terrible feeling and we have all done it, in fact, I just stopped typing to send a text message I had been avoiding to avoid being a complete hypocrite and lying to you with this article. The problem with the lizard brain is that it never goes away, you don’t stop feeling the doubt or fear. The higher the stakes or further the progress you’ve made the stronger the resistance.

Why is this important for honesty? 

Because the lies we tell ourselves are designed to protect this lizard brain, we are fighting our natural instinct! Preservation of ego is king and it is easier to weave a web of falsehoods than shoulder the burden of reality. If you’re good at it, which many of us are, we can convince others that the lie is the truth and once they accept it we no longer believe it to be a lie. We have to actively work at Honesty.

Personal Example Time

I competed in a grappling tournament a few weekends ago, grappling anxiety/lizard brain resistance rates somewhere in the 4-5/10 range. It’s a part of fighting but I’m not paid to compete in it nor am I attempting to become one of the top grapplers in the country or world.

But.

I am one of the professional fighters at the gym and 30 odd students are there to compete and watch, so perhaps a 6/10 on the lizard brain scale. Still quite manageable, but then I noticed another pro fighter in my division who I know and is also ranked in the top 10. We could potentially fight each other in the future. My internal lizard brain scale is bumping up to a 7/10 and my mind is creating comparisons between this match and an actual fight. This match and our professional future, because the lizard brain believes only in scarcity we can’t both be successful! 

We compete. I grapple tentatively, playing not to lose which is almost always a losing strategy. He wins by 2 points – 1 Takedown. An exchange that would -likely- be fairly insignificant in a real fight and that’s the way I wanted it. As I exit the mat I am already creating a subplot for why lost. I already had a match and his first round was a bye. I had a poor game plan. It was a hard week of training. The list goes on. I’ll probably make a few jokes about it being a jiu-jitsu tournament so it doesn’t really matter. I’ll do my best to convince everyone else that it’s no big deal, some will believe me.

I’ll discuss it a few more times during the week at the gym, but now with the ‘new perspective’ –read lie – in place and by the time the next Saturday rolls around I might actually believe that the loss meant nothing, that it was because of the match I had prior, and that I was tired from the week of training. My ego will remain intact but I will have made no adjustments, learned no lessons. I’ll have retreated back under my rock away from change and growth but safe. 

You see the problem with lying to ourselves – and others – is that it is far too easy if we let ourselves. It will quickly become a habit and we’ll start shaping our perceptions to accommodate the lowest, most cowardly form of us. Cowardice is the refusal to face truth regardless of how uncomfortable it may be. As bad as this strategy may sound, it would work, if we truly believed our lies.

Eventually the truth comes through.

My father is a painter, and I remember him telling me about painting different houses with different owners and habits. One of the habits he was referring too was smoking. If you smoke inside a home the nicotine, will, over time seep into the paint and walls. It won’t happen with one cigarette or two but after a time the walls will develop a stained yellowish tinge that no one likes to see. When that happens the owner, or new owner, will call someone like my Dad to come in and paint. Unfortunately, at this point the walls are deeply saturated and require special treatment, they need to be washed and treated with a heavy primer before any paint can be rolled on. It’s a time consuming and expensive process. If the painter or homeowner decide to skip it and insist that slapping on an extra coat will do the trick they can get the job done much faster and cheaper. The walls will even look clean again, for a time. Eventually, the nicotine stuck underneath starts to seep back through – unhindered by a primer – and because the world is a cruel place that moment will occur at the exact same time the homeowner is giving a prospective buyer a tour of the house. They will look up at the walls, see the stains and know that someone cut corners to avoid the hard work. 

Lying is that stain. It works for a time and you may convince yourself or a few people that it’s clean but not forever. Stress acts as a stripping agent, when everything is running smoothly it’s simple to avoid honesty. The internal plot lines are clear and you can easily adjust the story as needed but when the stakes are high, when something of worth is on the line: career, relationship, a fight. That’s when it falls apart. When you step in the cage and the door shuts behind you there is only one way out and it’s through the person in front of you. That’s the moment when the lies fall apart, that’s the moment when you are forced to be honest with yourself, perhaps for the first time in a long time and that’s when you will crack. The discomfort and pain that comes with growth will avalanche back in the form of panic and doubt and you will be exposed because deep down we know, we know that we weren’t honest with ourselves.

The idea of being honest with ourselves seems easy, we believe we always do it, or if not, could start anytime we want.

We don’t and it’s not. Honesty is the mental equivalent of heavy manual labour repeated day after day. It’s uncomfortable and you are going to be terrible at it for a very long time, your – emotional – muscles will tear and ache, but in the end, it will all be worth it. You will know who you are and be comfortable with that knowledge. You will have deeper connections with the people in your life, and those that can’t handle the truth will disappear, leaving you only those who care. You will be the best version of you possible, you won’t be perfect but you’ll be real and that knowledge is liberating. It allows you to hurtle yourself completely at any task you choose, not concerned with the outcome because your lizard brain no longer controls you.

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