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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

Why We’re All Liars

Our image of liars is so negative, our sense of their motives so dark, our presumption of their primal sinfulness so unyielding, it’s no wonder that we generally go around denying the possibility that we might in any way be one.

But it would be a great deal more honest – and a lot more liberating – to accept that we do of course spend a lot of our lives lying in one way or another – and to grow generously sympathetic to, and curious about, the reasons why we do so. We have allowed ourselves to focus on the delinquent or semi-criminal aspects of lying, as though deceitfulness was always something that might happen in relation to a school teacher, an angry father, a gang or the police – and so we miss out on its more subtle everyday psychological varieties – in which we, the law-abiding, careful, ostensibly moral majority, are deeply enmeshed.

We are, despite our disavowals, continually lying about some of the following:


We lie about the many almost imperceptible hurts that others have inflicted on us but which we lack a vocabulary and the confidence to complain about cleanly. We lie about a range of minor resentments that have made us bitter and irritable and have choked our capacity for warmth and spontaneity. We lie about the number of other humans we are in a (quiet) sulk with.


We lie about how sorry we are about certain things we’ve done – and about how much we long to check in with certain people and apologise, if only we knew that they could greet our confession with a measure of forgiveness.


We lie about how moved we are by many things which busy grown-ups aren’t supposed to care too much about: the sight of a parent and small child walking together hand in hand; the sky at dusk; the face of a stranger in the street; a bad film with a very happy ending; a picture of our family in happier times decades ago. We disguise that beneath an often confident brusque adult exterior is a pensive weepy child.


We lie about how constantly alarming it is to be alive, how frightened we are of the responsibilities we have taken on, how unsure we are of our path and how little we understand even at our moments of ostensible authority and competence. We might – in certain moods – long to utter a despairing ‘I don’t know…’ at so much that comes our way.


We lie about a majority of things that turn us on – and about a good many that really don’t but apparently should. We lie about the sensual details that we rehearse in our minds alone late at night and the unfaithful dreams that coexist alongside our public commitments.


We pretend to be having fun skiing and in nightclubs, at the theatre and reading the long novel that won a very important prize. We pretend to love our friends. We lie about how bored we are. And we strive hard not to admit to what we really do like: staying in, eating strange things in a disgusting way alone in the kitchen late at night, plotting revenge, seeing no one, wasting time, buying gadgets and looking up the fate of ex-lovers and colleagues from long ago.

In the process, without meaning to, we perpetuate a world in which everyone else has to lie along with us. Because everyone refrains from uttering their truths, the price of breaking cover remains impossibly high. We collude in a mass conspiracy to suggest that love, sex, work, family life, friends and holidays are the way we know, in our hearts, they simply aren’t. We remain at the dawn of any collective capacity to acknowledge what fundamental bits of life are actually like.

A lack of love holds us back. We’re emotional liars because, somewhere in the course of our upbringing, we failed to imbibe a robust sense that we might be acceptable in and of our essence. No one said with enough conviction that we were allowed to be. We were given convincing lessons in how not to speak our more dangerous thoughts clearly. We became experts at complying. We came to associate being good and normal with being someone else.

Yet how much more interesting it might be if we dared, going forward, to be a little braver – and conceived of many encounters as opportunities to risk the sharing of new truths. We might realise that our picture of what would happen if we did so was derived from outdated or irrelevant contexts: childhood, the company of narrow minded school mates, obvious bullies, social media… Learning not to lie wouldn’t only be of egoistic benefit. Our vulnerability would invite, and rehabilitate, that of others. Every confession we could muster would allow our companions to let go of a part of their own loneliness; every move towards greater honesty would edge us towards a less needlessly isolated shame-filled world.

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