the complexity of lying

cw: childhood abuse, discussion of lying, abusive relationships




As a survivor, lying can be a huge trigger for me. Lying has been weaponized to keep me silent, deny my experiences and isolate me. And, in year where I am surrounded by lies about who I am and what I have done, I have chosen to try and hold complexity about why people lie, including myself.

We all lie. 

To  be clear, I am not saying that we lie about having experienced harm. I am in full support of unconditional belief of survivors. The harm is always real and true. These thoughts are not a way to dismiss the actions of those who have caused harm. We all should be accountable in real and meaningful ways for the harm we do to others. And, I think this becomes more possible when we do the reflexive work to think about how we survive, and the ways that the system can infiltrate our survival in ways that do harm.

And sometimes, lying is a harm-reduction strategy, a way of coping and surviving. Sometimes, I need to lie to myself. I survived my childhood by blocking out the violence and abuse I was experiencing: lying to myself that everything was okay. Short-term this was a brilliant survival strategy that protected me from emotions and truths I had no skills or support to deal with.

And sometimes, lying is a way to get your needs met. And your needs are super legitimate. For me, I lied a lot as a kid about being sick. This meant that I didn’t have to go to school, a place where I was bullied and ostracized and felt very unsafe. Lying and saying I was sick meant I could stay home, a place where my need for safety was better met. And being sick meant it was more likely my parents would engage with me, meeting another important need, the need for attention.

And sometimes, lying is a way to establish boundaries. For many of us surviving violence from people who were supposed to love and care for us, it is incredibly difficult to establish boundaries with people we are connected to. Wonky attachment means we often stay connected to people in unhealthy ways, no matter the harm they are doing to us. Lying can make it easier to disconnect. We don’t lie about the person harming us; we create fictions about that person in order to support ourselves ending that relationship. We reduce people down to only their bad behaviors, denying ways they may be kind, or reasons that they perpetuate harm. This is lying, and it can be what makes it possible for us to justify protecting ourselves.

And sometimes, lying is a way to get your truths recognized. In our culture that systemically doubts and isolates survivors, we are conditioned to believe that our experiences of harm are not enough to be recognized. Especially for folks who experienced childhood abuse, we expect that we are not worthy enough to not be harmed and/or that our traumas are not bad enough to be recognized. Myself, I carry so much hurt, intense sadness and shame around the abuse I experienced that has not been recognized. And I know that I have projected this pain on to other situations. These situations were harmful. And their impact was directly related to triggering the truths of my childhood abuse I have never had recognized. I have lied and blamed the person involved with the smaller harm for all the pain because I needed it recognized. People can be accountable for the harm they have done, for the actions that trigger me; I don’t think they can be held accountable for all the hurt and anguish that comes up when I get triggered. But sometimes I want them to be.

I am sure that so many more reasons that we lie; legitimate reasons that allow us to survive in a world that is set up to erase us, harm us and delegitimize our identities and experiences. I think it is important to acknowledge the value of lying as as survival strategy while simultaneously beginning to reflect on the impact of these lies. Personally, I know I have done great harm to myself and others. And I have been greatly harmed by the lies of others. Beginning to think through the complexity of lying is an act of self-love and cultivating compassion for others. My goal is to hold more space for myself and others to be able to reflect on our actions as survivors, our actions as communities, and hopefully transform our ways of being to reduce the harm we do and expand our access to healing. 

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the complexity of lying

Strategies for Talking Shit

If you use the right language to talk shit about someone no one can ask if you are lying. No one can question the harm you are doing. Use the right words to do harm and you don’t need to think about where the hurt comes from or why you have chosen that person to project it onto.

Appropriate the right terms for who that person is and you can justify every punishment, every act of cruelty and exclusion. With the right words you grant permission to erase their complexity, nullify their words and experiences, reduce them down to evil. Use the right words and nothing is on you.

Now you can point fingers. You can kick people out. You can seek revenge. Catharsis. Temporary relief followed by devastating relapse. Your sorrow is still there, the deep pain is still there. And those right words have done nothing but caused more harm.

Strategies for Talking Shit