How Lying Actually Affects Your Relationships & Health (According To Science)

How Lying Actually Affects Your Relationships & Health (According To Science) Hero Image
Photo: Kaitlin Shelby

According to a recent study, one in six Americans is on some sort of psychiatric drug, mostly antidepressants. The statistic alone is depressing. But what if our unhappiness epidemic has way more to do with us than we know (or are willing to admit)? What if one of the reasons we don’t sleep so soundly, toss and turn at night, grind our teeth, and need that cookie, drink, or pill is because of the anxiety that comes from managing everything we aren't saying?

Maybe it's not them—it's us.

Yes. I’m calling us liars. But aren’t we practically born liars? The minute we learned to talk, didn’t we figure out how to lie? Whether it was to get out of trouble or get another cookie from Dad when Mom had already said no.

No?

Obviously, lying isn’t something any of us is particularly proud of. It’s why we hide the fact that we lie in the first place. And not only do we hide our lying, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to justify it, defend it, and/or blame it on anything but our own sneaky and cowardly selves.

But we're not alone.

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In a study by Robert P. Lanza, James Starr, and B.F. Skinner (University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University), two pigeons were taught to use symbols to communicate information about hidden colors to each other. When reporting red was more generously reinforced than reporting yellow or green, both birds passed through a period in which they "lied" by reporting another color as red.

So, you see? Even pigeons lie for a "cookie."

We’re trained early on that when we don’t do what we said we’d do or when we’re caught doing something that is frowned upon (e.g., allegedly cutting up all of your (OK, my) mother’s favorite Pucci scarves to make clothes for your Barbie), so long as we feel terrible, look sad, and say we’re sorry (whether we mean it or not), we’re decent people.

Even as adults, most of us still think that as long as we feel guilty that we, for example, didn’t call our mother and we have a legitimate enough excuse to go with it, then we’re doing OK. But here’s a question for you: Does feeling guilty, so long as we have an acceptable excuse, really make us decent humans? Or does it make us, more accurately and simply, well-intended liars? What do you think?

Worse than just feeling guilty or justified or sincerely having meant well, lying has other repercussions.

It has gotten us into a bit of a bind. The real reason we don’t and cannot fully believe in ourselves and our dreams is because out in the real world, we are not fully being ourselves. We have wrapped ourselves pretty darn tightly in an effort maintain the pretense that we are who we want people to think we are.

Even worse, lying affects our health.

In a study by Dr. Anita Kelly and Lijuan Wang, Ph.D. (University of Notre Dame), titled, "A life without lies: How living honestly can affect health," they found that Americans average around 11 lies per week. In the study of 110 people over 10 weeks, when half of the participants had to stop telling major and minor lies, their health significantly improved.

Some other side effects of lying include:

  • Secrets create reality. The act of keeping and hiding a secret is what gives it weight and credence. We hide it because we want it to go away, but that is exactly what causes the opposite result.
  • Secrets hide the real you. If you hold on to secrets long enough and insulate yourself with them, in a sense, you become your secrets.
  • Secrets manifest as problems elsewhere.
  • Secrets isolate you.

Building a relationship on a foundation of secrecy and lies is like building a house directly on sand. You cannot sustain deep connections with people who only get to see the carefully edited "you." When you don’t say what you think, people don’t know you. You never feel fully loved for who you really are.

So, how do we do it? How do we speak the truth when our species is seemingly hard-wired for lying?

Learning to tell the truth is an art. If you can start to see and feel the difference between who you're being when you're honest and who you're being when you're not, you can bridge the gap. In order to have true love, intimacy, and real connections, we must not only lighten up about our dark side (our liar) but have honest conversations about the hard stuff.

Transparency, what we all aim for, is sharing the real you—unfiltered and unrehearsed. When you are being fully transparent, everyone in your life gets the real, unedited you. You feel totally alive, honest, current, and are dealing in your life fully.

After 20-plus years of coaching thousands of clients, I can’t tell you how many people, once they cleaned up their lie list and had tough conversations to resolve the big ones, felt a real relief of depression symptoms.

Seems the age-old saying, "The truth shall make you free," has stuck around for a reason.

If I was going to radically change the world, I’d eradicate lying. Everyone has a lie list. Start by making yours. Some are easy to fix; some are not. Know your brand of lying. Pick the one brand of lying you are going to eradicate altogether. Proudly tell on yourself; rat out (scientific term) how you do it. Have the hard conversations. Did you ever think maybe the conversations are only really "hard" because you haven’t had them yet?

Want more insights on how to level up your life? Check out your love horoscope, then find out why holding on to past relationships is the worst thing you can do for yourself.