Few memories stand out to me in my early childhood as much as the emotional trauma I went through on the few occasions that I lied to my parents. As a five-year-old, I remember thinking and marveling about how I felt “icky” inside after lying. At some point, I put two and two together, and I made a commitment that I would never lie to anyone again so that I would never have to experience that “icky” feeling again.
Generally, the decision to always be honest is a decision we only have to make once. However, in recent years I’ve become aware that there are different levels of honesty and that on occasion I need to do some self-reflection to detect the subtler forms of dishonestly. It’s one thing to recognize the lies I’ve told to other people, but it’s another matter to recognize the lies I’ve told to myself.
When I was in the Missionary Training Center, one elder showed me a level of honesty that has boggled my mind ever since. I was in a district of twelve missionaries who were all learning Spanish together. We were technically supposed to speak Spanish to each other at all times, but, since none of us were fluent yet, we tended to switch back into English to express ourselves clearly.
One day our district leader challenged us to see if we could make the next day a Spanish-only day. We all accepted the challenge. For the first part of the day, we all did pretty well. But by the late afternoon, some of the other missionaries were getting tired of Spanish, and they began slipping back into English. I was looking to the district leader’s example to help me stay strong. So when even the district leader himself started speaking English, I chided him in front of everyone and reminded him to speak Spanish. Afterwards, I felt a little embarrassed, and I imagined that I had come across as a stuck-up goody-goody-two-shoes.
The next day, there was a moment when the district leader and I both happened to approach the drinking fountain at the same time. It was a rare opportunity to say something to me without attracting the attention of the rest of the district, so what did he choose to say? To my utter astonishment, he tenderly and sincerely THANKED me for noticing when he spoke English the day before and for calling him out on it. He thanked me for my example and told me I was welcome to correct him any time.
Not only did this heal me from my secret embarrassment of the day before, but it made my respect for him increase tenfold. I pondered that incident again and again in the days, weeks, and months that followed. Almost immediately, I set a personal goal that whenever anyone criticized me or corrected me, I would express gratitude to them for it, just as that elder had done with me. Easier said than done.
As fate would have it, I had several mission companions who were very blunt and had no hesitation in criticizing and correcting me. Sometimes I could bring myself to thank them, and sometimes I couldn’t. Sometimes what they told me about myself was true, and sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes their words hurt, and sometimes they didn’t. I struggled to find a pattern and figure out why my goal worked in some cases but not others.
After my mission, I began picking a different Christlike attribute to study and develop each month, and one month the attribute I chose was honesty. One morning, I just sat perfectly still and pondered the topic of honesty for nearly an hour, including my honesty with myself. It was then that the following thought came to me:
Correction and criticism only hurt me when they support a subconscious lie that already exists inside of me.
This rule applies regardless of whether the critical words themselves are true or false. Because if only truth is inside of me, then the true statements of others would resonate with me, and the false statements of others would be deflected and bounce right off of me.
For example, suppose someone tells me I’m driving too slow. First, let’s suppose their words are true, and let’s suppose I feel hurt. When I ponder why I feel hurt, I discover it’s because the criticism supports a subconscious lie inside of me, and the lie is, “I’m incompetent.”
Now, let’s say someone tells me I’m driving too slow, but this time let’s suppose that their words are false (because I’m driving as fast or faster than the speed limit). But I’m still hurt. Why am I hurt? Because the criticism supports the subconscious lie that this person doesn’t like me. (And what if that person actually doesn’t like me? Then perhaps the real subconscious lie is that “I need that person to like me,” or that “I have less worth if that person doesn’t like me.”)
Without any of these subconscious lies, there’s no way that either scenario could hurt me. In the first scenario, I would just accept the correction, speed up, adjust, move on, and forget about it. And in the second scenario, I would just explain myself calmly and stand my ground, undaunted.
Since having that realization, I have finally begun to have the strength to express sincere gratitude for ALL correction and criticism, regardless of whether it’s true or not and regardless of whether it hurts or not. If it hurts, then I’m alerted to a subconscious lie inside of me which I can then track down and root out, so I’m grateful to the criticizer for bringing the lie to my attention, even though they had no idea that’s what they were doing. And if the criticism doesn’t hurt me, then I ask myself why it doesn’t hurt, and by doing so I’m reminded of a certain truth inside of me, and then I can rejoice and feel gratitude for that truth.
No matter how much I think I understand honesty, I’ve still only scratched the surface. Like all divine attributes, honesty is a key to harnessing the power of the universe, starting with the piece of the universe within myself.
One of my mission companions had a copy of a talk by Cleon Skousen, and one day we listened to it together in the car. In this talk, Skousen expounded on D&C 29:36, in which God tells us that His honor is His power. After listening to the talk, I came to understand that the reason God is all powerful is because He is 100% honest. He can command every particle, molecule, and atom of the universe to do His bidding, and they obey Him. Why? Because they know they can trust Him.
Cleon Skousen didn’t say this, but a personal conclusion I drew from the talk is that the atoms that I’m composed of love truth, and when I’m dishonest in any way then the molecules and cells of my body are not happy with me, and they start acting up in unseen ways.
One thing I’m certain of is that the more honest I become, and the more I identify and dismiss subconscious lies inside of me, then the more literal power I feel surging inside of me. It’s like my cells are beaming with pride to belong to me. (Likewise, when I exaggerate or deceive in any way or allow subconscious lies to remain unchecked, then I feel power draining from me, as through my cells are shrinking in shame.)
With this new awareness, I’m eager to become 100% honest with myself. I know I have blind spots, and so I can’t reach deeper honesty on my own. For this reason, I often ask friends and loved ones to give me correction and constructive criticism. They rarely do so, no doubt fearing to hurt my feelings. But maybe they would change their minds if they knew that I’m actually THRILLED when my feelings get hurt, as paradoxical as that sounds. One reason I wrote this post is to help my friends understand that they can’t go wrong when correcting me, because any honest opinion they share can only give me more power, one way or another.