The Truth About Lying

This post is part of my Dear Laura series. If you'd like to send me a letter or to read all the responses, go here.

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Dear Laura,

How does one stop lying? I know I am a liar. I lie to myself and I lie to everyone else. I have a hard time with the truth. I don't lie all the time and I am very capable of being honest, but I have noticed that I am only honest (when it comes to me, things I do, and things I feel), when it's not scary. I lie about how much I drink, I lie about how much money I spend, I lie about who I talk to and why, I lie about how I feel or what I think about things, and sometimes I lie for no reason—it’s a habit. I am terrified that I don't even know what is true anymore or that I am going to one day be incapable of recognizing the truth. It is really painful and I don't want to live like this. How do you stop? What can you do? I want to know the truth, I want to give the truth and receive the truth, but I don't know how. I think I am a good person and I want to believe I am. But I can't reconcile my lies with that. Any advice would be appreciated...and sorry if this is a garbled letter. It's early in the morning and I feel wrecked inside.

-Pants on Fire


Dear Pants on Fire,

I remember reading "Eat Pray Love" in 2007 on an airplane headed to DC. In it, Liz Gilbert’s friend advises her to tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. Just reading those nine words made me choke. I rolled them around in my mind for months and years after like a stone I was turning over in my palm: Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. My response: I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

I really thought telling the truth was not an option for me—it didn’t even register in the realm of possibilities. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be married and I was trying to kill the pain of that idea with drinking and drugs and other men and work and running and yoga and anything else that worked, even if only for a second.

I never thought I was a liar, but I found myself lying like you do: about everything and nothing. I lied even when I didn’t have to. I lied to cover up other lies and I lied to people I hated lying to, like my husband, my parents, my brother, my friends and also to strangers who didn’t know or care whether I was lying to them. As my drinking got worse, the lies got bigger. While drunk I did things that were so far away from who I thought I was—cheating, stealing, gossiping cruelly—I had to lie to myself just so I could keep going. I remember at one point in my marriage, I was sitting across from my husband at our kitchen table eating dinner and I thought: I have an entire reality inside my me that you don’t know about. I considered the amount of physical space between my brain and the outside of my face—an inch, maybe two?—and how it was really fucking bizarre and precarious that this small distance of flesh could separate two entirely different and opposing universes. But of course it didn’t separate them—I split in two, then three, then more, until we had no idea who Laura was anymore.

It was terrifying, really. I didn’t even realize how much I was lying until a friend pointed it out in 2013, a year after my husband moved out. My drinking had escalated to dangerous levels by then.

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I wrestled with the same thoughts in your letter all—the—time.

It is really painful and I don't want to live like this. How do you stop? What can you do? I want to know the truth, I want to give the truth and receive the truth, but I don't know how.

The thing was, I didn’t actually want to know the truth or receive it, and I wonder if you do either? I would’ve told you I did, but I didn’t. Because, as Augusten Burroughs says, the truth is really fucking expensive. The truth that I didn't want to be married to my husband, for example, meant I had to break his heart and mine, go back on a thing I promised to do (talk about "bad" person), split up our family, pay for a separate life, and so on. Emotionally, physically, psychically, financially, spiritually expensive.

It doesn’t really matter what you're lying about, but drinking and who you've been talking to and why are pretty big doozies. Regardless, what matters is that there are things about your truth—both yours and other people’s—that scare the shit out of you. 

So, what is it you’re afraid of?

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Before you answer that, I want to tell you something. It’s something you must understand—or at least be willing to hear—before trying anything else. At least it was for me.

You said you think you’re a good person but that you can’t reconcile your lies with that idea. That’s because it’s not an either/or scenario—it’s a yes/and one. You are good and you also lie. You are good and you are also capable of some really ugly shit. You are all the things. I am all the things. We are all all the things. 

Your goodness doesn’t cancel out your darkness nor the other way around. As Thomas Lloyd Qualls says, “Believing you are good is like believing in the half moon.” The unlit side of the moon is always there, whether we see a sliver or the full, yellow sphere. 

When I teach I always open by telling people that there is nothing they can say or bring into the room that will surprise me. I tell them nothing about who they are or what they’ve done or been through could possibly cancel out their right to be there and be loved. I say this because we all think we are the very worst. Until I started going to recovery meetings, I thought I was the only person who did such horrific shit while drinking (or not drinking, for that matter). I thought nobody lied as much as I did or put their kid in such danger or felt and thought as many icky things as I felt and thought. I mean, I’d read about it in books and stuff, but I didn’t really think anyone could be as vile as I was.

I was wrong, of course. We are all vile and wonderful—or at least we have the capacity to be.

I want you to know the same. Whatever your truths are, they aren’t unique and they can’t count you out of life or love. For real. I can handle your truth and so can a lot of other people. How you move toward handling it is a different story and I'll try to address that.

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Pema Chodron says that the fundamental aggression we have toward ourselves is not being honest about what’s going inside us. We don’t or won’t look at ourselves honestly and compassionately because, like you said, it seems too scary. We think if we see what’s really there, we will be unacceptable, unlovable, unforgivable, exiled—and for good reason!—the world we live in doesn’t largely support the messy complexity of being human. But it also does, if we know where to look—and with whom to trust our tenderness. Which brings me to the next point.

What are you afraid of? Answer that. Maybe you do it on paper first. Or perhaps just tell God. But what you have to do eventually is tell another person. Boooo. Hissss. I know. It could be a therapist or a trusted friend or maybe your significant other. Find someone and tell them you’re about to do the scariest thing you’ve ever done. Feel your heart pound in your chest and your body shake as your brain screams at you to keep the words in. And then…say it anyway. You don’t have to say everything (I don’t actually recommend doing that) you can just pick one true thing and start there.

I started by telling one person one single truth in one conversation. (I only did it after I saw other people do it and I noticed they didn't vaporize!) And then doing it again, except with more truths. And then doing it again, with even more truths. Eventually, I could have an entire conversation without lying! I first did this with women in recovery and it was like an experiment. We’d be sitting there having a conversation—you know, like a tennis match—I’d be truth telling with the best of them and then, whiz!, a lie would escape out of my mouth—and I’d go, Hold on! That was a lie! Where the hell did that come from?! and we’d laugh. Let me try again, I’d say, and I’d pick up the ball and begin again. Sometimes I would tell ten lies in the course of an hour, but every time I’d call myself on it I felt a little better. I realized how habitual it had become. I didn’t have to lie to this person—so why was I lying? Because part of my brain is still a little child who is afraid. Also, the more we do something the more normal it becomes. Lying for me became as mindless as scratching an itch.

The power of telling others is three-fold: having a witness allows us to digest and process in a way that we can’t alone; to be seen as we actually are and to see others as they actually are is the only way we can truly connect and we need connection like we need air; and, ultimately, it is necessary to have people in our lives who can call us on our bullshit. A lot of times the truth isn’t available to me—it has to be pointed out.

Them: Nope, keep digging girl. Nope, almost there. There it is. 

Me: Ohhhhh. Ewwwwww.

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What you’ll find—what I’ve found—is that the truth is ultimately life-affirming. Even when it’s ugly and inconvenient and has the potential to dismantle our life. It feels like relief and freedom, I believe (and this is my pseudo-scientific woo-woo explanation) because the energy of truth is in integrity with the energy of the Divine. Not in a “this is good and now you're not bad” way but in a “this is real and therefore you can stand on it” way. The truth has a soft-click sound. It is a release valve. The truth is uncomfortable but expansive; lying is uncomfortable and confining. You know the difference when you feel it.

I think some of your letter is asking if there’s a way to tell the truth without being scared and my answer is no, at least not in my experience. I’m still afraid of speaking my truth, but I’m waaaaay more afraid of lying. Lying rots my gut now. Lying keeps me up at night and eventually makes me so miserable I have to come clean. Pretty annoying, but also Thank God: I am not the sociopath I once thought I was.

Addiction made me lie. You put your drinking in there with a few other things, but I’ll address that specifically. Aside from the emotional reasons you may be lying, if you’re drinking a lot, you’re not thinking clearly. At all. I lied about how much I drank (and a bunch of other things) because I wanted to protect my drinking. I thought drinking was keeping me sane and connected and there was no way in hell I was going to call attention to it and potentially have to quit. 

We know how that turned out.

Shame, fear, guilt: those are the reasons we lie. Shame, fear, guilt: those can also be the reasons we tell the truth, but I think a much more powerful one is love. The most radical act of love is to tell the truth. That flies in the face of a lot of what we're taught growing up, and of course, we have to use discernment too (there are times when telling the truth is not loving or safe), but by and large, it stands: honesty moves us closer to love, not further away.

You also have to believe—or at least be willing to try to believe, like I said—that you are loved and good and totally, 100% okay, even when your pants are en fuego. 

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I read your letter last week and thought about it a lot. This weekend wasn’t my favorite. I received a bunch of nasty emails and comments about my work and that left me feeling wobbly. I also found out an ex is dating someone I know and that zipped a pang of ache into my heart that I didn’t expect. Then, late yesterday afternoon, my daughter came home from her dad’s and when he left she took a shower and then crawled into my bed to watch some shows on the iPad. It was a perfect sunny day, cool for July, and the breeze was blowing through my room, making the curtains toss little orbs of light on my bed. I had a stinky trash bag in one hand and an unpeeled carrot in the other as I peeked in to tell Alma I was taking the trash out and then getting a Diet Coke. She nodded, already engrossed in her show. I walked out, threw the trash into the bin and a bunch of flies spun toward my head because I’ve never washed the bin. As I walked down the driveway to the street I took a big bite of my carrot and then had one of those moments where everything hit me at once. My life. My unlikely, magical life. I smiled stupidly, gratefully, humbly as I walked out onto the street and turned into the sun.

It all started by telling one small truth and then another. You do it by doing it, Pants on Fire. You do it because you’re so fucking sick of waking up wrecked inside. You start to crawl out of your lies one by one, until one day—maybe many years later—you find yourself walking down the street with a bunch of carrot in your mouth and you realize: things aren’t perfect, but you have nothing left to hide.


I wrote another letter about lying a couple years ago here.

Laura McKowen

Laura McKowen, PO Box 315 , Swampscott, MA, 01907