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The Harsh Truth About Brutal Honesty

When the words hurt, the message can get lost.

Key points

  • Long after the brutally honest have shared their "truth," the recipient continues to feel the pain.
  • Brutally honest people may be unaware of the harm done by their words, or they may be giving themselves an easy out.
  • Practicing "truth with compassion" is a great way to speak a painful truth to another while respecting their feelings.

Why do we use the words "brutal" and "honest" together?

If we examine the definitions, brutal means “savagely violent,” and honest means “morally correct.” Interesting, right? How two very different things are associated so closely together.

In our society, the term “brutally honest” is often accepted as a positive quality. Take a second to pause and think about your dealings with someone who is “brutally honest.” Is it really a good thing?

Take Marie, for example. She’s feeling wounded, misunderstood, and guilty after a conversation with her friend, Pauline. Pauline said to her, “Look, I’m going to be brutally honest. All you do is complain that you’re single, but you do nothing to change it. It’s hard to feel bad for you.”

The point of concern isn’t the honesty; it’s the brutality. Because oftentimes the truth does hurt. But there are plenty of other ways to share an honest message that is thoughtful and not damaging—and not gaslighting.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Those who grew up experiencing brutal honesty in their family may absorb the assumption that it’s a normal way to communicate. Families that are not tuned in to the subtleties and complications of emotions (i.e., emotionally neglectful families) are more likely to be unaware of how their words affect others’ feelings. Therefore, they produce more perpetrators and victims of brutal honesty.

The sad result for those who communicate with brutal honesty is that, by hurting the feelings of others, their true message is usually lost. By being self-described “straight shooters,” the brutally honest risk hurting the feelings of the receiver, raising their defenses so that they want to distance and protect themselves instead of responding in a useful way.

The Brutally Honest Conundrum

When someone declares themselves “brutally honest,” they get an easy out. By adding the word "honest" after "brutal," they are informing you that they are about to hurt you, but that you should not experience any hurt because they're just being honest. That is a twist that's not only confusing and unfair, but it's also likely to make you feel that you're wrong for experiencing the hurt. That's gaslighting.

It’s the equivalent of phrases like these:

  • Not to be rude, but…
  • No offense, but…
  • You wanted my opinion, so you can’t be upset.

And when these phrases are spoken, the person gets an unfair opportunity to say what they think or feel without taking the time to formulate their message in a more thoughtful way.

  • “Interesting fabric; I don’t know how you can wear that,” Stacy says to her friend Jen.
  • “You always have stories that drag on and on,” Steve says to his wife.
  • “I can tell you’ve been eating a lot of carbs lately,” Natalia’s mother tells her.

The brutally honest are unfiltered. We know exactly what they’re thinking as they’re thinking it. While sometimes it can be nice to not have to guess what someone is thinking, most times we don’t need to hear each and every thought the people around us have.

The receiver of the brutally honest message is left dealing with the hard “truth” alone because the curt way it’s delivered does not offer a safe space to keep the conversation going.

What if there’s a way around this? What if there’s a way to deliver an honest message without causing more damage and hurt? Luckily enough, there is. It’s "truth with compassion."

Truth With Compassion

Truth with compassion involves expressing your truth with the intention of promoting awareness rather than hurt. When a message is perceived as hurtful, the person you’re attempting to communicate with is more likely to shut down or go on the defensive. Basically, brutal honesty shuts down communication. Truth with compassion encourages communication.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Stop and think about the message you want to communicate. Understand what you want to express before vocalizing it.

Pauline put some thought into why she’s feeling irritated by her friend and identified a need to draw awareness to the fact that she and her friend Marie have been spending almost all their time together talking about Marie lately. Pauline’s “All you talk about is how you’re single, but you do nothing to change it. It’s hard to feel bad for you,” in no way communicates what she really wants to say, which is, “We seem to be talking exclusively about your dating lately. I really want to tell you about the trip I’m planning.”

2. Reflect upon who you are communicating with. What is their personality like? Do they have certain sensitivities? How can you express yourself in a way that they will hear you?

Pauline knows that Marie is emotionally fragile, especially when it comes to dating. She is so anxious about finding a partner that she has stopped going on dates altogether. Even though Marie is sensitive about this topic, Pauline knows she needs to express her truth to preserve the friendship.

3. Pick the best time and place to communicate the words you’ve decided are most effective.

Pauline decides it’s best to talk with Marie next time they’re alone together. Pauline says, "I feel like talking about your relationship status seems to take up most of our conversations the past couple of months, and I know we’re both frustrated that it doesn’t seem to get better, no matter how much I try to help. And, in the meantime, I have things I’d really like to talk with you about.”

Here's a breakdown of what Pauline did: First, she expressed how she felt. This did not put Marie on the defense, and it let her know that she was not being attacked or blamed. Then, Pauline explained why she’d been feeling frustrated along with her perception of events. Last, she said what she needed. This lets Marie know what to do after hearing Pauline’s truth.

The Takeaway

If you grew up in a brutally honest family, you probably experienced childhood emotional neglect and may benefit from learning more about emotions—your own as well as those of others. Being aware of, and sensitive to, the feeling world can make a profound difference in your relationships and your life in general. This can be difficult if you were raised in an emotion-blind or emotionally neglectful family. So, learning everything you can about emotional neglect and how it’s affected you is a good place to start.

Speaking your truth is important, but it’s how you deliver your truth that matters most. Pause and think about yourself and your feelings, but also take into account the other person and their feelings. That way, you’re more likely to be heard and responded to, and possibly even have your relationship deepen and improve.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

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To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my bio.

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