I have mentioned repeatedly in various articles that it is important to be completely honest with yourself, especially when engaging with shadow work. I also usually include a few words about how critical it is to be compassionate and non-judgmental in your honesty, but what exactly does that mean? How do you avoid being hyper-critical or beating yourself up when you are honest with yourself about things you do not like? It is far easier said than done, but I believe that process works best with loving honesty instead of brutal honesty.
I am all for complete honesty, but there is a visceral rawness to brutal honesty that can cut to the bone. Most of us learn this as youths when dealing with other people. If you go around telling people bluntly about everything that is wrong with them, what they are doing, or even the world around you, it is more than a little off-putting.
Sure, there are some people who engage in this kind of behavior like it is a badge of pride, but that does not prevent others from distancing themselves from the negativity and brutality of it. Even those of us who appreciate complete honesty can get more than a little weary of the unnecessary cruelty of brutal honesty.
The brutally honest friend is usually the one who will say things with such bluntness that it comes down like a hammer or an axe. “Wow, you look absolutely horrible today!” “You really did an awful job on that.” “Your car really is a piece of s**t!”
It is possible all of those things are true, but phrasing them in such a manner is focused entirely on negativity. It is all about how awful, bad, terrible things are, delivered with force and gusto. It cuts not only to the core of what is going on, but also cuts into emotions and ego with judgmental cruelty and precision.
There are times when brutal honesty is warranted or needed, especially if the recipient is in denial and being blunt can shock someone into paying attention. However, most of the time, especially when it is practiced habitually, brutal honesty is mean, rude, and hurtful without any benefit.
Loving honesty is another form of complete honesty, but one that is tempered by compassion and understanding. It is a form of honesty which looks beyond the immediate subject and brings in context for a more complete picture. This is the tool of well-written critiques and graceful social interaction, because it uplifts or buffers the emotional wellbeing of the recipient while still conveying the same honesty which is the entire thrust of brutal honesty.
“Wow, you look like you’ve had one hell of a day/night! Do you want to talk about it / Is there anything I can do to help?”
“That could have gone better, but these things went well, and here are some specific things that you can do differently next time.” Or, “That could have gone better overall, but these things worked out well.”
“Your car might be dinged up, but I bet other cars get out of your way in traffic!”
Loving honesty takes more effort, but it accomplishes far more than brutal honesty usually can. It can convey the same honest messages about things that have gone wrong, but in a way that helps instead of hurts.
Interpersonal Interactions vs Internal Dialog
I laid out the difference between brutal honesty and loving honesty in terms of interpersonal interactions because it is easier to be more objective. You have probably known that brutally honest person, who was not deliberately mean, but ended up being mean most of the time through callous wording. You have also probably known at least one person who could always say the right thing, and you walked away feeling better about bad things, instead of worse.
You can practice either form of honesty with yourself, through internal dialog. It is extremely common for people who would never be brutally honest with friends or strangers to be brutally honest with themselves. This usually takes the form of intense self-criticisms like, “I am so stupid,” “I cannot do anything right,” “This always goes wrong,” “I hate myself for doing this,” and “I am ugly and unlovable.”
When they happen, these statements all lack in objectivity. A friend or loved one would likely disagree about “ugly and unlovable” in particular. Yet, they are a brutally honest reflection of how people feel about themselves in the moment when they have those thoughts.
But, just like with interpersonal interactions, the brutally honest approach ignores greater context. It easily becomes callous, mean, and hurtful without benefit because it attacks instead of illuminating the entire situation and offering solutions. Instead of helping, internalized brutal honesty is much more likely to reinforce harmful coping mechanisms, further damage self-confidence, and overall make your mental and emotional state that much worse.
If you would never say it that way to another person, why do you say it that way to yourself? Is that truly in your best interest? Odds are, it is not.
Changing Your Internal Dialog
Being lovingly honest with yourself involves being compassionate with yourself and looking for the greater context. Find that context, and be compassionate with yourself about the circumstances around the subject you are criticizing. That way you can understand why your perception of the subject feels true, and you can work to change it for the future.
Instead of “I am so stupid,” it might be, “That was really stupid of me. I need to be more aware of these things in the future.” It moves the judgment of stupidity from you, to the action which was stupid. We are all capable of doing stupid things, but that does not mean we are inherently stupid.
Instead of “I cannot do anything right,” it might be, “Nothing seems to be going right lately. What do I need to fix in order to have things go better?” Instead of being defeatist, this one shifts to problem solving. Are there foundational skills that need brushing up? Are you too stressed to focus, and genuinely need a vacation or break from the thing? Is it not your cup of tea, and you need a complete change in what you are doing or how you are approaching it? If you cannot do right in a relationship, is the dynamic toxic or abusive? Is it just a bad relationship through no one’s fault in particular (toxic), or have you have been set up by the other person to always “fail” (abusive)? Is something else going on that can be addressed?
Instead of “I hate myself for doing this,” it might be, “I hate that I do this to myself. How can I stop doing that?” This one shifts the hate from yourself, to the thing that you are doing. That allows you to shift into problem-solving mode and seek a solution that changes the thing you hate.
The trick here is to pause and reconsider when you find yourself being brutally honesty and mean to yourself. Take a minute to think about what exactly you are genuinely upset about, because it is probably a behavior, action, response, etc., rather than your entire being. Once you know what you are genuinely upset about, you can start to figure out how to change it in the future.
Affirmations, Not Positive Affirmations
Self-depreciating thoughts like “I am ugly and unlovable,” are among the hardest to address, but are especially important. The secret to changing that kind of internal dialog is affirmations, but not necessarily the positive affirmation style of trying to jump straight to, “I am beautiful and lovable.” If you genuinely believe that you are ugly and unlovable, saying “I am beautiful and lovable,” is likely to feel like a flat-out lie, and I do not believe it is ever good to lie to yourself.
So, instead of going for the positive affirmation, go for an affirmation with no qualifiers. Affirmation means a positive assertion, or the act of affirming. Affirming means to validate or confirm, to state positively, to assert something as valid or confirmed, or to show or express a strong belief in something.
Affirmations are about validating and confirming reality, usually in a positive context. When you tack “positive” onto the front, it easily becomes a merry ride into toxic positivity, denial of anything “negative”, and self-delusion in the “I am perfect” direction (spoiler alert – no one is perfect, and that is a wonderful thing). That is because in the same way brutal honesty usually focuses exclusively on the negative aspects of the truth, positive affirmations usually focus exclusively on the positive aspects of the truth. Both ignore context and nuance, which is where the soul of truth and honesty usually lie.
The context of “I am ugly and unlovable,” is likely to lay in a lack of self-confidence and self-worth, perhaps rooted in old traumas. Continuing to repeat that thought to yourself is going to reinforce that lack of self-confidence and self-worth, so it is critical to shift the internal dialog in order to foster greater self-confidence and self-worth. It is hard to shift that dialog if you genuinely believe that being ugly and unlovable is the truth, because anything that feels like an outright lie is probably going to seem disingenuous and delusional.
Instead consider your internal dialog as though you were going to address a friend with compassion and understanding. There is always more to the story than the brutally honest and callous approach, and a lot of ways to rephrase it which retains honesty, while encouraging moving in a more positive direction.
“A lot of people believe I am beautiful and lovable.” “I see myself as ugly and unlovable, but those things are subjective, and not an absolute Truth.” “I might not be ugly and unlovable after all.” “I have always thought I was ugly and unlovable, but I might be wrong about that.” “Everyone makes mistakes. I am mistaken in believing I am ugly and unlovable.” “There are people who believe I am beautiful and lovable. If they think I am beautiful and can love me, I can learn to love and see the beauty in myself too.”
There are a lot of different ways to rephrase internal dialog so it is lovingly honest instead of brutally honest or delusionally positive.
- Acknowledge the truth as it is currently understood, phrasing it in a way that recognizes it is a belief or emotion, not an absolute immutable Truth.
- Acknowledge why that belief is held. What factors into the belief? This may take some shadow work to sort out. If the root causes of the belief are not immediately apparent, instead acknowledge how long you have held the belief, or the strength of the belief, with an emphasis on the fact that it is not true in the absolute way your convictions may make it seem.
- Acknowledge that the belief is damaging and needs to change. This may be as simple as recognizing that it is a mistake, or as complex as delving into the details of how the belief damages you and your life.
- Provide reasons that the belief can change. Try to find internal justification to change (i.e.: I deserve to love myself and see the beauty in myself), but this can be left out if it is too difficult or unbelievable at the moment. Also look for external justifications. This may take the form of accepting the validity of positive beliefs of friends and loved ones, taking inspiration from someone else who has overcome similar difficulties, taking inspiration from fictional characters, or dedicating yourself to changing so you can better serve loved ones, community, ancestors, or deities. It may be something else entirely. Whatever you use to justify the change, find a reason you can believe in that allows you to see the change is valid, attainable, and necessary.
- Be specific about making a change that feels attainable. For example, if you cannot belief you are lovable, instead focus on believing that you can learn to love yourself. If you cannot believe you can learn to love yourself, instead focus on recognizing that it is valid for other people to love you. Whatever step in a positive direction seems doable or believable, make that your focus, no matter how big or how small. As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
In creating this sort of affirmation, you can provide a road map for your psyche to begin changing the internal dialog. Instead of a judgmental “stop doing that because I say so,” it engages your subconscious so it can find the way forward with awareness. Over time, the affirmation will change as you move down that road. When your base belief changes from, “I am ugly and unlovable,” to “I can be loved and I am capable of beauty, even though I do not feel that way all the time,” that is a fantastic leap in the right direction.
It is ideal if your new affirmation feels a little uncomfortable. That means you are pushing your boundaries and encouraging yourself to think in new ways which you are not accustomed to. The trick is to avoid making an affirmation which is so uncomfortable that it feels like a lie or delusion. You are looking for an uncomfortable loving truth which is at least slightly believable to your subconscious.
You will know when it is time to reevaluate and change your affirmation because it will either feel completely comfortable and acceptable, or it may even feel a little negative. That is great! Simply go through the process of creating a new affirmation based on your current belief. Include any new understanding you have gained about its root causes. See if you have new personal reasons to justify making those changes. Use as many external justifications as you would like. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a better person for the benefit of not just yourself, but also for those around you.
Keep up this process long enough, and you will probably find yourself in the land of “positive affirmations,” at that simple, completely positive evaluation of yourself. The difference is, you will have arrived there by showing yourself the way, instead of trying to beat yourself over the head and throw yourself across the finish line while screaming bloody murder. The difference is, you will understand why you are there, and the belief will be as strongly and sincerely held as the negative view which once dominated your life.
Be Lovingly Honest with Yourself and Others
Honesty is a solid foundation for any relationship, be it your relationships with others, or with yourself. It is only when we are completely honest that we can fully trust and love, without reservation, and that is a beautiful thing. It allows us to fully connect with each other, our communities, deities and spirits, and with ourselves. It is key to dispelling the specter of loneliness and isolation, and forming lifelong relationships which are truly meaningful and fulfilling. It is key to successful shadow work.
Before you lay down that brutal honesty towards yourself or others, take the time to instead engage in loving honesty. It can seem a bit awkward and difficult at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes. Avoid brutally honest statements that are easily interpreted as personal attacks unless you genuinely want to be aggressive. Instead provide positive context and emotional support, while still acknowledging the difficult and negative things that must be dealt with.
Loving honesty is the balance between the blinders of toxic positivity and the overwhelming negativity of brutal honesty and “realism”. It is where we can acknowledge both the bad things and the good things, and work towards making life better.