honesty courage dishonesty relationships truth therapy counseling lincoln stoller

Is Dishonesty a Lack of Courage?

The measure of your truth is determined by how deeply you want to understand.

He hated dishonesty – or lack of courage – more than anything.
Elizabeth Strout, novelist, from Anything Is Possible

Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2024. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Uncertainty, Honesty, and Courage

Creativity is essential to understanding, and courage is essential for creativity. Neither courage nor creativity is well understood, and neither is encouraged beyond a trivial level. As a result, few of us know or have been exposed to much of either.

This ignorance of knowing how to deal with uncertainty is a major cause of our stasis, intolerance, and fragility. Seen from another point of view, our meager skills in being creative or courageous contribute to our anxiety, frustration, lassitude, distress, and poor health. This may seem like an exaggeration, but I don’t think so.

We only learn anything by creating something new. Even seemingly incremental processes are creative because, while small changes may seem simple, they’re not simple when they take you beyond what you know.

The problem isn’t so much getting past your limitations, it’s the risk that comes with doing what might harm you. For example, we should all become better drivers, but that doesn’t mean we should drive more creatively. The benefits of better driving limit creativity.

Consider becoming proficient at playing a piece of music or acting a part. Consider becoming proficient in any repetitive situation. Most likely, the reason you’re in that position in the first place is that you’ve demonstrated some skill. Most things get easier with practice, which is a combination of adding new skills and perfecting old ones.

First, repetitive things become reflexive, meaning we don’t need to think as much. Part of getting better with practice is learning what to pay attention to; how to accomplish more with less effort. You’re not changing the rules, you’re absorbing them. Improving with repetition doesn’t require new courage.

Some skills require no thought at all, like walking or riding a bicycle, while others require focus, like playing an instrument or acting a part. Repetitive things improve by learning to do them automatically. We’re not adding new intentions, we’re performing with greater ease.

Practice makes things easier, it doesn’t make you more skillful. You’ll make fewer mistakes and expend less effort. You’ll speak lines and play music with more fluidity, but you won’t be more graceful or expressive. You will have routinized your actions in a machine-like way. As they say, does 20 years of experience equal 20 years of improvement or 20 years of repetition?

Crisis Equals Opportunity

Mr. Ex had an incredibly happy marriage for 20 years until his wife announced she was leaving him for another man and promptly disappeared. He came to me in dismay, shock, and confusion. What had he done wrong? What didn’t he understand?

Short of his wife’s experiencing a sudden brain dysfunction, which is unlikely, I told him that this could not have been a sudden event. More likely, like an earthquake, there were invisible forces at work which caused a growing strain.

People fit this geological metaphor, and it’s not because people are like rocks—although they are—it’s because they resist change. They resist both changing and seeing the need for change.

We are habit machines. We dismiss our lack of change with our risible claims to free will. We tell ourselves, “I don’t change because I don’t want to, but I could if I wanted to.” This is a fallacy because the reason you don’t want to change is because you don’t know how. What you know how to do, and what you’re more comfortable doing, is to not change.

You’re only as willing as you are able, and when it comes to what you don’t know, few of us are willing. The “free” part of “free will” is a shibboleth, an amendment that offers comfort but explains nothing. The real question is whether you’re willing to change.

Almost everything you do implies your belief in free will. No one is comfortable feeling they’re being led or misled. We don’t like the idea that we live in a matrix of our own making, but this is what our thought patterns amount to.

You only have free will if you make new choices; if you don’t, then you don’t have it. “Free will is as free will does,” to adapt a phrase from Forrest Gump. The problem with living a happy life is that you will be tempted to bury yourself in it. Things that you avoid challenging become less visible.

Consider not rocking the boat, an idea most of us believe implicitly. We think good things stay good and bad things stay bad whereas, in growing systems, nothing stays still for long. We don’t appreciate that things naturally cycle through good and bad. The boat that we don’t rock will naturally drift off course. Our lives are not boats, they are organic systems. People who don’t rock the boat will be taken by the current.

Mr. Ex’s life was never the perfect life he thought it was, and there was a part of his wife that always knew that, but didn’t want to rock the boat. Neither did he. In fact, he would not have known how to, because we’re not taught how to play a role in our own growth, in other people’s growth, or even to be aware of the need to do so.

I feel I’ve lived in fantasy relationships as much as anyone. Both of my marriages turned to dust like carriages into pumpkins at the stroke of twelve. It seemed like magic and I could not understand it. I’ve maintained my relationships with these Cinderellas, and I’m only starting to understand what magic was involved.

Magical Thinking

Magical thinking gets a bad rap, but in the realms of growth and change, learning is like magic. It has no explanation. Worse than that, it often has no precedent. You might think that someone would teach us the precedents, but in the areas of your ignorance, there is none. Besides, teachers don’t teach knowledge, they teach routines. If they taught courage and creativity, then things might be different, but in that they’re neither trained nor able.

Which is more magical, thinking you understand what you do not, or thinking you can become something you are not? I told Mr. Ex that he lived in a magical world of belief. This is not unusual, and it is not unexpected. Some of us are more vulnerable than others. I suspect it is the need to feel secure that leads us to invest in whatever offers it. The sad thing is that those who offer it but cannot deliver it may want it too.

Mr. Ex said he’s especially sad because he still loves his wife. Of course he does, because he’s never known the real person. He is heartbroken and betrayed, and he cannot get her out of his mind. That’s because she always existed in his mind, and was a fabrication of his mind all along. That’s not a bad thing. We are all responsible for imagining our reality and working to create it. This only becomes a problem when we invest in what’s unreliable.

I consoled Mr. Ex by telling him that I’m sure his wife also still loves him as she has in the past. This is consistent with her leaving him because she never loved him in the way he assumed. What his wife disclosed to him was on a “need to know” basis, and as long as she had no desire to leave, he did not need to know. The question we’re heading toward is whether he had the courage to imagine the weakness of his position. He didn’t want to entertain that idea before. He can’t avoid it now.

honesty courage dishonesty relationships truth therapy counseling lincoln stoller

Wingsuit jumping over Britain.

There is Wisdom Somewhere

Counseling is training in creativity and courage. This makes more sense to me than the idea of therapy. Few counselors provide this, most are psychotherapists. That makes me different, but I should not be. In the future, more counselors will focus on creativity and courage because, without it, therapy is ineffective.

I can’t solve Mr. Ex’s problem. I feel for him. I’ve been there. I’m still there. Part of the problem—both mine and his—is that we can’t believe what we can’t understand. People’s behavior often makes no sense, as it’s self-contradictory, self-defeating, and almost inhumanly maladjusted.

I will blame Mr. Ex’s wife for acting without integrity. As I told him, “people who don’t tell you the truth don’t think you’re worth the truth.” This is small consolation for the realization that deception is a long-term strategy, not a spurious action. As the earthquake analogy implies, both he and his wife chose to be unaware of the other forces at work.

Being deceived does not mean there’s something wrong with you. This idea plagues many victims. They think their sad situation is proof of their guilt, failure, or worthlessness. This is not the case. Just because you have a hand in creating something does not mean you deserve whatever occurs.

Mr. Ex offered his wife a valuable commodity, namely his life. It’s true he did not know how to satisfy all her unspoken needs, but how could he? To do so, he would have needed to unearth all of her attitudes and emotions. Personality elements he did not want to see and likely would discourage if they appeared.

There is no shame in being a victim. Victimhood is your opportunity to see into deeper forces. It’s your opportunity to change and, most likely, you’re the only person who will. You won’t be able to fix the situation any more than you could move the earth back into position, but now you can see the truth. Just as importantly, you recognize those who don’t see the truth.

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. Similarly, the best time for Mr. Ex to have fixed his relationship was when it began. He did not. Instead, he applied the fallacy of linear thinking, which puts forward the following falsehoods:

  1. People express themselves fully and honestly.
  2. The problems we see are the problems we need to address.
  3. Our lives follow a clear path guided by what makes sense and feels good.
  4. We can stop the pendulums of thought, emotion, culture, and family in their oscillations of creation and destruction.
  5. We get more of what we want by supporting it and avoiding what we don’t want.
  6. People express, understand, agree on, and are attracted to the positive.
  7. When people achieve the positive, they will work to maintain it.
  8. Every stable person has one mind and one personality, unless they’re crazy.
  9. Crazy people act crazy, and unreliable people are obviously unreliable.

These are all false because they either make no sense, can’t be explained, or are wishful thinking. The problem is, they’re all laudable ideas that we hope are true and work to encourage. In spite of that, they’re still wrong.

The Illusion of Singularity

We are not single personalities, and we don’t know who we are. I don’t think we can know all of who we are because our mind only works when it has a single personality. People who cannot manage multiple identities manifest as schizophrenic. The solution is not to force a singular self, which didn’t work for Mr. Ex, it’s managing the other selves effectively.

I’m sure Mr. Ex’s wife was honestly happy… until she wasn’t. He probably could have exposed her noncommittal nature sooner if they explored each other’s shadow issues. Had he done this, he would also have found a good deal of psychic need, undeveloped spirituality, and wishful thinking on his own part. These are not flaws, they’re opportunities he overlooked.

Desire is the obstacle of happiness.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

If you want to think creatively, question the structures you see. Be creative and take them apart. This could mean destruction or reform. But for structures with deep foundations, destruction is inaccurate and reform is unlikely.

This brings me to the issue of courage. There are no safe metaphors for courageous change: walking the plank, burning your bridges, sawing off the branch you’re standing on, rocking the boat, and venturing into the unknown all imply a solitary act of exploration. You probably won’t be looking for trouble, but you’ll find it. That has to be expected.

honesty courage dishonesty relationships truth therapy counseling lincoln stoller

Site of impact, Taft Point, Yosemite Valley, CA

Courage is Not Foolishness

There is much to learn in order to explore safely. You have to know whom you can trust, and you have to know how to be trustworthy. Be courageous, not foolish.

Free spirit and free soloist rock climber Dean Potter, 43, died Saturday evening, May 16, when he and a friend, Graham Hunt, 29, attempted a wingsuit BASE jump off of Taft Point in Yosemite Valley… Dean Potter was one of climbing’s most spiritual personalities, doing what felt right rather than what would earn him more money or fame, although he earned the latter in abundance.”
— From “Dean Potter Killed in Wingsuit Accident in Yosemite” at https://www.trailrunnermag.com/people/news/dean-potter-killed-in-wingsuit-accident-in-yosemite/

Much to the consternation of my fellow rock climbers, I disdain high risk behavior. I did enough of it, so I can talk. I don’t think Dean Potter was courageous; he was foolish.

I don’t know about Dean’s spirituality, but he certainly didn’t put a high value on his future. Maybe he was deluded by Eckhart Tolle’s nonsensical idea of living only for “the now.” The Now has zero dimension.

The courageous person is not the one who advances through victory, it’s the person who benefits despite failure. Mr. Ex was foolish. I am foolish. It’s not easy to be courageous, but it can be done.

It’s not a small or shallow thing. Any habit that has the potential to ruin your life has deep roots. You are being asked to change deep neural, psychic, cognitive, family, and environmental patterns. It’s a life project. It will take a long time. Don’t do anything stupid.

The first rule in emergency medicine is to stop the bleeding. The first rule in relationship building is to stop the injury. The first rule in psychotherapy is to stop the deception. But if we are the deception, how do we stop it? It comes down to a combination of courage and creativity.

I think this one rule can help us all: if you’re troubled by a situation that involves people who are not courageous, honest, and creative, then it’s those people who are the problem. If it’s you who are not courageous, honest, and creative, then it’s clear where you need to start.

If you’re wondering whether you’re creative or courageous, I’d like to hear about it.
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