Radical Honesty is not Self-Improvement
Last night I dreamed that I resented a workshop participant for talking when I was talking. I saw and heard her voice as she turned to her neighbour and started discussing something that I had just said, and without a moment’s hesitation I shouted “I resent you for talking right now!”. Immediately her face changed into what I imagine was an expression of shock, her eyes went wide and she started to say “I’m sorry, I was just…” and I said loudly that I resented for saying ‘sorry’ and ‘I was just…’ and then added the noticing that my face was hot and that I felt tightness in my chest. She turned her body a little to face me and looked at me, and I appreciated that. I had a story that she had not been listening to me and made myself angry about that, expressed the anger to her directly and, in expressing it, got over it.
I had other stories that went along with that one of course, about how it was ‘rude’ to speak when I was speaking, and also had some other words in reserve to strengthen my case - disrespectful, selfish, egotistical - all really great evidence to prove that I was justified for resenting her, along with the fact that I was the workshop co-leader and as such deserved some goddamned respect!
Yep, all in all I imagined I was on pretty safe ground reporting just how angry with her I was, and with that particularly smug and self-righteous thought - I woke up and started to laugh at myself.
When you search for the book ‘Radical Honesty’ on websites and in bookstores, it is very often to be found in what is known as the “self-improvement” section, and yet I am here today to tell you that being ‘radically honest’ is absolutely NOT a method of self-improvement, and what’s more that believing that is the best possible way to ensure that you completely fail at being radically honest.
One of the ways we often avoid expressing anger to someone we’re angry at is to tell ourselves that we have no ‘right’ to be mad at them. We have a story that, in order to get mad at someone, we must also have a valid reason, making sure that when we say what we want to say - “I’m so angry at you for never cleaning the toilet!!” - we have a nice big pile of evidence to stand on top of and feel safely and fully justified in our righteous tirade. And - speaking as someone who’s been part of the RH community now for almost five years - one of the most effective ways of adding weight to that conviction is by telling myself that - as a truly honest person - I am already automatically just a little bit better than you.
Unfortunately for me, this pretty much guarantees that - partially stuck in my head with my judgements - I won’t experience the full experience of being angry with you, and will be unable to get over it.
People who sign up for RH workshops normally say they’ve done so because they want to improve themselves. They have a story that they are unhappy or deeply lonely, that their life is full of irritations or is dull and meaningless, or that their relationships are shallow and unfulfilling, and they suspect that most of that is because they are deceptive withholding cowards who can’t say how they really feel. That may very well be true - learning how to be honest will very likely improve all of those areas of their lives - and I imagine that the fervent belief that this will has made them a ‘better person’ is likely to isolate them from the very people they want to be connect with.
When I started work with one couple earlier this year, one of the most common objections I heard from both of them to being honest was the judgement that a lot of what annoyed them about the other person was just ‘too petty’ to bring up. And I told them the same thing I tell all my clients when I start to encourage them to notice and express their anger: ‘Petty is what we’re aiming for here! Petty is good!’ The wonderful thing about pettiness, I tell them, is that we cannot so easily gather evidence and inhabit a moral high ground with a petty resentment. In our judgement we have no real ‘right’ to be angry, and without our mountain of conviction and evidence to stand on we may go red in the face, we may get hot, we may stammer a little, flap our hands, stamp our feet and yell even louder than usual (maybe to add weight to our flimsy petty objections) and the before we know it - BAM! - we’re slap bang in the middle of a full-body experience of anger.
And that, I tell them, is something we can actually work on getting over.
When I’m angry with you and moralising about the reasons, I moderate and control my voice. I make sure to hold my body in a firm, non-submissive way so you’re in no doubt who’s in the right. I might even fold my arms, put my hands on my hips or wag my head a little, all things I imagine will help me look like I am absolutely positive in my unshakeable moral conviction that I am right. If my goal in expressing my resentment is simply to make you wrong and me right, I have not only missed out on the experience of anger, I have also missed a chance to truly connect.
Radical Honesty is a method of revealing ourselves, our true selves, to the world, and the fact is that - whether we want to believe it or not - our true self is very often a petty judgemental asshole. Learning to be truly honest means embracing our petty judgemental lying nature and - in that acceptance - feeling our way towards more readily accepting others. Not because it’s ‘right' or makes us into a better person, just because it genuinely feels better, both in our bodies and minds and in the quality of connections we make with other people.
For this reason, I prefer to think of Radical Honesty as ‘Life Improvement’ rather than ‘Self Improvement’. Perhaps I’ll suggest that they build a special, new, slightly-elevated section of the bookstore (that requires selective membership), just for us ;)