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Is "Tell It Like It Is" Helpful or Harmful?

To "tell it like it is" can evoke our darkest impulses or heartfelt caring.

Key points

  • "Telling it like it is" can be either positive or negative, though evidence suggests that it's more often associated with expressions of anger.
  • It may sometimes be wise to "tell it like it is," but pausing to reflect before doing so can be beneficial.
  • Asking specific questions during this pause can help you be assertive, rather than aggressive.

One of my clients told her son that she hated his wife and could never envision changing her attitude. A husband told his wife, after attending a wedding, that the dress she wore had made her appear heavy. And, another reported calling his boss “a stupid idiot”, sharing that “he was.” When questioned about the motivation for their comments, each indicated their intent was to “Tell it like it is”.

All too often, especially in recent years, we hear a cry to “tell it like it is.” Certainly, telling it like it is may be the basis for authentic communication, including the spontaneous expressions of heartfelt sentiments of caring, gratitude, or awe. However, lately, telling it like it is all too often entails an impulsive declaration grounded in anger. For some, loyalty to telling it like it is overshadows pausing to question the necessity to express one’s view, the impact it may have on others or what one hopes to achieve by speaking up. And, all too frequently, both in public and personal discourse, telling it like it is entails an expression of anger intended to cause some emotional pain in others.

The Impact of the Internet

The Internet glaringly reveals this trend and the powerful impact that anonymity can have on this tendency. It’s so much easier to live by this credo when one doesn’t have to look directly into the eyes of the person being addressed. Such impulsivity requires less thought, filtering, and empathy. For some, such filtering is associated with not being real or, worse yet, overly focusing on reason–as if considering reason is a bad thing, even implying subjugation to some form of authority. As such, restraint or forethought may be viewed as being constrained by the forces of “political correctness.” From this perspective, the desire to “tell it like it is” then offers permission to voice any and all thoughts and feelings that might arise at a given moment.

The age of Twitter further reflects this tendency. A review of posts on the Internet shows that some individuals clearly give great thought to how best to express their thoughts in 140 characters. However, all too many seem grounded in impulse rather than reflection.

123rf Stock Photo/Elenabatkova
Angry man at computer
Source: 123rf Stock Photo/Elenabatkova

Historical Trend?

It is then no surprise that an anti-intellectual and anti-authority propensity and the encouragement to “trust one’s gut”—taken together—form a powerful force against taking greater responsibility for and having a greater understanding of oneself, especially with regard to anger. It is this same mindset that influenced many therapists in the 70s to actually advocate that we manage our anger by “letting it all hang out!” They suggested that true well-being very much depended on honestly expressing our thoughts and feelings with others, even if doing so contributed to their suffering. And while it was not only reflected in the 70s, it was certainly a part of what Christopher Lasch discussed in his book, The Culture of Narcissism. (1979, 1991).

The tendency to be impulsive was famously revealed by President George Bush in the lead-up to disbanding the Iraq army. Joe Biden asked him “How can you be so sure when you know you don’t know the facts?” To this, President Bush responded, “My instincts.”(2004). Bush had also previously indicated that he was not one to engage in much self-reflection.

Impulsivity and Anger

Certainly, there are times when we do need to trust our instincts. However, especially with regard to anger, rigidly adhering to tell it like it is echoes a mindset of childhood impulsivity, one that lacks a filter. It is both self-focused and self-absorbed and reflects a lack of awareness of oneself and empathy for others.

As an anger management specialist, I’ve observed that destructive anger is most often rooted in impulsivity rather than a pause that allows for reasoning. Telling it like it is, is a poor substitute for taking time to create the inner calmness essential for self-reflection. Being reactive is often a victory for the emotional brain that further trains our brain to be reactive.

The Benefits of Pausing

Pausing to reflect relies on having the resources for self-soothing. It is during this pause that we may distinguish between real versus perceived threats. It offers us the opportunity to identify feelings that have fueled our anger—the specific forms of hurt such as shame, anxiety, fear, powerlessness, or perhaps injustice that prompted our anger. Stopping to reflect offers us an opportunity to recognize when we are holding on to unrealistic expectations of how others should be.

Pausing offers us the opportunity to reflect on how best to express our feelings in ways that are assertive rather than aggressive. In doing so we are being both self-compassionate and compassionate. There is a vast difference between discussing one’s anger and acting out anger through verbal aggression in the guise of telling it like it is.

Trusting our gut to impulsively act out our anger or saying the first thing that comes to mind may be rewarding in the short term. It may temporarily provide a discharge of tension. However, it offers us little insight into ourselves and only further expands the pool of negativity in our lives. It’s not easy to remember this. And it’s not always easy to practice and cultivate the skills to help us pause and reflect.

Questions to Ask During the Pause

Pausing provides the opportunity to reflect on our experience and answer the following questions:

  1. Do you expect that simply sharing your thoughts will be sufficient to prompt a change in the other person(s)?
  2. Do you wish to share for the sake of venting or in the hope that doing so will serve as an introduction for a request of change?
  3. Do you wish to share feelings and thoughts to further your intimacy?
  4. Do you intend to be critical? If so, might further pausing help you recognize your underlying suffering?
  5. Can you be sufficiently empathic to sense how what you say might be received?
  6. Are you motivated by a desire for support regarding some form of inner suffering?
  7. How would you feel upon hearing your statement directed toward you?

While such reflection can be difficult, honestly answering these questions supports truly authentic sharing that is assertive rather than aggressive. While there may be times for impulsive expression and trusting our gut, responding to anger calls for pausing, reflection, and evoking our most compassionate self in relation to others and ourselves. Doing so involves not just being kind to ourselves but truly seeking and evoking wisdom, an awareness and attitude built on reasoning as well as feeling. It calls for the wisdom to calm our self when our first impulse might be to “Tell it like it is.”


Lasch, C. (1979, revised 1991). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations , New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.

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