The Psychology of Honesty and Dishonesty


Honesty – is the human quality of communicating and acting truthful and with fairness, as best one is able. It is related to truth as a value. This includes listening, reasoning and any actions in human repertoire – as well as speaking. In other words Honesty is simply telling the truth. Honesty to ones own self, honesty top others and being honest about ones inner motives.

Honesty is the foundation of relationships – be it personal, intimate or interpersonal. How you are perceived socially also determines how likable you are and if you are socially attractive. Failing which leads to distrust.

Discover what you Speak – Is it the Truth?

What you speak it can be true yet be dishonest if your intention is to deceive the listener/s. In the same manner, you may do something wrong and can speak about it honestly as long as you don’t conceal the evidence. Therefore, dishonesty can be defined simply as a behavior that is performed with the intent to deceive or to manipulate the truth.

Most of us have these truths hidden in our innermost corners like treasures kept away. When you start the process of learning honesty – you will realize “truth” as a living grace and not as an intellectual abstraction.To discover truth you have to be honest with yourself as well as with others.

Honesty as a Practice

Honesty evades you when you experienced pain during interactions with parents or others socially. The idea is to come to terms with that emotional pain due to which you created defenses. Learning honesty is about – learning how to express your innermost experiences openly by letting go of the psychological defenses. You feel the pain as you open up and confront your pain directly, without having to run away from it. So, end of the day you get healed and transformed as you practice honesty.

Lying in Families –

In cases of abusive or alcoholic family – you must have seen cases where there is pretense of the brutality not occurring at all. There are cases of “keeping secrets” even in less dysfunctional families – eventually leading to illness or mental distress.This denial of experience permeates in both personal and professional world. If you keep secrets you are allowing self-deception and it harms others. Not giving an opinion and hurting others in the long-run is dishonesty. Honesty means you are open about one’s life.

Lying in Social Systems –

In social Systems honesty has various opinions and definitions. Here you see honesty is normally encouraged publicly. However, you may notice it is sometimes forbidden or punished if it threatens the system.

“Facts are technically accurate statements made by the mouth or penned by the hand. Truth is a larger statement, a holistic statement. Truth is not just factually accurate, but also utterly honest. Truth is the whole statement of one’s total being: a unified expression of word, deed, motive, and emotion—all of which are True.”

You can only be honest and truthful if it from the heart. “Intent defines the Act”. If your motive in not honorable you can easily bear false witness when you are speaking facts. Therefore, “Facts can be used in the service of lies – while Truth Cannot.

Lying in Moral Systems –

In moral systems honesty is given huge weightage whereas in particular situations dishonesty becomes preferable. Dishonesty is acceptable if the intention is not to deceive others, but the intent is noble in nature. For example, it is considered self-sacrifice when you withhold your opinion so that others are happy. This kind of approach in understanding honesty is not an objective approach to the truth.

“Truth is nothing more than what we choose to believe in the moment.” Honesty can be practiced if you surpass the social game-playing.

Telling Lies is an Act of Aggression – How?

The moment you are dishonest and lie you make a conscious and deliberate effort to deceive the other. The deception is an act of aggression.

Aggression can be because of two main motives:

1. Lack – or not knowing:

If you grow up with parents who are not wise or compassionate and fail to teach you consistently about how the world works – you end up feeling you are inadequate. You maybe shamed for whatever you do not know. In order to hide the feeling of pain on being shamed you lie.

2. Something you Know:

The other motive is a reaction or response to someone who you know has failed you in some way or the other. Here – do you tell the truth to your parents. You know deep within that if you tell them the truth – they wont be able to give you the security you need. They may not give you the sympathy, or kindness or affection you want. This may happen with your boss or even with your siblings or friends. You ‘KNOW’ these things yet you want the satisfaction – you know you wont get.

As a result – you tell lies. It is a psychological battle to inflict pain on the ones who have hurt you. For example, if you are treated badly – you get scared, shamed or hurt. In response to this hurt you adopt a fabricated sense of invulnerability to hide the pain and shame. You cause injury to the person by concocting lies.

The Way to Honesty

To be honest you got to face the pain and emotional trauma and feel you are misunderstood or inadequate. Take time out to trace the origins of that pain and become aware of it for what it actually is. Once you come to terms with the fact of how you got rejected or ignored the way to honesty begins.

You still fear – ‘not knowing’ and fear being you could be abandoned. Become aware of the anger within you. Moreover, try and understand how you are hurting yourself by being dishonest. 

Honesty can feel Awkward at First

For those who grew up in dysfunctional families – where you were accustomed to speak the truth  and be dishonest- you become comfortable with lies and deceit. You actually feel there is something wrong if you are truthful. Truth may not only feel awkward and false – it may actually feel dangerous.

Trust me – honesty can be very terrifying and truth leaves a strange taste in your mouth. As you learn to face truth and don’t use any psychological weapons – you discover a unique courage greater than any lie.

Honesty can be Fearful

There is risk in being honest as the consequences you face could be rejection of others love. However, you should remember if others tend to reject you due to your honesty – do they really love you at all. Yes, you do risk losing others love by being honest – however that love is just an illusion. And, if it’s an illusion – then you have already lost it and have nothing to lose by being honest.

Four Psychological Steps to Honesty

Step 1 – Expressing Emotions as they ‘Really’ are:

Train yourself to recognize emotions – be it pleasant or unpleasant and also how you name them:

Always remember, people confuse emotions with beliefs. So if you say – “I feel my exam went very well” – it is a statement of a belief. You can say it in a better way by saying – “I believe that the exam went very well.”

You could aim for an emotionally genuine statement like: “I felt pleased with the exam I appeared for.”

Step 2 – Building awareness on Psychological Defenses

Learn to become aware of the psychological defenses. You learnt these defenses still present in your unconscious when you cleverly pushed the emotions that frighten you as a child. These defenses protected you from unpleasant or traumatizing emotions. It helped you evade dealing with emotions.

Once you become aware of these – half your problems of escaping emotions involuntarily get solved. You are an adult now and there is no need to defend yourself any more. You have the ability and wisdom to deal with the emotions and face them calmly. In case you feel you are not able to deal with the emotions – feel free to consult a psychologist. It will help you easily go through the entire process. 

Step 3 – Unconscious Repeating of Defenses

It is important to understand that that you are letting the past continue to live in your present. Your have been unconsciously repeating psychological defenses to respond to old emotional conflicts in your life so far.

Examine your past very carefully! It is almost like rewinding the emotional side of your growing up days. 

Become aware of the suppressed emotions you have carried from your childhood to the current behavioral problems you are facing. You could be experiencing feelings of revenge, hate, sexual or other fantasies – often termed as “unbecoming psychological conduct. Moreover, as you grow in awareness you will realize your life has been only a repetition of emotional conflicts in your unconscious.

Understand – emotions that are frightening or unpleasant are the ones you have pushed out of your awareness all life long. Therefore, are the the real reasons for the conflicts and problems you face so often.

Step 4 – Bring the Unconscious to the Conscious – Make the Choice

Once you have understood and learnt the above three stages of Honesty. You can now make a conscious choice to resist to the temptation and not to fall prey to old defensive emotional patterns.

Trust me when I say – Shedding old habits is hard work!

It will take a lot of patience and perseverance to break out of a thought pattern cultivated over years. However, you can train yourself to adopt new behaviors.

It is important to train yourself to gracefully bear the emotional pain. The key is to bear the pain without feeling anger or victimization. Thus, adopt an attitude of forgiveness. Remember, the moment you face difficulty you will go back to being the frightened child trying to protect your pride. However, set aside the pride willingly and deliberately.

Without going through these brutally honest learning in four stages you will not be able to adopt honesty. You will flourish  and have meaningful and honest inter-exchanges – the moment you stop clinging to the defense mechanisms of shielding  yourself from emotional pain.

When you were a child you survived pain, anger, resentment and blame by hiding the feelings of vulnerability and hurt. Now you are grown up and you are not vulnerable any more. You realize, shedding your fears will make you live with integrity and love.

Bottom Line

After having understood and named dishonesty – you can work to free yourself from its clutches. It will help you avoid walking on a path of destruction.

You faced dishonesty, be it in Social Systems, in your Family or in Moral Systems. It was unnamed, and it wounded and hurt you. Moreover, if you were frequently exposed to dishonesty as you grew up, you build a low tolerance for deception. You do not allow anyone to be dishonest with you. And you live a life deceived by your own pride.

Now that you understand what is honesty – you have the ability to challenge others. You can confront them when they are dishonest without feeling you are being “bad.” Because, you can now see what others are not admitting. The integrity will save you from being a psychological wreck in your life. It will help you lead a simple and honest life of peace and happiness.

However, remember – to name dishonesty – you have to go through the pain of understanding it and seeing it yourself. The mantra is to acknowledge your emotional experiences. To be able to communicate them to others. This is the beginning of practicing honesty in your life each and every moment.


1. Inspiration for this article Dr. Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. from his Book – A Guide to Psychology and it’s Practice




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