DEAR CAROLYN: Do you have to tell someone about your past to absolve yourself?
I spent my early adulthood lying constantly. The lies didn’t hurt anyone directly — except me, in hindsight — but perhaps hurt the world in an abstract way. I now realize I was just too afraid to be myself, that I was actually just trying to please people to assuage my fears about being inadequate.
I’ve put a lot of effort into becoming a more authentic person and I’m still working on it, but I wonder if I have to tell someone about my lies to actually overcome this character flaw. I’m so embarrassed about my behavior. I worry I could lose long-term relationships if I come clean. Any advice?
Have to Tell?
DEAR HAVE TO TELL?: You don’t tell for absolution. That’s not something others have to give.
You do tell, though, as a necessary step in conquering your fears. You spent years making up a fake self out of fear that others would see your real self as inadequate — yes? So if you now deliberately withhold the truth about your past, then that will be, in effect, just one step up from lying: Instead of rewriting your true self, you’d just be hiding it.
Either way it’s a capitulation to your fear of not being enough.
This isn’t to say you have to tell everyone everything you did. It’s not a binary choice between blabbing or hiding. You can be authentic as a work in progress while providing no or some or full detail, as circumstances warrant.
When you want to experience intimacy, however, you will have to risk being vulnerable, and that means telling your truth. Not just with romantic partners, but with good friends and close family, too.
There’s another, more practical reason to share. If you don’t, then you will just live in a new kind of fear: the fear of discovery. You will always have some awareness in the back of your mind that your most cherished relationships hinge on your ability to keep your secret. That’s torture.
You may risk losing people when you tell, yes. But the ones who know all about you and then choose to stay? Those are worth the risk.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.