Naturally, human beings strive to seek truth. Ideally, we also aim to tell the truth.
However, most people are highly inauthentic, overly worried about others opinions‘ of them, and constantly lie as adults. Sometimes consciously, often unconsciously. And if you look at a very small child, at someone who‘s still for the most part untraumatized and unbroken, you notice that children can be exceptionally honest.
As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults:
“Meanwhile, infants and small children are exceptionally authentic beings because their emotional reactions and their thoughts are raw and honest. If they are happy, they smile, giggle, exclaim in pure joy, and feel excited, motivated, curious, and creative. If they are hurt, they cry, disengage, get angry, seek help and protection, and feel betrayed, sad, scared, lonely, and helpless. They don’t hide behind a mask.”
Sadly, adults oftentimes see this natural phenomenon as a nuisance, silliness, or even a problem. Moreover, in order to adapt and survive in certain environments, lying is easily the best strategy. Then all these children, including us, grow up and we have a society where lying, dishonesty, fakeness, inauthenticity are normal.
Let‘s explore why children lie and hide their true thoughts and feelings, and then grow up into inauthentic adults.
1. Punished for telling the truth
As children, we are routinely punished for telling the truth. For example, if a child sees something that could make adults uncomfortable, they are encouraged not to say anything. Sometimes they are even actively punished or rejected or ignored for it.
Many caregivers sacrifice a child‘s authenticity for the comfort of adults.
2. Contradictory standards
Not only is telling the truth often disallowed, sometimes the child is held to contradictory standards. In some situations they are always expected to tell the truth but in others they are strongly discouraged from doing so.
For example, the child is expected to tell the truth about where they are going, what they are doing, and similar personal things. Here, truth and honesty are good. Yet in many families, if the child sees that, for example, the father is drinking again or that the mother is hysterically crying or that the parents are fighting, they are expected not to talk about it.
And so the child becomes confused about the value of honesty, and oftentimes about reality itself. The child also learns that sometimes it’s valuable to ignore reality, or at least that it’s unsafe to share your observations with others.
3. Disbelieved or not taken seriously
Way too often adults don’t take children seriously. To give a more extreme yet painfully common example, a child experienced abuse and when they try to tell the adults in their lives about it, they are not believed or taken seriously.
This is incredibly damaging to the child because not only were they abused, but they also didn’t receive validation, comfort, and support for it. This makes healing from abuse tremendously difficult, if not impossible.
Moreover, you learn that you can’t trust your caregivers, that others don’t care about you, and that you have to deal with your pain alone. In some cases, the child even starts doubting what really happened. It’s very damaging to a person’s self-esteem.
4. Punished for feeling certain emotions
In childhood, it’s very common for adults to forbid the child to feel certain emotions. For example, feeling angry at your caregivers is disallowed and punishable. Or you are discouraged from feeling sadness.
Even when the child is hurt, they are sometimes attacked for it, blamed, or even ridiculed. Adults snarl at them, “It’s all your fault!” Or, “You should have been more careful!”
And so the child learns that expressing—or even feeling—certain emotions is forbidden and dangerous. Here, the person learns to self-erase.
5. Bad examples
Children also learn to lie and be inauthentic because they see a bad example in their caregivers and others. Unfortunately, adults don’t see lying to children as a big deal. Quite the contrary, it’s often even perceived as amusing.
Adults prank or confuse children, or make up stories and justifications. Or lie to them for emotional and social comfort because it’s too painful to talk about certain things.
Sometimes children see adults lie to others to get what they want, so they learn to do the same.
Summary and final thoughts
By being treated in these damaging ways, the child learns that being yourself is dangerous, that in order to survive and be at least marginally accepted by your caregivers, you have to hide who you really are: your thoughts, observations, feelings, and preferences.
Other times the child decides to lie to get their needs met, needs that otherwise would be completely ignored. For example, if the caregivers are emotionally distant, the child might lie or pretend that something’s going on just to receive some attention.
And, of course, if the child is routinely attacked or rejected for being authentic, they learn to hide and pretend. In many cases, to the degree where they gradually lose connection to their authentic self and have no idea anymore who they really are.
This is tragic. However, it’s important to realize that, as adults, we don’t have to be afraid of abandonment anymore. We don’t need our caregivers to survive. We can endure and deal with all these feelings of betrayal, hurt, distrust, shame, loneliness, anger, and many others.
As adults we can slowly untangle all of these problems and slowly rediscover who we really are. We also can start working on trusting others who actually are trustworthy. We can become authentic again.