Honesty requires emotional maturity

I never expected that improvisational acting classes at Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Institute would change my perspective on interpersonal relationships so greatly.
Acting has always interested me, but I was fearful of becoming too consummate an actor, as I assumed manipulation could follow from too much knowledge of one’s face and body language. I avoided practicing in front of the mirror, which would lead to harmful knowledge about how to fake an expression, by raising an eyebrow or smiling a certain way.
But manipulation and trickery are not the messages at Dudley Riggs. Rather, they stress the importance of listening to one’s feelings, impulses and honest reactions. Using this, I have become much more comfortable both on stage and in my interpersonal relationships.
This training has meshed well with my interest in emotional intelligence, which also stresses feelings over calculated thoughts. This new paradigm was introduced by Daniel Goleman in his book, “Emotional Intelligence,” which listed a variety of mental strengths not tested by standard intelligence tests, but which can often be a better predictor of happiness and success.
How does one apply the lessons of emotional intelligence? A good way to start is through the exercises in Jeanne Segal’s book, “Raising Your Emotional Intelligence.” By building what she calls emotional muscle, you can improve your ability to deal with a variety of potentially uncomfortable situations.
She recommends sitting in a comfortable place and listening carefully to the different feelings present in your body. To assist in this, she mentions the various areas where feelings are often found, like nervousness and fear, and reminds us that all these feelings are our bodies’ way of telling us what to do.
Too often, she says, our culture is critical of those who are guided by their feelings, and they are told, “Stop being so emotional.” What the speaker might be saying is, “Stop being so emotionally immature,” but the damage is done.
Once you have improved your ability to listen to your feelings, you will have more information at your disposal when you begin interacting with others. Rather than try to guess, “What are they thinking?” or, “What do they think I am thinking?” which can be very tiring and useless, you can use your gut reaction, of which you are now more aware.
Why is this so hard to do? What are we afraid of? How can we be harmed by how others interpret us? The answer lies in the desires to be well-liked, not to offend and occasionally to hide our true feelings from another in search of some other goal.
As Depeche Mode sings, “You’ll see your problems multiplied, if you continually decide to faithfully pursue, the policy of truth.”
Giving certain people your honest opinion can cause problems and might not serve any useful purpose. My mom used the example of a friend who asks your opinion on a new dress that is now unreturnable. Even if you hate it, perhaps you can find something nice to say about a small aspect of it, thus avoiding a lie while hinting that you’re not thrilled.
But there is no point in saying that it looks like something the cat dragged in — unless you’re still in the store.
On another note, assuming your personality is fairly solidified, why would you pretend to like people that you don’t? Sure, it’s important to respect your boss and police officers, regardless of your feelings, but as for the rest, why not resist the urge to pretend?
Most likely, an emphasis on honest reactions will lead you to a more fulfilling life, with your needs more fully satisfied. Consider those who cannot say “no” to an invitation or a request for help. Subverting their true desires, they find themselves increasingly frustrated and unhappy, while continuing to contort their mouth into a plastic smile (that, for those trained in body language, is obviously strained).
Compliments can be a great way to reap the benefits of speaking truthfully. Think about how easy it is to compliment someone when you notice something you like. Why don’t you do it more? Is it because some people are uncomfortable receiving a compliment? Who cares? It is hard to go wrong with honest praise.
And lest this column lead to a wave of nervous compliment recipients, I offer them a few suggestions.
First, say a simple “thank you.” A compliment is like a surprise present. Its beauty lies in the inspiration behind it and that you need not reciprocate immediately. It isn’t that hard to give one, so take it in stride.
We should look into each other’s eyes and allow an honest reaction to form before acting. This would allow us to wait and see what our bodies tell us to do, rather than letting our heads second-guess our bodies, creating artificial smiles or comments.
But a key component of this exercise is the realization that it is not required that we smile or nod at any complete stranger we meet on the street. Perhaps we truly have no feelings about them. Perhaps our only honest response is a desire to look away. So long as that desire comes from the absence of feeling rather than a feeling of nervousness, it is to be welcomed.
Don’t waste your time on relationships that offer you nothing. Evaluate your friends and partners to decide in what ways they bring out the best in you. Why are you friends, anyway?
Especially important for romantic relationships: Do you like yourself when you’re around your partner? Do you become annoying, annoyed or spiteful? If so, keep looking, and be brave enough to break it off. You deserve a person who flourishes in your company and vice versa.
After all, you have little to lose. Here are some poignant quotes from advocates of truth:
Sophocles: “The truth is always the strongest argument.”
Francis Bacon: “No pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage-ground of truth.”
John Milton: “Truth is as impossible to be soiled by any outward touch as the sunbeam.”
Samuel Butler: “For truth is precious and divine.”
The divinity of truth brings us to religious theory, at least as it pertains to honesty. Many of us recognize that the general gist of the rules in the Bible, among other religious texts, is that a person should live honestly.
Of course, in any culture, the majority of people have been influenced by the prevailing norms of their childhood and the rest of their lives. This leads to the circular path of having to act by an honesty code that is defined only by your gut instincts.
Thus, this caveat: I do not recommend adhering blindly to your feelings without questioning their roots and their effects on you and those you meet. Nor do I advocate your acting in hurtful ways with honesty as your justification. There is usually a way to avoid hurting people unnecessarily, while staying true to your feelings.
This requires a good understanding of human behavior, including knowledge of nonverbal communication techniques and the courage to resist pretense — a route that is rarely the easiest.

Brian Close’s column appears on Thursdays. Send comments and suggestions to [email protected]