Weighing Risks

Honesty may be the best policy but has its costs.

Ahron Friedberg, M.D.

Let’s think about truth. It doesn’t belong to you or to anyone. So, it’s hard to control. Its consequences are hard to predict.

Truth, by its nature, is unconfined. Once it gets out, it can start a lot of trouble. It’s not like those carefully crafted fictions, where you know that people live happily ever after. In the realm of truth, maybe they’ll be happy, but only maybe. Truth offers no assurances.

In any case, it’s not up to you to decide. You tell the truth; you take a chance. So, it’s sometimes hard to be truthful—you just don’t (can’t) know the effect or whether you’ll regret your candor once you do know its effect.

Wrestling with what to disclose and when can be torturous. “I want to be honest . . . but I have to weigh the risks. I can’t just be naïve.”

Of course, in weighing the risks, there’s also the collateral question: “What if I don’t tell the truth? Suppose I’m just silent?” It’s a gray area.

In some situations, withholding the truth can be tantamount to lying. It’s one thing not to tell someone that they’ve gained weight, but quite another to fail to disclose information that could influence an important decision—especially concerning oneself. If you’re found out (“Why didn’t you tell me when you had the chance?”), the person who was misled may make judgments about your whole character, not just about the import of the fact that you withheld.

Thus, when all you want is some peace, you may find yourself trapped in a fix of damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t. In the end, you have to weigh a lot of variables: What is my tolerance for uncertainty, which telling the truth entails? What’s the worst that could happen? What if I get caught withholding vital information?

There is no default position. You have to decide and then prepare to accept whatever happens. Sometimes, the worst part is just waiting to see what happens, in which case, “Maybe I’ll just get it over with” is a viable option.

But it’s not always so viable. Whether you tell the truth or not, there may be a period of dread. “What are they going to think of me?” It can be excruciating.

Take, for example, my patient Mr. Lauren, a lawyer in his mid-40s. He sought my help a few months ago after getting tangled up in a messy conflict at his firm. When he’d failed to resolve the situation, he left to find another position.

Understandably, he was concerned about the consequences of disclosing his prior difficulty to a potential new employer. He had not been entirely blameless. But after we’d talked for a while, he decided to explain what had happened. So, he did. Apparently, this new firm was impressed, and they hired him.

However, does Mr. Lauren’s success vindicate the notion of always being upfront? Of course not. Mr. Lauren is a lawyer. He knows how to present his case. He explained the conflict at his old firm so that his actions made sense within the culture of that firm—even if, as he acknowledged, he shouldered some of the blame. “They were very hierarchical, and I’m creative. I hate just falling into line when the line leaves no room for novel approaches.”

Telling the truth does not preclude effective presentation. That is, while Lauren admitted that he had not entirely played by the rules, he couched his behavior in terms of taking the initiative. To some employers—maybe those scrappy, smaller firms—his attitude would be a selling point. But not to every firm. Mr. Lauren made some inquiries. He knew when and how to tell the truth.

Instinctively, he applied Emily Dickinson’s prescription: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant--/Success in Circuit lies.” For Dickinson, telling all the truth at once and directly could cause a kind of cognitive disorder: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.” There’s nothing wrong with sizing up your situation—and your listener.

In trying to recover his professional footing, Mr. Lauren took a measured risk. He told the truth, but intelligently—strategically. I would argue that happiness or, rather, its pursuit involves adopting a suitable strategy. You have to know what you’re doing. Happiness does not come cheap. Or easy. Pursuing happiness is work.

Had Mr. Lauren found himself interviewing at a firm that was as hidebound and hierarchical as his prior one, he might have been more reticent. Or maybe he would have adopted a different strategy altogether. What matters is that in pursuing some outcome that will make us happy (or, at least, happier), we need to take into account the factors that will influence the pursuit: Who are the people that I’m dealing with? How can I connect with their own concerns? Do I have the personal resources to carry out my strategy and even change it if I sense that I’m not succeeding?

Mr. Lauren told me, after he accepted the new firm’s offer, that he’d watched his interviewer carefully (“I knew what I wanted to say, but I was always prepared to tone it down”). Strategies evolve. They’re processes, as are pursuits.

As we pursue happiness, therefore, it’s incorrect to assume that we’ll simply follow a strategy, as if it were fixed—set in stone in advance. We keep learning as the pursuit unfolds, and we adjust how we act accordingly.

The first challenge that Mr. Lauren had to overcome was his own very personal inhibitions. Reflexively, he resisted forthrightness with anyone because, perversely, he identified with his mother’s bobbing and weaving and often not telling the truth. Even in mundane situations, where honesty would have been just as easy as some ridiculous lie, she would opt for the lie.

He recalled how she would contrive stories about why, for example, he was late for soccer practice with some of his classmates. Rather than just say, “Oh, I couldn’t find my keys,” she’d cock up some story about how she was volunteering at a local food bank when a last-minute rush of helping people messed up her schedule—or she would blame him. During such instances, Mr. Lauren was embarrassed—did anyone believe such stuff?—but he was also impressed by the kind of personal assurance that allowed her to glide past the truth without a flutter of apparent concern. He thought he’d like to cultivate a similar demeanor.

It wasn’t an easy decision, however. He experienced intense inner conflicts when his mother, for no good reason (other than personal caprice), would make him the butt of her little lies and excuses. Sometimes if they were late, she’d say, “My son was dawdling all morning”; if he failed to bring a present to a birthday party, she’d announce, “He forgot it at home.”

He resented his mother when she said these things . . . but she’d just dismiss it. She seemed impervious to rebuke. He identified with her and, at times, took on a similar indifference. Through charm, and what he called “creativity,” he did—at least until professional standards of integrity began to make him think twice. That is, lawyers are not supposed to lie; their backgrounds are carefully vetted by potential employers and, indeed, bar associations.

Mr. Lauren had to shape up. He had to jettison a default sense of dissembling that now was bound to hurt him. As he understood his situation, it demanded real change. If formerly his dishonesty might have raised eyebrows, then now, in the world of The Law, it could be seen as a disability—an instinct for living disingenuously.

So, Mr. Lauren’s decision to be candid with his new employer had a complex personal backstory, apart from any strategy that he finally devised regarding how to present his departure from the previous firm. In fact, when you come down to it, most important decisions are inflected both by expedience (what you need to do right now) and by personal experiences that shape us over many years. In pursuing happiness, we must attend to each of these vectors, which can (as in Mr. Lauren’s case) pull in opposite directions.

It’s not easy. It may require a change, of course, that feels radical, sudden, and likely to diminish our happiness in the short run (after all, Mr. Lauren liked living on the edge). We have to balance the long and the short term. We have to grow up.

In pursuing happiness, we stake out a series of markers: Because I did this, I did that. At some point, we’ll look back and be edified by our progress. Part of happiness is knowing that we’re on the right track.

About The Author

Ahron Friedberg, M.D., is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, New York, and served twice as President of the American Society of Psychoanalytic Physicians. He is Editor of American Academy of Psychodynamic Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis Forum, Book Editor of Psychodynamic Psychiatry.

Essential Reading

Psychotherapy and Personal Change: Two Minds in a Mirror by Ahron Friedberg, M.D.


Psychology T-Shirts on Amazon
Psychology Gifts on Amazon

Know someone who would enjoy reading this article? 

Share this page with them.

Back To The Top Of The Page

Go To The Home Page