When I was a child, I was told over and over again by my mother that honesty was very important. That truth was moral and lies were immoral.
That was what she said.
And then she showed me something different: That telling the truth is important unless that truth is embarrassing or inconvenient to her. So if it made her directly look bad, or if it reflected poorly onto someone she viewed as an extension of her — especially her children or her husband, anyone in her family, really — then the truth was no longer important.
I learned from her that it was far more important to look good to others than to be good.
Unfortunately, I learned this much too late for her liking, after I’d committed what to her were a number of grave, unforgivable offenses: Being odd… and worse still, being transparent in that oddness.
I wrote weird stories as a kid, about heroes who didn’t want to be there, who saved the world in spite of trying to get out of the duty, like really dramatic jury service. Werewolves who could force teleport you interdimensionally by bleeding on you. What Civil War soldiers might think as they died. Cats who could talk and successfully ran for public office.
And worst of all, I asked questions during Sunday school, ones that seemed like obvious followups to me but deeply disturbed my catechism teacher. Why didn’t the church believe in reincarnation? I wanted to know. Why did this conflict with teachings?
If Thomas was wrong for doubting, then how come my priest was okay not to believe local politicians, to doubt them? He stumped for and against people every week as part of his sermon.
How could you believe everyone at once, especially when their messages conflicted? You couldn’t have faith in everything. How were you supposed to know? Couldn’t everyone eventually whip out “because I told you so”? Was it virtuous to cave? Did it matter to whom?
As a kid, I wasn’t supposed to trust strangers. Was this something I’d learn when I became an adult?
My mother was mortified when my catechism teacher reported this to her, that I’d asked so many questions and such pointed ones.
“For a smart kid, sometimes you don’t have any common sense,” she said.
She did her best to correct my distressingly unorthodox developing personality. Sometimes she openly shamed and criticized me. Other times she tied the unwanted viewpoints and behaviors to what she hoped would be a compelling threat, like social exile: “You better stop acting so weird. No one’s gonna want to be with someone like you. Do you want to end up all alone?”
She told me that I had to quit being so damn weird. That I was defective and embarrassing. And when I was young, I believed her. But as I grew older and the behavior came out in small doses despite my best efforts (like most children, I had limited emotional control and couldn’t completely repress my personality), it was warmly welcomed at school. People outside of my family and church thought I was funny, entertaining, polite. Pretty reliably. School age peers and teachers.
Identity Negotiation v. Identity Invalidation, Adolescent Disembedding v. Estrangement
My mother’s threats that I would end up exiled or alone stopped being effective as I got older and found little to no difficulty making friends.
So she was forced to deal with how I behaved using a difficult tactic: By telling me over and over again that I was deluded, mistaken about who I was. Instilling in me a fear that this real self that I’d been poorly hiding for years from other people wasn’t the real me and that my insistence on it was delusion, that I was a fraud, a liar.
“You’re not weird,” she’d say. “You just want to be that way.”
It was an approach she’d continue for decades, even as more evidence mounted that would contradict it. As I wrote in an earlier piece, about a shopping trip that took place in my late 20s:
I remember one afternoon that my mother and I went out grocery shopping together (I was good at the logistics involved in scoring good deals on food, so she’d pick me up, and we’d go out together). We were fueling up her car at a gas station when she spotted a girl with pink hair and proceeded to make fun of her, like she always did with people she found unacceptable for some reason or another (when she spotted people with strange hair colors, piercings, ill-fitting clothes, weight problems, outfits she deemed “slutty,” etc), and even though I usually tolerated this behavior, cringing silently, somehow in that moment, I found my voice and said, “Mom, you really shouldn’t make fun of weird people in front of me. I’m weird. It hurts my feelings.”
She paused, thought a moment. “I don’t think you’re as weird as you think you are,” she said finally.
Little did she know that I’d opened my marriage, recently participated in orgies, that before long I’d be negotiating my first power exchange relationship with a paraphiliac who lived 900 miles away.
She was so sure she knew everything about me.
Because she was so sure she knew everything about me and edited that down to only things that made her feel comfortable, my mother and I became strangers over the years. Some of that drift was normal adolescent disembedding, but in a lot of ways, I was different than a lot of kids. I wanted to be honest with my mother and keep her close, even as I grew into a very different person than who she was and who she’d dreamt I’d be.
When it came to information she didn’t want to hear, Mom was utterly bulletproof. If the choice was something she disapproved of, she’d scream at you and punish you for even considering it (and forget about what awaited you if she found that you’d actually done the thing in question).
Mom’s Decision-Making Process Seemed to Hinge On Social Harm Avoidance
I learned very quickly not to even bother consulting my mother on difficult choices.
Not only was she mercurial, she also frankly wasn’t much help.
She saw most choices as straightforward, guided by a system of inner logic, a well-calibrated moral compass, that she understood intuitively but didn’t feel like she should have to explain.
Looking back as an adult, her morality seems to have been firmly grounded in harm avoidance, especially that of social harm: She made choices that seemed “safe” to her. And safe meant not only escaping bodily or mortal harm but also avoiding humiliation or embarrassment (what Murray called the need for infavoidance).
In fact, social harm seemed to be her greatest fear. She’d grown up poor with three brothers and sisters. Her father was a disabled vet, and her mother worked as a medical receptionist in the 60s when women working was heavily frowned upon. There was never enough money to go around, and my mother was surrounded by wealthier families with children who looked down on her.
She longed to fit in. So she starved herself to become model rail thin and became an excellent seamstress. She couldn’t afford nice clothing, but she could manage to find clearance fabric and designed her own dresses, sewn on a relative’s machine.
The pictures of my mother during the late 60s and early 70s are striking. In one, she’s wearing a tiny bikini she knitted herself. She’s a dead wringer for Cher.
My mother went from being a poor girl whose mother had to work to being that pretty popular girl everyone envied. Her advice to me as a young woman gives further insights, “You want to say as little as possible,” she’d advise. “Leave people wondering about you. People love the pretty girl who is a total mystery and is always smiling.”
Projecting Barbie Perfection onto a Defective Doll
It must have been a huge personal disappointment for her to have ended up with me, a girl who was always talking and a bit chubby, who seemed to have inherited a bit more of my father’s looks than her own. I think if I’d have been a Barbie doll she ordered, she most certainly would have sent me back with a note saying that I was defective.
But she didn’t have that option. And her disappointment with me as a daughter conflicted with one of her core beliefs: That no matter how bad things got, you couldn’t turn your back on family. Family should stick together, even if they despised one another and had nothing in common.
So after a while, I think she chose denial instead.
She began to project the image of the ideal Barbie doll onto me. And instead of trying to correct what she considered my defective behaviors, she instead began to insist that I was pretending to be defective. That I was really perfection under the various defective masks I wore.
She never explained why I would go to such great lengths. Why I would have sprung from the womb attempting to enact a weirdness that was in fact all a sham.
All she could manage when I’d ask her was, “You’re not weird. You just want to be that way.”
You Can’t Really Communicate with a Person Who Changes the Topic Whenever They Get Uncomfortable and Doesn’t Believe Anything You Say
To this day, it’s difficult for me to have any sort of meaningful conversation with my mother. She drops the conversational thread as soon as it becomes uncomfortable for her, and it doesn’t take very much. On the rare occasion we do hang out, we discuss superficial things that interest her (her social interactions with other women who go to her church, her experiences catering church luncheons, TV programs she likes, etc.), and flip between them in a way that completely disorients me… it’s like she’s watching TV and any time someone does anything she disapproves of, she quickly changes the channel.
It is impossible to tell my mother any sort of truth. Especially uncomfortable ones.
Interestingly, she also doubts everything I say. For example, I’d told her before she came to visit me that my husband had been on a modified diet, that he’d been having digestive issues, had lost a lot of weight, and for her not to be surprised when we went out to eat together if he couldn’t eat very much at all.
And yet when she visited, she was completely taken aback and surprised. That he’d lost weight. That he couldn’t eat very much.
Even though I’d told her all of this.
And she insisted several times while we were at dinner that he needed to eat more food, that he wasn’t eating enough. My husband later told me that I became visibly upset at that point, like I was narrowly holding back rage at the point where she was ignoring his polite no’s and pushing him to eat more.
He’s right. I was.
There’s just something awful about a person who refuses to believe you, who acts like you’re lying when you’re telling the truth.
Lying Sucks, But It’s Not the Biggest Dealbreaker
I’ve found that if you ask most people what destroys relationships fastest, what is the biggest death knell to love and trust, they’ll inevitably say the same thing: Lying.
And you know, lying is pretty terrible.
I’ve dated a lot of people in my life. Some relationships have been great, others not so much.
As part of that, yes, I’ve dated a few liars. To be clear, it sucked.
I found it difficult to trust them or to trust that staying in those relationships for any length of time was the right decision. I became consumed with figuring out the best way to make it easier for them to tell the truth to me.
Believe it or not, sometimes that actually worked.
Few people want to acknowledge this, but there do seem to be people who will only lie so long as you make telling the truth harder for them than telling the lie. Who lie not out of a desire for control but of fear of the consequences. Who have been conditioned to lie to others by people who punished them for their normal human imperfections. And with my background, with a mother who constantly invalidated me, I actually understand that instinct. So when I was faced with a circumstance like that, I would work with a dishonest friend or lover to try to find out what was going on with them and why they were feeding me a line of bull.
But I ran into other liars who were beyond all hope. Who would tell large damaging lies simply to pursue the smallest personal gain.
And it wasn’t always evident going in, at the time of the first lie or two, which category they fell into – anxious folks who lied out of fear or smug folks who lied out of a desire for control. I would find out eventually but usually after an unfortunate series of events.
So yeah, lying sucks. But I’ve actually discovered an even bigger, more reliable dealbreaker for me.
Relentless Projection Makes Meaningful Relationships Practically Impossible
It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve figured out the one behavior that I find to be 100% unworkable: Relentless projection, in which someone projects their feelings and emotions onto me. Where they effectively emotionally mistake me for themselves over and over again.
Relationships in which no matter what I say to the other person, they don’t believe me, especially when it deviates from their own inner life and their own personal values system.
Where they constantly take the truth I’m offering to them, interpret it as lies, and act accordingly.
There’s no real remedy for that. And for me, it consistently ends in heartbreak, being close to someone like that, as a friend or a lover. It can take many forms, for example:
- A person who can’t understand that you’re not a competitive person, no matter how many times you tell them that and demonstrate this, and are instead confused by you.
- A person who says that romance doesn’t exist, that it’s just something that Hallmark made up to sell more cards, that you’re not really into it even though you say you are, and that any past partner who told you they were into it must have been lying to you.
- A person who consistently projects their insecurities onto you, insisting that you want to keep things casual (when you’ve told them several times that you don’t) and that you don’t really want to be their girlfriend (when you’ve told them over and over again that you do, even announced it in public).
The last one was a particularly poignant realization for me to make because I’m fairly certain I did this to other people in the past, projected insecurities unfairly onto them and responded to threats that weren’t even there. And looking back, I wonder if I didn’t doom some of those relationships by entertaining those fears, by letting them swallow me whole.
It Isn’t a Moral Failing But Incredibly Insidious and Erodes Mutual Understanding
To be clear, I don’t perceive projection as moral failing. Or something that can’t be unlearned if a person realizes they’re doing it and is willing to work on it.
But I do think that projection creates some of the biggest obstacles to effectively communicating with another person. It’s awfully difficult to truly understand someone else, to see who they really are, if we’re too busy projecting who we are onto them. And awfully difficult to be understood back.
Bad news since love is founded on mutual understanding.
Okay, sure, being lied to is never fun. And it doesn’t exactly contribute to trust or healthy relationships.
But I’ve found projection to be an even more insidious threat and one that’s even harder to overcome. Projection creates an environment where lies seem like truth and truth seems like lies. One in which everyone inevitably suffers.