Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Cost and Benefits of Emotional Honesty

It's only when we reveal ourselves fully that the deepest love is exchanged.

"Most of us feel that others will not tolerate emotional honesty. We would rather defend our dishonesty on the grounds that it might hurt others; and having rationalized our phoniness into nobility, we settle for superficial relationships." —from Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? by John Powell

"He who dares not offend cannot be honest." —Thomas Paine

One of the main factors that sets great relationships apart from merely good ones is the depth of emotional intimacy. There are, of course, other factors that contribute, but authenticity, vulnerability and deep emotional connectedness are right up there at the top of the list. When two people commit themselves to the process of deep diving (into the soul or the psyche) they become, in the words of our friend Sam Keen, "psychonauts," who unlike astronauts exploring the outer reaches of space choose rather to explore the inner reaches of the heart and mind. Both types of exploration require courage, curiosity, motivation, and a spirit of adventure.

The process requires not only a desire to be aware of and in touch with our emotions and perceptions, but a willingness to reveal and share what we are experiencing with others whom we trust to accept and honor our inner truth without judgment. Given the fact that most of us have a tendency to be somewhat judgmental towards others and to ourselves as well, this is no small consideration. Becoming a more tolerant and accepting person is not only a possibility even for those of us who are world-class judgment machines, but it is actually one of the greatest outcomes of the deep-diving process.

Connecting to ourselves on a feeling level is, for many of us, much easier said than done, but with practice, we can learn the language of emotions and become skilled at recognizing feelings when they arise, identifying them, experiencing them, and ultimately, honoring them through our communications and/or actions. This process not only generates intimacy, depth and genuineness in our relationships, but it also enables us to create the feeling of being complete and whole within ourselves. When we choose instead to deny or repress feelings, as John Powell points out, our relationships and our lives in general begin to feel dry, flat, and superficial. This is the price that we pay when we are more committed to avoiding upsets than we are to living and interacting with authenticity and integrity.

Controlling our feelings is a form of self-manipulation that we perform in an effort to control others' responses to us in the hopes of winning their approval or minimizing the chances of them feeling hurt, angry, or displeased with us. Those couples who share the greatest degree of intimacy and fulfillment together are not the ones who experience the least conflict or the fewest upsets, but are rather those who are the most willing to relate with both honesty and sensitivity. They have developed the skills of good communication and learned how to deal respectfully with the differences that inevitably arise in even the best relationships. They are, as Daniel Goleman would say, "emotionally intelligent."

It's a package plan; there is no way that we can thrive in the bliss of affection, empathy, tenderness, sexual excitement, peace, joy, and love without being open to our anger, fear, jealousy, guilt, embarrassment, frustration, grief and even hatred. If we want a life in which we thrive rather than whither, we must be willing to accept, as Zorba the Greek says, the "full catastrophe." As we see it, the real catastrophe is to come to the end of your life only to realize that by playing it safe and trying to avoid risk, you took the biggest risk of all, and lost the most valuable thing that you could lose: a life that was rich with meaning, feeling, and joy, one that not only filled your own cup to the brim, but spilled over to fill the cups of others who were moved and inspired by you.

Living an inauthentic life also denies us the possibility of ever feeling truly loved for who we are, and consequently we inevitably find ourselves caught in a relentless quest for love that can never be satisfied or sustained. How can I trust that anyone really loves me when I haven't shown them who I really am? So when my partner tells me that he or she loves me, that little voice in the back of my mind says, "you love who you THINK I am. But if you really knew who I was, you wouldn't love me," thus the title of John Powell's book.

It's only when we both reveal ourselves fully that the deepest, purest, most soul-nourishing love can be exchanged. The remedy for coming back to engage more fully is to first be in touch with what we are feeling and then to express, rather than repress, connect rather than protect, and reveal rather than conceal.

Like any new skill we are acquiring, it may take a while to learn to live open-heartedly. Old habits, particularly protective ones, often take a while to break. We are not going to be graceful and accomplished right away. At first we might feel awkward and clumsy. It helps to keep this in mind, so that we can each be more patient and forgiving with each other and with ourselves as we stumble towards enlightenment. It's not about doing it right; it's about what the Buddhists refer to as making "right effort." As we become more skilled at emotional honesty we come to know ourselves and each other more deeply. Not just ABOUT each other, but all that is within each of us: the wounds and sensitive areas, feelings of inadequacy, our mistakes and magnificent failures, the guilt, shame and fears, and our tragedies and triumphs, as well as our greatest dreams, our successes, hopes, accomplishments, and our unique and extraordinary gifts.

The joys of connection, satisfaction and fulfillment are beyond measure. It's a small price to pay to feel like a blundering idiot while we are learning the skills of emotional honesty. But be careful, because once you get started on this path you can't stop. You can't go back the superficial life again. Not because you shouldn't, but because the benefits and joys of being real, even on a bad day, so greatly outweigh the prices that authenticity requires that there's just no contest.

More from Linda and Charlie Bloom
More from Psychology Today