Silence and Soliloquy: the tightrope of self-disclosure

“My offence is that I have not kept silent upon the lessons I have learned from life.”

 Plato, The Apology of Socrates

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Much of early psychodynamic theory was founded upon the principle of the therapist acting as a tabula rasa or ‘blank slate’, allowing the client to project feelings and transfer early childhood relationships onto the analyst.  Freud suggested that the physician should be “impenetrable to the client, and, like a mirror, reflect nothing but what is shown to him.”  In psychoanalysis, this then allows the therapist to identify and interpret the client’s patterns of relating and unconscious feelings and motivations, bringing these into the client’s awareness without the process being interrupted by the therapist’s own self.  But to what degree is such a removal of self desirable, or even possible, in the modern therapeutic relationship?

It is widely acknowledged that particular types of disclosure within the therapy session, such as revealing immediate ‘here and now’ feelings, are not only beneficial to the therapeutic relationship, but actually constitute a fundamental aspect of it (Yalom 2003, Mearns & Cooper 2005).  By disclosing relevant thoughts, feelings and processes, the therapist becomes transparent to the client, and it is possible for the client to see the therapist as a real human being, experiencing the moment alongside them.  This can be done, for example, by sharing hunches about material that the client may be minimizing, or by expressing deeper, empathetic feelings that the counsellor may be experiencing during the session.

However, the situation becomes less clear when the disclosure is of a personal nature extending beyond the ‘here and now’ moment of the therapeutic encounter.  To what extent is it appropriate for a counsellor to share some of their personal experiences with the client?  Should this be encouraged if the experiences are similar to those of the client for the purposes of helping the client feel understood, or discouraged so as not to blur the lines between the client’s processing, and that of the therapist?  Does self-disclosure help to minimize the inherent power imbalance in a therapeutic relationship, where one member is expected to reveal all, whilst the other gives little beyond their immediate response?  Is there something inherently avoidant – or even damaging – in talking about one’s own experiences at the moment a client is most vulnerable, or is failing to disclose a relevant experience, attitude or perspective the ultimate act of incongruence?

Arguably, self-disclosure takes place on many levels before the session even begins.  Our choice of email address, the pictures we display of ourselves on counselling directories, the quality of our written communication about ourselves, our preferred method of contact with a client, all give away subtle clues about us before we’ve even started.  Our choice of words during the initial phone call, our first greeting, our accent, the way we are dressed, the location of our practice, whether or not we wear a wedding ring or other jewellery, can all throw off clues about our identity outside the therapy room.  And that is before our clients have typed our names or email addresses into Google.

Some claim that inappropriate self-disclosure shifts the focus of attention in a session away from the client, perhaps as a result of the therapist’s own unconscious desire to avoid particular topics, or as a result of an unspoken collusion between client and therapist to avoid certain difficult areas.  As I was touching upon the topic of my omnipresent death anxiety with an old therapist, he stopped me and used the next few minutes to search for his favourite book, before reading me a passage on death that accorded entirely with his own views and had little relevance to anything I had been talking about.  I used the time to move away from my own uncomfortable feelings, plastered an accommodating smile on my face, and resolved to be less compliant with my next therapist (and there are a few sessions’ worth of material on that!).  When I started to explore my feelings around the impact of congruence and directness on others, he launched into a story about his relationship with his sister.  Such interruptions jarred me from the layers of feeling I felt I was starting to explore, and did little to contribute to the relationship between us.

On the other hand, the tendency to avoid self-disclosure could attach implications of unprofessionalism and shame to areas of our lives that are somehow deemed inappropriate to share with other autonomous adults.  If we are to encourage clients to become congruent self-actualizers, accepting themselves and living by their own internal conditions of worth, then we also have a responsibility as therapists to model this.  If a gay male therapist feels that it is inappropriate to disclose his sexuality to his gay male client, or an abuse survivor feels he cannot disclose this fact to a client struggling to come to terms with their own history of abuse, then aren’t we on some level perpetuating the idea that certain facets of our identity or experience are too shameful or unacceptable to be revealed to the world?  If a female therapist must avoid revealing to all via the medium of Facebook that she sometimes goes out wearing leather hot pants, are we not perpetuating the myth that women’s bodies or sexuality are shameful and should be hidden?  If we are asking clients to prize their authenticity and inner truth in the face of a world that might be uncomfortable with some aspects of who they are, do we then need to consider the ways in which we can display our authentic selves to the outside world, standing strong in the face of judgement and convention?

The balance, it seems, is tricky.  On the one hand, we as therapists want to build an open, trusting relationship with our clients, where they are able to fully explore themselves in the relationship with us.  We do not want information about our lives, beliefs, feelings and politics to enter the therapy room, particularly when we have learnt to set these aside and phenomenologically enter into the client’s experience as much as possible.  On the other hand, being comfortable with and accepting of ourselves – our bodies, our sexuality, our relationship choices, our lifestyles, our histories, the experiences we cannot change, the choices we have made – enables us to act as strong and congruent role models, embodying the very things we desire from our clients.

Perhaps, as with many aspects of the therapeutic relationship, we should avoid absolutes.  Social media platforms can be a way for some therapists to stand proud, celebrating who they are even if their identity is in some way unconventional or controversial.  They may then attract clients that benefit from the presence of an individual who lives authentically and who has overcome challenges in a similar vein to those the client themselves may face (e.g. homophobia, or shaming attitudes towards sex workers, or many other examples).  On the other hand, some therapists may feel more able to psychologically ‘hold’ their clients within the boundaries of a relationship where therapist self-disclosure is minimal.

Some key points of enquiry could be these:

What are my motivations for disclosing a particular piece of information about myself to a client?

Is the disclosure likely to help, or to hinder them?  (and by ‘help’, am I really just ‘rescuing’, or ‘helping myself to overcome my insecurities about my counselling skills by showing them I understand them through sharing my own experience’, or ‘helping me to avoid awkward silences, having to tell the client ‘no’, or having to sit in the uncomfortable unknown of someone else’s difficult feeling’?)

If I self-disclose something significant about myself, via social media, in person or other platforms (such as therapists on directories with experience in the areas they are working in, e.g. LGBTQI+, drug and alcohol services, etc.), how will I manage the impact of this on client relationships?

To what extent am I secure enough in my identities and experiences to deal with any potential confrontations, questions or fall outs in relation to my disclosure?

To what extent does disclosure change the boundaries of the relationship I have established at the beginning of my work with this client?

To what extent is self-disclosure just me satisfying my own needs?

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Katie Hopkins and the Empathy Void

“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

– Milan Kundera

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Recent controversial comments by Katie Hopkins, in which she (amongst other things) labels migrants as ‘a plague of feral humans’, reflect what we could perceive to be a wider social problem: a lack of empathy.  Therapists and trainees know that the capacity to really understand how someone else feels, to see the world from their perspective, without analysis or judgement, is a deceptively challenging skill to acquire.

Empathy requires us to set aside our own feelings, opinions, and experiences, in order to be in the experience of another, as much as we possibly can.  It necessitates becoming aware of one’s own thoughts, feelings and ‘stuff’, recognising it, and setting it aside to facilitate seeing through the eyes of the other.  Of course, the extent to which this can ever truly be achieved is debatable; we unconsciously bring our experiences, beliefs and prejudices to every interaction and every relationship, and increasing one’s awareness of these is a lifelong process.

The advantages of empathic understanding for therapists are clear: it helps us to create a space in which clients can really explore who they are, without fear of judgement, without having to hide parts of themselves that they may be been told are unacceptable.  It allows clients to truly be seen, to be heard, to be felt.  It enables us to reflect back to them the parts of themselves that they may not be able to recognise; the parts that others are too afraid of, too intimidated by, too jealous of.  It helps them to grow.

In a broader sense, empathy enables all of us to recognise the deeper humanity that we all share.  It requires us to be vulnerable; to expose ourselves to the difficult facts of our existence: that we all have the capacity to suffer, that many of the advantages we enjoy in life are a result of arbitrary factors over which we have little or no control, that we could just as easily be worse off than we are now.  Empathy necessitates that we open ourselves to the joys and suffering of other people who could be us, if our circumstances were only marginally different.

Lee Ross’ concept of the fundamental attribution error highlights our tendency to over-attribute the behaviours of others to internal factors such as personality (e.g., ‘people on benefits are too lazy to get jobs’), whilst we over-emphasise the role of external factors, such as situation, in our own behaviours (e.g., ‘I depend upon state support because I was made redundant due to company cut backs’).  Melvin Lerner (1977) suggested that this phenomena plays into our desire to believe that we live in a just and fair world, in which we all get what we deserve.  The act of confronting the hard facts of reality – that people are often a victim of their circumstances and that personality factors do not just suddenly ‘appear’ in isolation – is so challenging to us, that we prefer to turn to the security of the ‘just world’ phenomenon.  Blaming the internal dispositions of others, and believing that they are ‘different’ from us in some fundamental way, helps us to maintain the illusion that we are somehow safe from the unfortunate conditions of their lives.

Empathy requires that we drop this illusion.  It requires us to confront the facts of our own existence – that we could just as easily be victims of tragic circumstances, of fear, of abuse, of oppression, of poverty, starvation, deprivation, lack of self-belief, pain, destruction, suffering.  Empathy means that we open ourselves to the ways in which we cause suffering in others, the ways in which our lifestyles can be fundamentally detrimental to other people in other places, and the terrifying fact that there is very little that rests between us and those that we hate or blame for the world’s problems.  It is little wonder that the likes of Hopkins are too petrified to open themselves up to other ways of seeing the world, when empathy requires the sacrifice of the illusion of personal safety.  With that, at least, I can empathise.

The Problem With Gender

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“People are just as wonderful as sunsets, if you let them be.  When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, “soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.”  I don’t try to control a sunset.  I watch with awe as it unfolds.”

– Carl Rogers

Whatever thoughts and ideas spring to mind when you consider the terms ‘woman’ and ‘man’ in general, these same thoughts and ideas are the ones that you deposit with a person when you judge them to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’.  Whatever associations you have concerning ideas of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’, these will be the same associations you make when you identify someone as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.  Rather than accepting the person as they are, you take a wide range of assumptions, beliefs and concepts, often which you have unconsciously internalised from your upbringing or society with no critical scrutiny, and dump them at the feet of another.  This is the problem with gender.

If we buy into the idea that there are certain traits or characteristics that are associated with a particular gender, then we run the serious risk of believing that we can understand or make judgements about a person, before we actually know anything at all about them.  This is a fundamental and dangerous error.  There is huge controversy surrounding studies which seem to suggest innate neurological differences between male and female brains, with claims of neurosexism from researchers such as Dr Cordelia Fine.  Dr Fine identifies ways in which our environment and experiences change our neurobiology, such that neurological gender differences can clearly be attributed to the different ways we treat male and female children from pre-birth onwards.  In short, if your brain changes in response to ways of thinking and behaving that have been nurtured and rewarded throughout your life, then it should be of no surprise to anyone that male and female brains are different, given the different social expectations and standards we have for the sexes.

There are also serious problems with gender-based assumptions which bear some relation to David Hume’s ‘is-ought’ problem.  Hume identified that we cannot move from a factual statement about the world, to a claim about how they world ‘should’ be.  When applied to gender, even if (a huge ‘if’) we were to accept unquestioningly that there were innate gender differences, this still cannot tell us anything about the individuals in front of us.  The fact that many females can, for example, have children, does not indicate that they should, nor that they will.  The fact that many males have been socialised not to talk about their emotional problems does not mean that this should be the case, nor that it will be the case for the male we have sitting in front of us, in whatever context.  General statistical trends cannot be applied to any one individual we encounter, as any individual may be an outlier.

It is also clear that there is a fundamental difference between a person’s gender identity, and their biological sex.  Unless you have some direct interest in a person’s genitals, such as being their doctor or involving yourself in a sexual relationship with them, their genitalia are of no relevance to you.  It is simply not possible to predict anything about the person in front of you based on what is in their underwear.  Similarly, cases of gender dysphoria illustrate that whilst one’s biological sex may be a fact that one is born into, our own individual sense of gender is a different case altogether.

To impose our own assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman, and, indeed, to assume that gender is limited to these two binaries at all, can have dire consequences.  When presupposing that we can know anything about a person by their sex, we limit ourselves in our attempt to connect with who they really are.  It is their own understanding of themselves and their respective capacities and potentials that are the relevant considerations.  Only by becoming more aware of the assumptions and stereotypes we ourselves possess when it comes to gender, can we set these aside to accept the person for who they actually are.  Only when we let go of the idea of what a perfect sunset ‘should’ look like, can we really accept the beauty of the sunset that we see before us.

The Paradox of Infidelity

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“One is unavoidably faithful to the dead body growing inside one.”

– Adam Phillips

The concept of infidelity depends upon the assumption that it is possible for us to be faithful to anyone or anything at all.  The idea of faithfulness itself is tricky, carrying with it implications of duty, adherence to a set of rules, being true to one’s word and consistent in aspects of one’s behaviour in relation to specific commitments.  The etymology of the word fidelity seems to imply that it did not relate primarily to one’s conduct within a romantic relationship, but instead applied to the relationship a person had with God.  Remaining faithful historically had little to do with sexual commitment to one’s partner, and more to do with spiritual commitment to the divine and the word of one’s religion.

The philosopher Kierkegaard suggested that there is a relationship between our sense of meaning and purpose and our willingness to take a ‘leap of faith’ and commit to belief in a God, which reason cannot lead us to.  For Kierkegaard, commitment to an aesthetic way of being, where we focus on ourselves and satisfaction of our our own pleasures, will always be hollow as it dooms us to live in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction, constantly pursuing our next fleeting moment of pleasure.  Even the ethical mode of existence (in which we commit ourselves to the humanitarian enterprise of meeting the needs of others) remains unsatisfactory, as dedication to such a way of life leads us to negate our needs as individuals.  Accordingly, Kierkegaard proposed that it is only in the religious mode of existence, where we commit to something greater than ourselves and outside ourselves, that we can have a sense of personal satisfaction, whilst clinging onto the idea that we are part of something more meaningful than anything we could achieve individually.

It seems that, in increasingly secular societies, the role of the faithful couple has replaced the role of God in allowing us to take a ‘leap of faith’ and commit ourselves to an enterprise that often has little basis in reason.  We enter into romantic relationships on the basis of desire and love, taking a ‘leap of faith’  on the foundations of our emotional and physiological responses to entwine our lives with that of another.  The construct of the couple allows us to commit ourselves to something that is greater than what we have as individuals, whilst at the same time affording us the opportunity to pursue our own ends to some degree.  Commitment to the couple dictates that we must change our lives and our behaviour, adhering to a set of rules (explicit or implicit) about how we must act in relation to our beloved, and how we must not act in relation to others.  It usually necessitates an element of asceticism, not for the attainment of spiritual goals, but for the maintenance of the relationship.

Humanist philosopher Piers Benn identifies that the purpose of commitment involves the recognition that the act of committing in itself gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, which is fundamental to an emotionally healthy existence.  It may be that the specifics of our commitment do not always benefit us in the short term, but it is the act of committing itself that affords us access to a sense of meaning and belonging that we otherwise lack.  Our fidelity paradoxically becomes less about our commitment to another person, and more about our commitment to achieving a sense of meaning and purpose by dedicating ourselves to something other than ourselves.  It is the selfish act of selflessness.

How, then, are we to reconcile our fidelity to ourselves with our fidelity to our commitments to others?  Is it ever possible to remain totally faithful to ourselves and the freedom that lies at the centre of our existence, if part of our commitment to our own sense of meaning necessitates that we commit to others?  What happens when we’re faithful to them to be faithful to ourselves, except that being faithful to ourselves doesn’t always mean being faithful to them?  What must we sacrifice in order to contain this paradox?

The Limits of Freedom

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

– Jean-Paul Sartre

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In my Philosophy class, I introduce the topic of free will to students by giving them a choice.  I present them with two canned drinks (Pepsi and Coca Cola), and a bottle of water.  I ask them to choose which drink they would like; a heated debate regarding which cola version is superior to the other usually ensues.  Then I ask them to consider:  what factors led you to making the decision you did?  I usually receive a range of answers about previous experience of, or associations with, each brand.  Occasionally, a student points out that as their teacher, I have limited their choice by only giving them three real options, and telling them to make a decision.  I question whether this has really placed a limit upon their freedom to choose, or simply influenced the outcome of their choice, and explore whether there is a difference between the two.  I then ask them to consider: to what extent were you totally free to make a choice regarding which drink you would like?  If you could go back and make the decision again, would you be able to choose differently?  Would you?

Philosophically speaking, there are two significant schools of thought regarding the issue of freedom.  Libertarians such as Sartre believed that people are entirely free to do as they choose, whilst accepting that the consequences of our actions are entirely our own responsibility.  Freedom then becomes both our biggest gift and most burdensome curse – we are entirely free to do as we will, but we can only blame ourselves for our circumstances and the outcomes of our choices.

For Sartre, it is true that there are some things about ourselves we cannot change, and he calls this our facticity.  For example, I cannot change who my parents are, or where I was born.  However, Sartre does not see these factors as limitations of our freedom.  This is because, as creatures with imagination and creativity, we always have the ability to imagine ourselves as different from the person we currently are.  We can choose how to react to the things we can’t change about ourselves – I cannot change where I was born, but I can choose if I tell people proudly, or hide it, if I spend my life there, or never visit again.  I can choose to fall into the stereotype of people that were born in my particular area, or I can reject that entirely.  I do not have to be determined by the things I cannot control.  Existential psychotherapy then takes this principle to help clients to consider what stories they tell themselves about their past, and how these can be re-examined in such a way that allows us to take responsibility for ourselves.  This means that, rather than attributing blame for our circumstances to others (and in the process handing over our power to change ourselves to them) we come to see ourselves as the architects of our own destiny.

Determinist philosophers see things very differently.  Behaviourists such as B.F. Skinner suggested that all behaviour is determined by environmental factors, and that freedom is an illusion arising from our lack of awareness concerning how we are manipulated by our environment.  He demonstrated this extensively in his studies with animals, using processes of conditioning to modify the behaviours of rats and pigeons.  Cognitive behavioural therapists then use this idea to help us to explore how we can ‘re-condition’ ourselves in relation to our environment.  If being in a crowded place makes us anxious, we can examine what thoughts and physiological associations with have with crowded places, begin to question these and, over time, train ourselves to react differently by replacing old behaviours and cognitions with new ones.

The waters are muddied somewhat with the difficulty of understanding the nature of the human mind and thought.  Scientific materialism would suggest that all effects have causes, and that any brain activity must have a physical cause, rather than spontaneously arising from nothing.  If we accept the idea of mind-brain identity (that is, the idea that your mind and your brain are the same thing and consciousness is identical to brain activity) then research suggests that our brains actually make decisions before our conscious mind is even aware of them.  Coupled with the fact that idea of wave-particle duality seems to demonstrate that particles on the sub-atomic level behave randomly and unpredictably, but also change when they are observed, it seems that we have a long way to wade through the quagmire before we reach a concrete conclusion about the nature or existence of freedom.

Whichever philosophical model of freedom one accepts, it seems that the idea of personal choice and empowerment are crucial in giving us a sense of control over our lives, which is a fundamental aspect of the therapeutic process.  Even if we accept a deterministic perspective of human nature, understanding the ways in which we have been conditioned to respond to our environment, or the ways in which our genes or biology may influence us, may be crucial in allowing us to let go of old patterns of relating and behaving (even if this ‘letting go’ is itself determined by its antecedent causes!).  Until we understand the nature of consciousness, there may be no firm answer to the problem of free will.  Perhaps however, we have a choice as to whether to take active control of the things we feel responsible for, or to simply surrender to the things that feel inevitable.  And perhaps there is no real choice at all.

Love and Desire: why we want what we can’t have, and have what we can’t want

“What is it about transgression that makes desire so potent?”

Esther Perel

What is the experience of desire? Longing, wanting and fantasizing all seem to revolve around a necessary absence of the object of our desire; there must be something lacking in order for us to really feel the desire for whatever ‘it’ is. When we’ve been stuck in the house for days with flu we find ourselves fantasizing about the health that we fail to notice in our daily lives; when we’re feeling healthy, our desire cannot be for health itself, which we already possess, but the continuation of health into our future, which remains uncertain. We never really desire what we already have, because desire can only truly be felt in the presence of absence.

Plato was one of the first philosophers to identify the fundamental difference between love and desire in his exploration of the nature of love in ‘Symposium’. Whilst desire is ‘of something that is non-existent’ to us, he suggests that love is of eternal goodness and beauty, which manifests itself in our ability to see beauty and goodness as qualities in those around us. Whilst the nature of desire is a focus on possession of something we do not have, love is an acknowledgement and appreciation of the fundamental characteristics of those we love, or of the world around us. Desire is something we do, whilst love simply is of what is.

In ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’, existential philosopher Simone de Beauvior characterizes desire as a driving force of human nature. Desire bestows human existence with value as we strive to achieve our goals and to attain that which we lack. However, it is not the satisfaction of our desire that gives life value; instead, the pleasure of desire lies in the perpetual pursuit of those ends. As soon as we get what we want we must, by necessity, want something else. This is the fundamental essence of our nature, as well as a source of constant tension in our lives. Contrary to Buddhist principles, existential philosophy suggests that to be entirely satisfied with what we have would be to deny the very thing that makes us human.

How, then, do we reconcile the relationship between love and desire in our lives? Many of us live with the illusion that what we want is attainable, but somehow always just beyond our grasp: my job would be perfect if only I had a different manager; my relationship would be perfect if only my partner were a little more understanding; my life would be perfect if only I had a little more money; I’d feel better about myself if only my body were a little different. When we get what we want we may love it, but satisfaction signifies the death of desire, and it becomes impossible to really appreciate what is there when there is no space between I and It. Indeed, desire often acts as a projection of the things we think we want, which will necessarily change depending upon what we have.

If de Beauvior is correct in identifying desire as the driving force of our existence, then one possible solution to this paradox may lie in the attempt to maintain distance between an element of ourselves and the object of our love, in order to create renewed desire for it. We can feel safe in the familiarity of a job we love, whilst identifying new ways to change and grow within our roles that enable us to both love and find elements of desire in what we are doing. We can feel connected and known in the intimacy of our romantic relationships, whilst maintaining an appreciation of the separate life of the mind of our partners; the mystery of their experiences and thoughts that exist outside of our love for one another. Rather than desiring anything as a solution to everything, we can experience the love for what we already have, whilst cultivating desire for that which we have yet to attain. If we can accept the fundamental truth that we can never fully possess anything we desire, then perhaps there is hope still in the attempt to desire what we already love.

The Art of Honesty

“When my love swears that she is made of truth, 

I do believe her, though I know she lies…

So I lie with her, and she with me,

And in our faults by lies we flattered be.”

– William Shakespeare

The concept of congruence, a harmony between our inner feelings and our outer behaviour, is paramount in the counselling world. This kind of honesty is seen as both a quality that an effective therapist must possess, as well as an outcome of therapy for the client themselves. Philosophically, however, there are many difficulties with the idea of honesty, and perhaps more when it comes to putting it into practice. What does it take to be honest? How much am I obligated to reveal to others? Is honesty ever actually possible, and, if so, what does it involve?

The philosopher Plato saw honesty as a facet of justice, which he defined as ‘minding your own business.’ As far as Plato was concerned, we should only concern ourselves with things that are truly our responsibility. If I am trained in Philosophy, it would not be ‘my business’ to attempt to perform your kidney transplant, and doing so will only leave you with a mangled kidney and a lot of nonsensical knowledge of Nitezsche (i.e. not the best possible outcome). Honesty, therefore, involves a degree of self-awareness, as in order to live honesty, I must know what does and doesn’t fall into the remit of my responsibility, and live accordingly.

There are, however, problems with this kind of understanding of the nature of honesty. Firstly, it is based on the assumption that there is a truth to be known about what ‘my business’ is, and that I can attain knowledge of this truth.   It also assumes that the identity of the individual is static and unchanging, and that it can be known. This is perhaps unrepresentative of how we may experience ourselves. It may not always be clear to me what ‘my business’ or responsibility actually is if I have no clear idea of what it is that I am good at, what my personal qualities are, or where my energies should be directed. It seems in life that we are often caught in dilemmas between various aspects of minding ‘our business’ – the tension between being the best we can at work and giving enough time and energy to our romantic relationships; pursuing self-development in conflict with being an attentive family member; spending our time doing something that relaxes and de-stresses us versus spending our time on something that in some way contributes to the society in which we live. It becomes almost impossible to act honestly when the things that we have responsibility for conflict with one another, and indeed when various aspects of our selves contradict one another.

It is also unclear as to what the demands of honesty are, in relation to truth. When your work colleagues ask you what you did at the weekend and the answer is that you went to a sex party, are you obligated to tell them? Does honesty involve recalling every second of what you did at the weekend, or are you entitled to be selective about the information that you give them? Indeed, isn’t being selective expected?  It seems then that honesty may have less to do with attempting to reveal the objective truth of a situation, and more to do with context-sensitivity and self-understanding.  Indeed, when you encounter someone who manages to achieve total honesty towards everyone they meet regarding every area of their lives, it is likely that you’ve encountered someone with autism.

It seems then that in order to achieve honesty with others, the implication is that one must first achieve honesty with oneself, and secondly understand how that fits in with one’s context. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential philosophy takes this kind of self honestly, or authenticity, as a basis for living without the denial of the fundamental truths of human existence. For Sartre, to lie to ourselves is to deny the basic truth of humanity – that we are entirely free to choose who we are and what we do, and therefore entirely responsible for everything we are and do. If I live as though who I am is entirely the responsibility of other people, that I am some kind of slave to the external locus of evaluation (in Rogerian terms) or introjects (in Freudian terms) of the behaviours and values of others, then I am denying the truth that I have a choice as to how to live, even if that choice may be a difficult one.

The capacity for honesty then seems to depend upon the degree to which we know ourselves, including an awareness of the ways that we interact with our environment and the Other. Without a firm sense of who we are, we will find ourselves acting upon beliefs and impulses that may feel honest at one time or another, but actually reflect some deeper held (and perhaps) flawed introjected belief about the type of person we should be, or the sort of life we should be living. We can only be honest about our perceptions of the facts of a situation if we fully understand what those perceptions are, and the extent to which they belong to us or have been imposed upon us. Without this understanding, the ‘truth’ that we have as our own and try to express honestly may in fact belong to someone else.

So, what does it take to be honest? How much am I obligated to reveal to others? Is honesty ever actually possible, and, if so, what does it involve?

I honestly can’t give you a straightforward answer.