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Honestly, now: The stress of maintaining a lie takes a toll on your health

Tuesday, April 27, 1999

By Ellen Mazo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Frankly speaking. To tell the truth. Honestly. If the truth be known. Familiar words frequently heard -- from those otherwise not being honest? There's probably been no time in recent memory where lying has been more prevalent -- from the Oval Office to the witty GTE wireless phone TV ad showing a man on a beach calling his employer: "Hello, boss. I'm gonna beat this bug and be back to work ASAP...."

But experts say, for your sanity's sake, it's easier to tell the truth. Why not start Friday -- National Honesty Day.

"Once you lie, you have to maintain that lie and you need to construct reality around it," says Jack Cahalane, a therapist at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. "You have to act in a way that supports that lie. That takes a lot of work."

Just ask President Clinton.

"Telling the truth can mean admitting to one's own failings," says Dr. Gary Swanson, chief of pediatric psychiatry at Allegheny General Hospital. "Anybody can tell the truth when it's no big deal. The test of character comes when you own up to having done something wrong."

Or revealing lies going on around you.

That is why the founder of National Honesty Day last year gave the annual Honest Abe award to night watchman Christoph Meili, who revealed a Swiss bank's attempt to shred Holocaust-era documents.

M. Hirsh Goldberg, who wrote "The Book of Lies," decided several years ago that April would be a particularly suitable month for National Honesty Day. After all, it starts with outright fabrications on April Fool's Day and includes what he calls the universal "fudging" day on April 15.

End the month on a truthful note, he decided. So Friday will be the ninth National Honesty Day.

"Never underestimate the value of being honest," says Swanson. "It's much healthier. You can sleep better, feel good when you look in the mirror. Otherwise, there's what we call 'cognitive dissonance' when we don't practice what we preach. It brings on discomfort, a psychological discomfort."

Goldberg hasn't revealed this year's Honest Abe honoree, but it's a safe bet Clinton isn't a candidate.

Clinton's lies about Monica Lewinsky were "extremely harmful," says Swanson. "In general, we want our leaders to be truthful. We know they make campaign promises, but even with that, their intention is to be honest about the promises. Just think of how many people felt hurt and betrayed by what [Clinton] said."

In the short run, telling the truth may be hard because there are consequences -- like revealing an affair to your spouse.

"The important thing is to begin setting examples for your children so they won't get caught up in lying," says Swanson. "For instance, when your child is in the car with you and you're stopped for speeding. You were clearly speeding but you're telling the officer that you weren't."

So for the health of it, try observing honesty on Friday.

"Someone may not tell the truth because he wants to please others, avoid getting in trouble," says Cahalane. "But in the long run, it's just easier to be honest."

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