Honest Friends Don't Tell Comforting Lies

by Serpent-Stare5 min read19th Apr 201811 comments

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Honesty
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I originally wrote this blog post on a night when I counselled my friends to stop counting the deaths that occured every second while they were unable to stop them. I prefaced my advice by telling them I understood that they wouldn't have wanted to hear any comfort that could be destroyed by the truth... So I wouldn't bother with empty promises that it would all be okay. I set out to offer a reassurance that would not be destroyed by the truth, because it was the truth. That truth is laid out in A Different Prisoner's Dilemma, and my friends may not have taken me seriously if not for the fact that I had established a trust with them. I wrote this post about the nature and the standards of that kind of trust. I post it here in order to be more accessible to the rationalist community.


If your aim is to believe the truth, if you believe that anything that can be destroyed by the truth should be, then all illusion, even comforting illusion, is your enemy.

However, when we as human beings encounter things that are painful to us, when we are disappointed or heartbroken, those who care about our feelings (generally including ourselves) will have to fight not to reach for anything that makes the sting a little less painful.

You're crying and inconsolable because your boyfriend dumped you. The best friend you called in order to have someone to talk to about it wants to tell you it'll all be okay. That he'll be back next week, just you wait. Or he was a real jerk and he was never worth your time to begin with. Anything that will let you stop crying, or make it a little easier to get through the day. She wants you to feel better, because she cares about you. That's why she's the one you called.

But if your now-ex-boyfriend was really a nice person, and you wanted it to work out but for whatever reason of life circumstances or incompatible goals or different religions or whatever it was it just wasn't working and it's gone now... Believing anything else, even if it's just to ease the pain, is an illusion. Believing that he'll come back or you could still make it work if that isn't the case can also hurt you all over again next week.

If you know this, and your friend knows this, and she remembers and notices the flicker of wrongness on her conscience when she thinks about telling you your ex boyfriend was a jerk, then although she might want to say all these things to comfort you, she won't. Maybe she'll invite you to go out and have ice cream and watch a movie marathon, or let you sit on her couch and cry on her shoulder for a few hours to help comfort you instead.

That's the kind of friend I want to have. Someone I can trust to only give me genuine reasons to feel better when I'm feeling miserable. Someone whose words I don't have to comb and double-check for comforting lies, or at least not as vigilantly, because I know they do that themselves. It's also the kind of friend I want to be, for other people.

However, many people who have established a belief that it's right to comfort a miserable person, and it's right to be patient and tolerant, and don't see a problem with it if they have to tell a half-truth to do that.

The most insidious comforting lie I've encountered in my life is "no, really, it's fine" in its vast plethora of different variations. And particularly, I have encountered a whole lot of "you aren't bothering me" repeated as a comfortable lie. A lie that lulls me gradually back into comfort... But there's a phrase for that kind of comfort. It's called a False Sense of Security. Emphasis on false.

So I keep behaving the same way, and I try to ignore the niggling doubt that arises in the back of my mind. It wouldn't be right to doubt the honesty of my friend, right? We're friends. I trust them. That's a big part of what friendship is. And down the line, that trust blows up in my face. Suddenly someone is screaming at me. There's a list of flaws and mistakes going back months that had never before been admitted to be offenses. And all too often, it ends the friendship entirely. Someone I cared about was polite about it, and polite about it, and polite about it until they couldn't be polite anymore, and all the stored-up ugliness is thrown back in my face all at once. It hurts, but there's a certain element of solace, a little tiny ring of satisfaction, buried in the pain, as some of the tension I've noticed over the weeks, little moments in which I was confused, unanswered questions that go, "If that wasn't offense, what was it?" resolve into a coherent model of the past.

If I had known... I could have done something about it. Would have assigned a higher priority to doing something about it.

This has happened to me personally so many times that sampling error and human trauma have kicked in. I intuitively expect that people who want to be my friends are lying to me so that I will feel better, are hiding the ways that my habits annoy them. In particular, the annoying habit of asking whether I am annoying them. Because that itch at the back of my mind has become nearly constant. The cycle self-perpetuates as people who mistake it for a one time fit of anxiety at first and give me their sincere reassurances are gradually worn down by the repetition, and they don't tell me they're running out of patience (because that would obviously trigger another mess of anxiety that they might be asked to help clean up)... until it's too late.

It is the phenomena of comforting lies that has wounded me. It is the lack of acceptance in society in general of the idea that comforting someone isn't always the most important thing, and if you let it become an excuse for dishonesty, you may be doing someone harm in the long run, especially if it works and they believe you.

My internal model of the world at this point is that, if someone has a problem with something I'm doing, especially if it's a small problem, the chance that they will respond by telling me that they have a problem with something I'm doing is waaaaay under 50/50. Likelier responses are saying nothing at all, changing the subject, or turning more of their attention to something else and waiting for me to go away on my own.

But when a friend of mine gets distracted from a text message conversation by talking to somebody else, they also say nothing at all. If someone honestly forgets what we were talking about, or just has something else they really want to share, they also change the subject. If they are distracted by a video game or even if they just don't realize I expect an answer, they also turn more of their attention to something else, and it doesn't mean they're waiting for me to go away on my own.

But I notice the correlation. I become anxious. Am I bothering this person? Do they want me to go away? Should I ask? But if I'm already making them uncomfortable, surely the question would be even more annoying... Especially if they have to deal with it every day.

I'm pretty good at reading body language, but I also know that my fear of being rejected (again) skews my judgement.

I want to have friends I don't need to second-guess. They're rare, in my experience, but there are people out there who are committed enough to truth that they feel a tickle in their conscience when they think about saying something to console someone else that isn't quite true, and won't lie in a situation in which they expect to be taken seriously unless they feel they really have to. They realize that untruth can be damaging even when the danger isn't obvious or immediate. They realize that a comforting illusion is still an illusion.

It is written that two rationalists cannot agree to disagree. Illusions are anathema to them, even if those illusions are composed of a best friend's cognitive biases. They know that even though it would be painful for someone they care about to have to confront their flaws, it is the only way to overcome them, and become stronger.

For this reason, it is important for someone who desires to become stronger to have honest friends. I have been making a concentrated effort to notice the signs when someone is deliberately not lying to me, even though the tension hurts them too. I have been making a point of reacting to this realization by bringing those people closer to me, and thanking them, and doing everything I can to convince them that regardless of what the rules of polite society dictate, I want the truth, and will cherish their willingness to protect it, even from the need to reassure me that everything is okay.

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Sometimes your feelings are complicated. An honest answer to "Are you annoying me" could be "Very slightly, but not enough that I think you should stop doing what you're doing" or "I hadn't noticed it until you brought it to my attention, but now I'm having trouble ignoring it again" or "Being asked that question is more annoying than anything else you've been doing; if something gets bad enough that I want you to stop it, I'll tell you."

Yes. Those are very good examples of the sort of thing that would, in most cases, bring some comfort to my brain and an awkward, self-conscious smile to my face, because I had been being 'silly'. They give me a look into someone else's perspective that sounds believable and real to me in a way that "no, everything's fine" doesn't.

A note on this, which I definitely don't mean to apply to the specific situations you discuss (since I don't know enough about them):

If you give people stronger incentives to lie to you, more people will lie to you. If you give people strong enough incentives, even people who value truth highly will start lying to you. Sometimes they will do this by lying to themselves first, because that's what is necessary for them to successfully navigate the incentive gradient. This can be changed by their self-awareness and force of will, but some who do that change will find themselves in the unfortunate position of being worse-off for it. I think a lot of people view the necessity of giving such lies as the fault of the person giving the bad incentive gradient; even if they value truth internally, they might lie externally and feel justified in doing so, because they view it as being forced upon them.

An example is a married couple, living together and nominally dedicated to each other for life, when one partner asks the other "Do I look fat in this?". If there is significant punishment for saying Yes, and not much ability to escape such punishment by breaking up or spending time apart, then it takes an exceedingly strong will to still say "Yes". And a person with a strong will who does so then suffers for it, perhaps continually for many years.

If you value truth in your relationships, you should not only focus on giving and receiving the truth in one-off situations; you should set up the incentive structures in your life, with the relationships you pick and how you respond to people, to optimally give and receive the truth. If you are constantly punishing people for telling you the truth (even if you don't feel like you're punishing them, even if your reactions feel like the only possible ones in the moment), then you should not be surprised when most people are not willing to tell you the truth. You should recognize that, if you're punishing people for telling you the truth (for instance, by giving lots of very uncomfortable outward displays of high stress), then there is an incentive for people who highly value speaking truth to stay away from you as much as possible.

Also I'd like to comment that the "Do I look fat in this" question is an example I quite like. It's a fantastic example of the sort of question that has a stereotypical negative response so strong that many people will just assume, even the first time, that you don't ever say yes to that question.

And also, I had an ex boyfriend that I got to participate with me in an exercise to help me get over my own fat shame. I asked him outright to call me fat, and to do it with a smile so that I could practice associating "fat" with anything other than ugly and shameful. He agreed, and sometimes we would just call each other fat while cuddling and being flirty, in an attempt to disarm the word's cultural baggage.

It's also a pretty terribly phrased question, but it can still be answered honestly and positively. An honest fashionista friend might do well to comment, "Darling, it's too small and it's squeezing your hips in a way that looks terribly uncomfortable; try a different cut or a larger size." Or someone else might reply as most of my exes have done, "I have no idea, I don't do fashion." This response is a bit disappointing sometimes because it offers no useful feedback, but has never offended me.

Oh, absolutely. That's why I work so hard to try to reward those people I can trust to tell me the truth. To mitigate all the messages of high-stress that I can't help but put out when I encounter something unexpected and distressing as well as I know how; asking for a moment to decompress, using distractions to calm down until I can deal with it more directly, and all-importantly remembering to thank and affirm the behaviour even when it's stressing me out, and afterwards at other times when it isn't. I say things like "it's important that you're able to talk to me about these things" and "it would be so much worse if you didn't tell me and then it blew up later". They are vital mantras to me, not only to reassure my friends but also to remind myself.

I tell my trusted friends that I love them and trust them because I don't have to worrywort over everything they say, and I can ask them to remind me of the comforting truths as well as alerting me to the uncomfortable ones and they seem to be alright with that. Because it's true. Because it's helping me to recover some of my paranoia and deal with relationships in which I don't have that openness by being able to reliably turn to ones in which I do.

Sometimes I still get stuck in a panic spiral about the negative reinforcement stimuli that I know I'm putting out. But recently, my honest friends have been quick to reassure me on that front. I notice it far more than they do, because I care so much about noticing it, for exactly the reasons you give.

Putting a lot of energy on rewarding people might also leads to them giving less feedback because it signals that getting feedback is a big deal and that it's not possible to give you feedback without you making a big deal about it.

I feel like there are two distinct issues here:

1) Telling comforting lies

2) Staying silent when there's something somebody doesn't like

To me 1) sounds like a problem of people not having any skills that they can use to deal with emotions. When I'm doing any kind of emotional first aid, I'm very conscious about the processes and use effective processes that are targeted on the problem in question.

Eliezer refers quite early in the sequences to the Litany of Gendlin. It refers to a writing by Eugene Gendlin and Gendlin actually developed a process of dealing with emotions that he called Focusing.

On the other hand, 1) feels more complicated. There's an art of finding the right time to say things and focusing attention on an issue always has a cost.

(Given that you want feedback, I will write a bit that's a reaction to the vibe I'm getting from your article)

When I read your post I get the impression that there's a lot of anxiety build up and people are generally less likely to give negative feedback to a person that doesn't appear to have a lot of capacity to deal with feedback as they are already very anxious.

The solution to this problem is not about having more knowledge about when you are annoying other people but in actually caring less about whether you are annoying other people. If you would care less and get less anxious, you likely would get more feedback.

Instead of trying to take responsibility for other people's feelings, take responsibility for your own. If a person has a problem with being annoyed, they can tell you. On the other hand, it's your job to express your own needs and desires.

There is a degree to which this is absolutely the case. You read me as an anxious person, to irritating degrees, and it's quite true. This is a monkey that's been on my back since I was a toddler and I've been wrestling with it for many years. Recently, I seem to be winning much more often, I am grateful to report.

There's a weird fine line in the middle of the whole idea of caring about what other people think, and it kind of bothers me that to the best of my knowledge we don't have two seperate words for the different sides.

On the one side, there is the tendency to overreact. The panic spirals, the anxiety, the fear of rejection. I have that. I consider it a form of damage, something to work on healing. It is not useful and it is not virtuous, it just messes with my capacity to control my own life.

On the other side lies consideration. It should matter to me if I say or do something that upsets someone else, or that could predictably upset someone else. I don't want to hurt other people, and when I am behaving in ways that increase the chances of doing that, I want to find ways to change my behaviour so that that happens less. Harm is on a scale, of course, and 'temporarily offended' is waaaay down on the unimportant end of the scale, but even so it matters to me and is something I want to reduce where possible.

I am a considerate person, and want to continue to be a considerate and thoughtful person sensitive to the needs and reactions of others. I consider it virtuous and helpful. This involves caring what other people think and feel.

I am also an anxious person with a history of rejection and traumatic responses to it. I am working on combating and changing this. It also involves caring what other people think and feel. The way these two concepts can conflate together is an extreme nuisance and I suspect I am far from being the only one who has delayed on their journey to recovery and better effectiveness because it took me so long to tear them apart from one another.

It's not as easy as it sometimes seems to recognize that they are in fact two different things and not caring as much what other people think in terms of not going into panic spirals about it does NOT mean I have to stop caring in terms of no longer looking out for them and acting with consideration.

I understand where you are coming from. I used to be similarly. Shortly, after Circling came to Berlin I had a conversation with an acquaintance. The Circling frame allowed us to have a frank conversation. In the conversation the acquaintance told me that they can't respect me when I'm not connected to my needs. They would like to respect me, but if I don't change that they can't.

When dealing with rationalists it's not a requirement for having a friendship with another person but for a significant part of the population it's a necessary criteria for having a friendship with them. It very directly leads to a rejection from those people if you want to be friends with them because you are not able to participate in the social push and pull that the person is used to having with their friends.

David Burns (who helped popularize CBT by writing Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and who's book Feeling Good Together is also frequently recommended in our rationalist circles) wrote When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life. The book does a good job explaining how your need to be nice leads to your anxiety issues. I would recommend you to read it.

[ what I might not say out loud, but think about - I don't actually know you so this is more about my reaction to friends who seem to worry on the same dimensions you're worrying here ]

Demanding simple answers to complex questions annoys me. The behavior annoys me, but you are more than just that behavior. It's not "you are annoying me", or even "you're annoying me right now, but generally don't", as I'm enjoying many aspects of our interaction and friendship, and I don't want you to leave. My feelings and yours are complicated enough that I anticipate my honest complaints about minor irks will interfere with the continued (also honest) enjoyment of the good bits.

This particular concern of yours may feel from inside like it can make you a better/more desirable/stronger friend, but it pattern-matches to simple validation-seeking so strongly that it's impossible to tell from outside your head. And from experience with others, it's easier and less risky to give validation than to try to explain the complexity. Sorry, I like you, but not enough to be your therapist.

It is very much validation seeking. The point I'm trying to make is that the validation I get in response needs, itself, to be valid or it won't do anything for me, because I am very, very good at seeing reasons why comforting words might be said in order to comfort me even if they are false. The truth, however, is entangled with reality. There should be evidence to support it. I would rather be given reassurance that includes references to the evidence. A lot of the time, I'm freaking out partly because I have temporarily forgotten about the evidence that supports confidence and trust.

Once, I went on a gondola ride at a fair with my boyfriend at the time, a young man who had experience dealing with my anxiety. I am afraid of heights. Or more accurately, as it is sometimes said, afraid of falling. I kept looking at the little overhand hook that attached the gondola to the wire, and the ground so far under us, and thinking that if we were to bounce in the car, or if some force were to hit it from underneath (not that there was anything that would), it could come right off and crash down, and we could both die. The reassurance my boyfriend gave me that actually worked was this: "Look at all the other cars. You see them?" Mhm. "How many are there?" I wasn't sure, but there were quite a few. "How many have fallen down?" It took one or two seconds for me to smile and hug him, because that genuinely was reassuring. It might be possible, and 'Nothing bad is going to happen to us' probably would have sounded to me like famous last words, but a visual demonstration of the consistency of the ride, and the reminder that freak accidents at fairgrounds would draw a lot of attention and are extremely rare... That helped me to calm down and start enjoying the view.

This example isn't about social anxiety, so it's a lot easier to describe, and demonstrates the point neatly. Evidence that supports social confidence is generally a lot more messy and subjective, because there are more layers of interaction and my fear can be a part of the problem itself. This can make it more difficult to come up with acceptably solid reasons to believe that my friends genuinely like to be around me, but if they can tell me about things like happy memories we've had together, or good things I have done or continue to do for them (such as that they like the way I get excited about things, or my home cooking, or playing video games with me), it helps a great deal. Gives me something positive I hadn't been thinking about but do know exists, to hold onto through my panic attack. Only, you see, I don't want someone to tell me they enjoy my cooking if they don't.