In the brilliant and funny June 2007 Esquire article I Think You’re Fat, A.J. Jacobs explores the concept of Radical Honesty, a “movement” started and being championed by Dr. Brad Blanton, a Washington D.C. psychotherapist. The basic idea behind Radical Honesty is that people should tell the blatant truth – all the time. Actually, it goes a bit further than that. It’s not just about telling the truth, it’s more about condoning a kind of voluntary Turret’s, with followers being encouraged to blurt out whatever happens to come into their minds, even if and it seems especially if, it will hurt the other person’s feelings. This brutal honesty will then, according to Dr. Blanton, lead to breakthroughs and radically improved communication. Is this a good idea? And how does it differ from authenticity?
I think Radical Honesty is an interesting idea. Certainly, Authenticity, at least the way I’ve been defining it on this blog, seems to follow the same idea – be completely honest. And there are many similarities: In his experiment, Mr. Jacobs found that when he was radically honest with others, they often responded in kind. He also felt freer and less burdened. The energy it takes to keep up our defensive mechanisms is enormous. And he felt that many of his communications were deeper and more, well, authentic. All of these are benefits of true authenticity. But, there are several ways in which the two concepts differ, or where caveats need to be added.
- Being authentic does mean being honest. But it requires first and foremost that you’re truly honest with yourself. And this takes some work. For example, on the surface, you may think “That man annoys me because he talks too loud.” But when you dig deeper, which true authenticity requires, you realize that your annoyance has nothing to do with that man. You’re annoyed because you’re reminded of a person from your past, who also spoke loudly, and made you feel powerless. That loud voice, has brought back the feeling of powerlessness, which stems from a false belief that you are unable to change a situation which makes you suffer. True authenticity means figuring out what’s really going on and being honest with yourself about it.
- Being authentic also means having the realization that it never has anything to do with the other person. Authentic conversation comes about when you’re able to admit to yourself what you’re truly feeling and when you ask the people around you to help you through that. It does not come about when you attack the other person or make them in any way responsible for what you’re feeling. Your feelings are a direct result of the beliefs you hold about yourself and the world. Nothing else. True authenticity means being willing to dig down into this level.
- While radical honesty seems to condone and even push for a complete disregard for other people’s feelings, this isn’t actually that far off from where a truly authentic existence would lead you: Being authentic means honoring yourself before others. It means not being willing to “take the hit” or diminish yourself in any way just so that another person can feel better or be less inconvenienced. Authenticity, however, makes the distinction between honoring yourself and crushing others. It’s not so much the what, as the how. There’s a way to be honest and then there’s a way to be honest. Telling the truth doesn’t mean that you have to become an asshole. If I’m asked out to lunch and I’d really rather not go, I can be brutally honest and say “You know what? I’d rather roll around naked in shards of glass than have lunch with you.” Or, I can simply say “Oh, I’m so sorry, I won’t be able to make that.” There’s no need to be cruel (unless mercilessly pushed). The non-authentic thing to do is to go to lunch, when you don’t really want to. Honoring yourself means realizing that you’d only go out of a sense of obligation and that you don’t really want to go – and then not going.
- Authenticity means eliminating judgment. When you completely own all of your responses, and realize it’s all about you and your issues, you stop trying to make yourself feel better by putting others down in a myriad of ways (you find better and more permanent ways to make yourself feel truly better). On Dr. Blanton’s website, I read that if he thought a person was ugly, he’d tell them so and then proceed to tell them why he thought they were ugly. A truly authentic person feels no need to do this, but would question themselves as to why it even mattered what this other person looked like. When you begin to see the world through authentic eyes, when you see people for who they really are, you’re able to see the true beauty of them. An unfortunately placed mole isn’t going to change that.
I do think that someone who practices radical honesty with some degree of self-reflection will eventually become more authentic. But the path seems to be a rocky one. It requires a willingness to basically piss everyone around you off and jeopardize your relationships. Authenticity, on the other hand, asks that you no longer feel the need to please others for the sake of it (different than pissing people off) and rarely, if ever, leads to fights. Sure, some relationships may gravitate out of your existence, as you’re no longer a vibrational match, but they won’t end on an ugly note, if you stay authentic.
But, I will say this: While Radical Honesty may seem like authenticity’s unnecessarily confrontational big brother, the fact that this movement exists at all, is a hugely positive sign. Whenever sweeping societal changes need to be made, it generally takes a more radical approach to lead to the eventual balanced result we’re looking for. You have to go from one extreme – 0 degrees – to the other – 180 degrees to get to the middle ground – 90 degrees. Kind of like the feminists of the 70’s had to be a bit on the man-hatery side in order to force the much needed and hugely appreciated more equal relationship between the sexes we enjoy now. Perhaps, radical honesty is just the extreme version, brought about by a general and growing desire of the human population to drop their masks and be allowed to be themselves, which will eventually lead to a more authentic, honestly balanced society. So, if you resonate with this approach, go for it. You might piss some people off (or, pretty much everyone you know), but know that you’re part of a greater, incredibly beneficial movement. If, however, radical honesty is a bit rich for your blood, know that there’s a softer alternative, which I believe is closer to the ultimate goal anyway: being 100% authentic.
What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.