3 Experts Share Their True Feelings on Whether It’s Ever Okay to Tell a Big or Little Lie

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Is telling a lie ever okay? Depends on whom you ask. According to our friends on Sesame Street, the answer is clear as day that it's never advisable to tell a lie. But later on in the pop-culture continuum, by the time you venture into the complex world of CW teen dramas, thoughts on deception get a bit murkier. The new vibe on lying becomes, "It's so wrong, but oh so right." And then, when we meet adult dramas, the verdict on deception is an even more convoluted, "Uh, maybe?" Need proof? Try the weekly turmoil characters navigate on Big Little Lies. Like, if you and your three besties are in the middle of covering up the murder of your abusive, philandering husband, is that bad—from the standpoint of ethics, your mental health, your relationships, and your soul?

Maybe it's time to get a second (or third, or fourth) opinion that don't originate from a screen to parse the best practices for lying. To that point, we asked three experts of different backgrounds whether they think telling a lie or keeping a secret is ever okay. Below, find out what happened when relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, and psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD, chatted via email about their respective stances on telling a lie, the benefits of keeping your secrets, and the toll lying can take on us all.

Check out 3 experts' true feelings about whether telling a lie is ever okay.

Hartstein: I have to say that I think it’s okay to occasionally keep a secret or tell a lie. Maybe in an ideal world, we would all be completely honest and tell the truth 100 percent of the time, but life is more nuanced and complicated than that.

Gottsman: When it comes to making a decision about whether to be completely honest, there are several things to consider: Among them are your relationship with the person and their sensitivity level. If it is a matter of something as simple as “do you like my new dress?” I think it’s important to weigh how the answer will make another person feel. Because why hurt someone’s feelings when your response is based on the fact that you don’t like floral prints?

On the other hand, if the response will potentially save a life or impact someone in a serious manner, there’s a responsibility that has to be factored in to your response.

Hartstein: As far as more “significant” lies or omissions go, those aren’t black or white. There are sometimes situations when you might want to unburden yourself more for your own sake than for the recipient’s sake. You might feel lighter and less guilty by sharing your secret, but the other person might end up not better off and much more hurt or devastated.

Dr. Brenner: What occurs to me is to ask, "Has there ever been a person who never lied or kept a secret?" Lying and keeping secrets sometimes is just a part of being a human being and not an android. Asking "Is it ever okay to lie or keep a secret?" is like asking "Is it ever okay to be angry?"

"Asking 'Is it ever okay to lie or keep a secret?' is like asking 'Is it ever okay to be angry?'" —psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD

Lying and keeping secrets, similar to getting angry, are not what most people would consider the most positive behaviors people engage in. But it all depends on context. There are many situations when lying or keeping a secret is best for everyone involved, just as anger is sometimes an absolutely useful and sometimes vital emotion.

Gottsman: When being completely honest means you would betray someone or breach a confidence, the most civil and kind decision would be to keep silent. I think the bottom line is to respond from a place of authenticity. Not every response needs to be “brutally” honest, because there are some situations when telling the truth would be damaging or hurtful.

Dr. Brenner: It's a matter of degree: If you're always or very often lying, and your life is built on keeping secrets, I'd ask, "What's that doing to you?" We know that lying is stressful. The body and brain work harder when we're lying. We can't relax as much, and we can't feel as close or intimate with people whom we know we're lying to.

Hartstein: All of us need to have a personal place inside of us that’s just for ourselves. We might have thoughts, secrets, opinions that we don’t share with anyone else—including our partners and closest friends.

Dr. Brenner: Lying separates us—and that's okay. There are plenty of people in our lives whom we want to be separate from. And there are even times when we have good reason to want to be a little separate from the people we're closest to. The bad part is if it starts to isolate us, leaving us feeling cut off when we don't want to be. A question I would ask is, "How do you use lying and keeping secrets in your life?"

There you have it: The experts have spoken, and it seems the truth about lying is that it's pretty complicated. A through-line from the advice? Be thoughtful and mindful. If you can live with your plan of action and how it may affect others involved, that's key.

Ever tell a harmless white lie to keep a conversation going? Here's the psychology behind that reflex. And if you believe that your partner is being dishonest, a relationship therapist weighs in on common traits of a serial cheater

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