She straightened it out and I gave back the pencils. I was ashamed. I had suffered fear. And had to live with my grandmother's disappointment for awhile after that. And for what? For some pencils?
If you do something that makes you feel guilty or anxious about getting caught, even if you can justify your actions, you ought to stop doing it. That's a no-brainer. Think about the physical consequences — the disruption of your peace of mind, the extra adrenaline you have to endure flowing around in your bloodstream. It ain't worth it. Whatever you're doing that you think is wrong, stop it. Give your nervous system a break.
Anything you do that gives you a sneaky feeling — no matter how small — is a target for your scrutiny. Is it worth it? Or is it another way that greed is making you miserable?
I'm not getting down on you. We all have a greedy streak — it's part of our biological nature. We may not have much choice about whether we feel it, but we do have a choice about how we respond to it.
Is the end-product of that sneaky activity really so great? Does it make you happy? Even if you could become rich and famous with your sneaky activities, would you want to endure feeling guilty or afraid of getting caught? Would it be worth it? You know it wouldn't. And if you wouldn't want to endure those unpleasant feelings with such a great payoff, do you really want to endure those feelings with the paltry payoff you'd get for something much smaller? Ponder these questions whenever you consider doing something you don't want to get caught doing.
What if I'd gotten away with stealing the pencils? I'd have had to make sure my mom and grandmother didn't see them. I'd have probably walked around the rest of the day at the flea market feeling nervous. And for what? Some stupid pencils. I already had a pencil. How many pencils does one kid need?
The same principle holds with anything else. Whatever you are greedily trying to get away with (if anything, and if not, good for you), it isn't worth it, especially if you are prone to anxiety. Take it easy on yourself and fly right. You'll feel better. Really, you will. I'm not talking from on high. I'm not talking from the perspective of right and wrong. I can easily conceive of situations where I would fully approve of stealing. But probably not in your circumstances or mine. I'm talking about it from the perspective that you ought to make yourself feel as good as you can, and being sneaky or feeling guilty doesn't feel good.
One common way to be sneaky is deceiving people. Not only does deception cause you extra anxiety, but if someone finds out, you lose their trust. Paul Harvey tells the true story of baggage handlers at an airline who looked inside an animal carrier to find a dead dog. They were afraid they might be blamed, so in a panic, they told the owner that her dog had been sent to the wrong airport and that they would try to retrieve it for her.
They then looked in animal welfare agencies for a live dog that looked like the dead dog. And eventually they found one.
So they put the live dog in the animal carrier and delivered it to the woman, but as soon as she saw it, she said, "That's not my dog! My dog is dead; I was bringing it home for burial."
DREAD AND INTEGRITY
As I got more comfortable speaking to large groups, the most important change I made was a greater degree of integrity. Somewhere along the way I realized what I was dreading the most about being in front of an audience: I was afraid I would lose my integrity. I was trying to get the audience to respect me rather than being myself. I was trying to impress them rather than being myself. That effort to impress caused me to be phony. I lost my integrity. And losing your integrity is painful. It is something that ought to be dreaded…and avoided!
As I became more willing to be myself and stop trying to impress the audience, my dread diminished. When I say "being myself" I really mean "not being something other than myself," because being my honest self doesn't involve doing anything. It really consists of not doing things like trying to get people to like me, or trying to impress people, or trying to prove something, or pretending to have more knowledge than I really do. Those are all doing. Being myself is accomplished by not doing those things.
The lesson for you is: When you feel dread — when you feel anxiety anticipating an event — check to see if you feel you cannot be yourself. And check to see if you are really correct about that. Maybe there is some degree of pretense you could drop. Maybe you could be your honest self and it would work out okay. Maybe there is some way you could do it so that you enjoyed it, so it was something you wanted to do, so you did it in a way you would really like to do it, or so you said what you wanted to say the way you wanted to say it.
To handle the dread and fear, stop suppressing your integrity.
I once listened to a tape that had a mental exercise on it. You did the exercise with your eyes closed. It was an exercise in "congruency," which is Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) jargon for "integrity," and may actually be a better word for it. Congruency is when all of you is lined up, when no parts of you object to what you're doing. Someone who is not congruent might be, for example, someone who is saying, "I feel fine," but is looking down, looking haggard and worried and shaking his head "no" while he said it. His words and his body language don't match up — they are incongruent.
Anyway, the exercise went like this: I was supposed to remember a few times when I felt some inner conflict. I remembered when someone asked me to go somewhere with them and I agreed, but part of me agreed out of obligation and part of me wished I hadn't said yes. Another time was being nice to someone I actually didn't like. And so on. On the tape, I had time to think up these examples, and then the instructions told me to really feel what it felt like to experience that inner conflict. It was a way to get a good impression of what incongruency feels like to me.
Then I was to remember times I felt one hundred percent congruent. Somebody asked me for something and I said yes, and fully meant yes — all parts of me said yes in full agreement. Or another time I received a gift I totally loved and said so. And there was time on the tape to really feel what it felt like to feel congruent.
Then I was instructed to compare the two experiences. What did congruency feel like? What did incongruency feel like? And what was the difference?
It was very distinct. In all the incongruent situations, I felt a tense, unpleasant sensation in my middle. In all the congruent experiences, I felt good all over. No part of my body felt any better than any other.
Lewis Andrews, the author of an excellent book called To Thine Own Self Be True, was still young and going through therapist-training, which required he go through therapy himself, and one day while he was talking about a problem, Andrews justified a white lie he planned on telling. The therapist responded, "Do you really want to do this to yourself?" Lewis didn't understand. "Don't you realize," the therapist explained, "that by trying to manipulate somebody else you're only going to hurt yourself."
"Maybe," responded Lewis, "if you believe in some kind of afterlife justice…"
"No, no!" said the therapist, "I'm talking about right now, what you're going to feel today!"
Wrote Lewis, "Lying, if I took the trouble to be aware of it, was really a terrible psychological state. My vision dimmed, my pulse quickened anxiously, and there was a noticeable loss of contact with the outside world, all this in addition to any long-term physical effects of such stress."
He went on, "Indeed, the more I experimented with disciplining my deceitful impulses in the days and months that followed — forsaking the temptation to manipulate other peoples' feelings and stating my real intentions without the usual rationalizations — the more confident and peaceful I began to feel."
The psychology professor, John Skowronski, showed people written reports of a person's behavior. He discovered something interesting about the way we judge each other. Skowronski found that if I made a mistake, for example, all I would need to do is a single intelligent action to dispel your judgment that I was stupid.
But if I do something unethical, in order to dispel your judgment that I was an immoral person, I would have to do three very honorable actions (like being offered a large amount of hush money by a nuclear power plant, and refusing it).
So when you feel anxious about doing something unethical, your anxiety is actually a good response based on reality: It is dangerous to do something immoral. If people find out about it, it could destroy your reputation in their eyes forever.
Just in case you are not convinced yet, and feel that a little white lie here and there is okay and fudging a little on your income tax is your duty as a citizen, check out a few research tidbits:
1. Julian Rotter, a researcher at the University of Connecticut, compared the social lives of habitually honest people with those who agreed with statements like, "You have to hide your feelings from others," and "You can't afford to be honest." Rotter discovered that honest people tend to attract trustworthy, truthful, and supportive people into their lives. Less honest people tend to attract disloyal, unreliable, and evasive people into their lives.
2. In a survey of 425 psychologists, family counselors, psychiatrists, and social workers (people who have daily experience dealing with the problems people face), 96% thought that becoming more "open, genuine, and honest" was an ESSENTIAL requirement for mental health.
3. James Pennebaker of Southern Methodist University, in research funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, found that people who habitually withhold information about themselves (especially traumatic events) are more susceptible to contagious diseases than people who are more open.
4. In a study by Bella DePaulo and her colleages at the University of Virginia, they found that people average one or two lies a day. Their motivation most often was to make themselves appear smarter, kinder, or more gregarious — or to try to make things go their way. In other words, the most common reason they lied was to make themselves look good or to manipulate others.
Most of the lying was done to strangers:
77% to strangers
48% to acquaintances
46% to mothers
34% to lovers
28% to friends
Honesty will reduce anxiety and stress in the long run, but the consideration of whether or not to be honest goes beyond the consequences of this particular communication. Do you try to be good? If so, why would you avoid being honest? And if you do selfish, exploitative things, the concern about whether or not to be honest is moot. What you need to do is live your life so you can be honest. Here are some ideas and aphorisms on honesty to help you:
There is a reason why the needle jumps on a lie detector. Lying is stressful.
How can you be honest until you know how you feel and what you truly want? This self-knowledge requires solitude — time away from others, time by yourself to think without the influence of other people.
Timing is important. Sometimes restraining yourself is the best thing. You'll have to decide by taking time to think.
Keeping silent is better than lying in almost all cases.
And some people will use your honesty against you. Silence is the best option for those people.
To someone who has betrayed your confidence before, you can say, "I'd rather not talk about that."
Sometimes you'll pay a price for your honesty. You have to decide whether it's worth it.
Honesty does not mean giving up your very important psychological right to privacy. It doesn't mean you have to reveal everything about yourself to anyone who asks.
Deceitfulness and lying make life stressful and keep you from being close to people.
Most people, at some level, know when you're lying. They won't trust you, and you won't trust yourself.
Lewis Andrews said, "Honest people exude something special from inside that others trust."
Usually, the only people who tolerate deceitfulness for any length of time are deceivers.
The basic level of honesty is "not lying or misleading." The next level, for those with whom you want to be close, is openness. Not lying or misleading is for everyone. Being open is for your close relationships.
You have the right to think. Often people try to force you to say something you don't want to say, and under pressure, you lie — almost accidentally. When you feel that pressure, you have the right to say you'll think about it and get back to them.
Dishonesty is a way to manipulate people's feelings and hide your true intentions. Who would want to live that way? Is it fun? Does it make life more enjoyable? Does it help you sleep well at night?
It untangles your life to be honest.
An honest life needs no deceit.
Honesty is necessary to be close.
You can't relax and be yourself if you're pretending and hiding.
In a study by John Gottman, he found in the short term, nice newlyweds were happier, but in the long term, honest newlyweds were happier.
In a close relationship, honesty can cause conflict, but it's not confusing, and problems can be solved. You can't solve a problem if you don't know what it's about. The heart of a persistent problem is something unsaid. Lack of openness causes confusion. Honesty helps things improve over time.
When you're honest, people can sense it and they trust you.
Whenever I focus on being honest — not pretending, openly saying what I want and feel — I become a better, happier, more relaxed person, and I feel closer to people.
Living an honest life makes it a lot easier to have a good relationship, to feel good about yourself and good about your life, and easier to succeed and feel secure at work.
The commitment to not misrepresent yourself — not try to impress or try to look good — that commitment to be your honest self lowers stress.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.