A friend is taking care of her aging father and she will sometimes want to chat, knowing that I have experience with the challenges.
One of the most frustrating things is that when she calls him, he will often lie to her. He will tell her he took the pill, or that he didn’t stop on the way home from rehab to have a nice salty cup of soup, and then, under questioning, she will find the pill untaken or the wrapper from the meal.
He’s not lying to be nasty. He just would rather tell her what she wants to hear so that he doesn’t upset and stress her, so that she doesn’t have to go into a tizzy. His little white lies are for her sake.
The daughter of another friend did the same thing, sparing her parents the details of how her pal was really addicted to drugs and sharing some with her. When this situation came to light, of course, her father went into a tailspin, remembering how he stopped drinking, looking to find some way to keep her pinned down.
She didn’t have a problem with the truth, but she knew that she could spare her father a mess of agita and herself some stress if she just kept those details in the dark.
How can we ever expect people to tell us the truth if they know we are going to make their truth about us, having a sharp emotional reaction to what they share?
One of the most important things I did with my parents was to show them that whatever happened there would be no blame, no explosions, just the work to find a solution.
This process was so difficult because it was completely contrary to the long traditions of my mother’s house. Blame, anger and vindictiveness were on offer, cutting remarks about how our facts hurt and offended her.
Coming from that unsafe background, I learned early how important it was for me to be safe for others. If I wanted to be there for other people, I couldn’t be instantly judgmental, making their choices about me and my perspective.
I learned to interview people creating a quick rapport that created tight kind of intimacy. Letting them feel safe and protected allowed them to tell their stories well as I really wanted to go deep rather than showing how smart I was, trying to make them look small to make me look big.
I remember one woman’s ten year old daughter putting her head on my lap as I sat on the couch, talking about her fears over success in school. “She really trusts you,” her mother said, “and she doesn’t trust many people. Thank you for that.”
One of the first things I wrote for a national trans audience was about the need to create safe spaces (1994). I had learned not to be a bubble burster, to meet people where they are and not where I wanted them to be, to be safe.
People will not truth unless you let them. If they do not feel safe truthing around you, they will find ways to tap dance around the truth, maybe not pure lies, but avoidance, dissembling, omission, whatever. And they will know that they are doing this for you, because you have shown that you cannot handle the truth.
Letting your own stuff come up, your hot buttons, makes you unsafe. I was astounded when a teen lesbian woman who was being bullied by boys in her class told us she said “Well, I get more pussy than you!” and a mental health professional working in the session immediately slammed her with “That’s so sexist!” Sure, we wanted to help this person find better comebacks that were more considered, but slamming them down for telling the truth just stops them feeling safe in the world.
After our chat, my friend went back to her father with the intention of making him feel safe enough to truth. That’s when she learned about the wet pants hidden in the bathroom, an artifact of loose bowels earlier in the day. He doesn’t like the idea he messes himself, doesn’t want to think about getting older and maybe needing some kind of garment, and doesn’t want his beautiful daughter to think less of him.
Together, though, they just did the work to clean up, both knowing that neither one of them is getting younger, and the challenges that bring will be much easier to handle if they just face the truth rather than getting upset or trying to cover things up.
If you want someone else to engage and process their own truth rather than trying to avoid and deny it, you have to be safe space for them to truth. Blaming someone for not telling you the truth when you made it almost impossible to tell you is not fair, not reasonable and not helpful.
I am always touched when people feel that I am safe enough to share something deep with me. I am always challenged when I know that others are not safe enough to share my depth with them.
Helping someone truth is a key part of my calling, my duty. It is at the centre of my own queerness, my embrace of others choices, even if they are choices I would never make for myself, choices that feel a bit scary to me.
Their lives aren’t about me, though. They are their lives. And if I want to support them, want to honour and strengthen the connections between us, I need to respect them and their choices.
I used to have a blue felt banner of Linus from Peanuts in my high-school bedroom. “The truth will set you free,” it said, “but first it will make you miserable.”
If I valued freedom, I had to value truth and get past misery. I had to truth.
And I had to be safe space for others to truth, too.