The ideas about oaths and pledges and other codes of ethics that I present throughout this blog relate to our basic inegrity — how we respect and think about other people. This is one sense of “self-talk.” There is, however, another sense of self-talk that I also want to explore in this blog: what we say (and, therefore, think) about ourselves. And it is this topic that I will turn to in a number of future blogs.
Indeed perhaps the most important person that we need to be respectful towards is our self. If honesty and open communication are vital virtues to hold in interpersonal relations, then they are at least as vital, if not more vital, to hold in dealing with ourselves: If it makes sense to be respectful towards others, then it certainly makes sense to be respectful towards ourselves.
In fact, the truism is true: You cannot love others if you do not first love yourself. For this reason, this blog deals not just with integrity in our dealings with others but also honest self-talk. For much of what we say about ourselves (whether said to ourselves or to others) not only reflects who we think we are but also helps determine who we become. If we are honest with ourselves, such self-talk can allow us to change the negative perceptions we have of ourselves as well as re-evaluate and remove the negative fears, habits, assumptions, and prejudices that run our lives. (And unfortunately, when we are dishonest with ourselves, such self-talk can be a powerful reenforcer of negative self-perceptions.)
Yet sometimes we treat ourselves with utter disrespect. We sabotage ourselves when we say things like “I’m a terrible person,” or “I’ll never amount to anything,” or “I can’t be loving,” or “I don’t deserve to be loved.” Such self-judgements are obviously usually not honest when the people who say them are, in fact, decent people — flawed perhaps, but not deserving of such self-deprecation.
The meaning of honesty, though, is not necessarily what we normally think it is. For within the complexity of life, honesty — truth — about oneself is often hidden amidst a fog of self-deception, defensiveness, and long-established habit. It’s not that we intentionally want to be dishonest about ourselves, but often the most difficult thing to see clearly is the thing that we are closest to — and there’s nothing we’re closer to than ourselves. So while we may think of “being honest with ourselves” as mainly just a matter of identifying our faults and acknowledging them, real honesty often means acknowledging your strengths when all the bad experiences and mistaken assumptions muddle your judgements about yourself. And while it is certainly admirable to admit when you’re wrong or when you’re lacking in skill and when another person is more talented and capable at something than yourself (in other words, to be humble about your talents and generous about others’), it requires a great deal of courage — perhaps even more courage — to have the guts to admit that the bad experiences and traumas that you’ve had in your life and the bad habits that you’ve developed throughout your life do not have to define (or continue to define) who you are (or can be) — that, in short, they define only part of you and the rest of you can rise above it.
Of course, someone who is shot in the heart and is bleeding to death is deluding himself — i.e., lying to himself — if he thinks that he’s going to magically stop the bleeding and have a much longer life. For him, it could be honestly said that that trauma will define the rest of his (dramatically shortened) life and that he can’t rise above it. But I’m not talking about those kinds of situations, in which the end is truly at hand. Rather, I’m talking about the courage to make an effort to see beyond the effects of one’s traumas and experiences, and to acknowledge that they need not be an excuse for everything in one’s past, present, or future. That is being honest with yourself.
Honesty often entails looking beyond the surface — and sometimes way beyond the surface. Being honest often means digging into your assumptions to determine what’s true and what’s not. It requires looking into what we know — or, more precisely, what we think we know — about our condition, our experience, our history. It requires, in short, a holistic approach, looking at the whole picture.
And without having the whole picture, we are liable to make judgements about ourselves that are just plain false. I’m going to talk more about this holistic approach in future posts. And I have also found that a holistic approach also applies to issues of public policy (which I’ll be discussing in the Honest Government blog), for just as we need to look at our whole experience in judging honestly who we truly are (and can become), we also need to look at the larger effects of a given public policy in deciding whether that policy is honestly good or bad. (Excessive government welfare, for instance, may be, on the surface, a “good” thing, but if it ultimately becomes a disincentive to self-confidence, independence, and responsibility, then it cannot be honestly a good thing.)
Indeed, being honest with ourselves can ultimately change not only our personal lives but also public policy: If impoverished people, for instance, can honestly acknowledge that they have the capacity to rise above their situation and their history and therefore not require a life-time of hand-outs, then they not only build self-confidence and overcome much of their problems but they also change the way they (and society at large) look at such public policies as government welfare.