Honesty is a shared and socially desired value. Most of us consider ourselves honest, but the truth is that very few of us reveal our emotions. On how many occasions have you responded: “I’m fine,” when in reality you were not? How many times have you said “Everything is fine” even though everything was wrong?
The truth is that it takes a lot of courage to express our emotions, especially those that make us feel more vulnerable or those that are not socially well regarded. For that reason, emotional honesty continues to be a pending issue for many people.
What is emotional honesty?
Emotional honesty means being honest about our feelings, it is the ability to express them authentically to others. When our behavior and words are in tune with what we feel, we are being emotionally sincere. It’s that simple, and complicated as well.
Obviously, when we try to hide what we feel we are not being emotionally honest. Emotional honesty is about expressing what we like, but also what we dislike. It is about the expression of our joy, but also our disappointment, sadness or sorrow. And although it seems quite simple, it is much easier said than done because emotional sincerity requires great self-confidence.
Emotional self-censorship, the price of hiding what we feel
A study conducted at New York University revealed that “People are more honest in a state of happiness than in a state of neutrality.” It is a simple truth: it is easier for us to express happiness than sadness because the former is well received while the latter generates discomfort.
In fact, a lack of emotional honesty is usually the result of trying to avoid conflict with others and keep them happy or, at least, avoid the discomfort that is often generated by the expression of emotions such as sadness, envy or contempt. Since childhood we have been taught that it is better not to show certain emotions in public, so we learn to contain them. As a result, we constantly practice emotional self-censorship. We become implacable judges of our feelings.
We control our emotional expression with the secret hope that if we behave as expected, we can earn the approval, affection, and acceptance of the others. However, this emotional self-censorship ends up wearing us down, so it is not unusual for all those repressed emotions to end up coming to light in the worst way.
When we constantly hold back and fake feelings to keep the others happy, we will end up feeling uncomfortable with ourselves, resentful, and angry. It is likely that we end up redirecting that anger or frustration towards ourselves or the people closest to us, who are the ones who usually pay the price. That is not emotional honesty, it is emotional lack of control due to excessive censorship.
Furthermore, by ignoring and repressing our feelings we run the risk of losing contact with our emotional universe. The fake smile hides what is inside, so that we cannot do emotional cleaning, but rather all those feelings accumulate in the unconscious in the form of resentments. This is likely to make us tense, irritable and bitter people without really knowing why.
Emotional sincerity as a way to build relational bridges
Emotional honesty is the glue that keeps us together, the pillar that supports the trust essential for relationships to work and be satisfactory. This level of sincerity allows us to “undress” ourselves emotionally to connect on a deeper level with the other person.
On the other hand, being emotionally dishonest has a high price: getting involved in flat and superficial relationships. When emotions are repressed, they end up slowly eroding the foundation of our relationships. In fact, although we have learned to hide our emotional universe, we still maintain the intuition to detect emotional dishonesty.
Research carried out at Arizona State University found that we perceive people whose emotional reactions are congruent with their positions as more honest and less prejudiced. That means we can perceive emotional honesty and, deep down, we reject dishonesty.
When we express what we feel, we put all our cards on the table. That moment not only has a cathartic power, but also gives others the opportunity to react accordingly and commit to solving the conflicts or problems that shadow the relationship.
Of course, being emotionally honest can cause temporary awkwardness with others. When we are not used to certain emotional expressions, they can generate some tension, but once it is released, sincerity emerges and allows things to be clarified. Ultimately, emotional honesty leads to more authentic, deeper, and satisfying relationships.
On the other hand, we must remember that we often hide our true feelings for fear of being rejected, but masking what we feel can become a dead end, as we will find ourselves trapped in a search for love and acceptance doomed to failure, because if we do not show ourselves as we are, we will not be able to be truly loved and accepted for who we are.
How to be emotionally honest without dying trying?
1. Be honest with yourself
The first step to being more emotionally honest is to be honest with ourselves. Emotional honesty is born from emotional awareness, so we need to recognize that sometimes we feel resentment, anger, rage, disappointment… or that we simply get defensive. We need to get in touch with all those feelings that we have normally been taught to ignore because they are not well regarded.
We need to get in touch with our shadows, as Jung would call them, and accept them without letting them scare us. We have to learn to connect deeply with our emotions and feelings since what is not accepted and understood cannot be expressed assertively.
2. Embrace discomfort
The second step is to learn to be comfortable with moments of discomfort. In a society that censors certain emotional expressions, authentic emotional expressions cause discomfort simply because people do not know how to respond to them.
And it is not only about emotions such as sadness or anger, but even love and affection. In cultures where there is little physical contact, a hug can cause discomfort, for example. However, after the initial moments, most of the time that discomfort disappears due to the push of emotional sincerity as it allows two souls to connect without words.
3. Dare to strip emotionally, even if they judge you
Emotional honesty requires not only being aware of what we feel, but also the willingness to reveal and share what we are experiencing with people we trust. Therefore, the third step is to have the courage to express our feelings, which means risking having those emotions exposed to the judgment of others. It’s risky. No doubt. But it’s worth running the risk for the liberation and connection we receive in return.
In fact, since almost all of us have a tendency to be a little judgmental of the others and ourselves, it is important to cultivate a more tolerant attitude, not only with other people but also to treat ourselves with more compassion and benevolence. Some people may be judgmental of our emotions or may even want to continue to maintain a distant and superficial relationship. That is not a reason to turn back, but to ask ourselves if we really want to have those kinds of relationships in our lives.
Step by step, without pressure
Like any new ability, it can cost a bit to start with. Your protective self is likely to kick in by asking, “What are you doing? You’ve gone mad?”. Old habits take a while to break. At first it may be difficult for you to deal with that discomfort and the feeling of vulnerability. We have to be patient and forgive ourselves for stumbles or relapses. In the end, it is not about doing it well, but about opening your heart.
As we become more emotionally honest, we know ourselves better, as well as the others, as it is likely that our example will also infect them and encourage them to open up. We will discover our wounds, sensitive points and feelings of inadequacy, but we will also rediscover the dreams, hopes and illusions that we had buried alongside our “shadows.” And that is a worthwhile path.
Medai, E. & Noussair, C. N. (2021) Positive Emotion and Honesty. Front. Psychol.; 12: 10.3389.
Danvers, A. F. et. Al. (2018) Emotional Congruence and Judgments of Honesty and Bias. Collabra Psychology; 4(1):40.