Compassionate Deception

by Joanie Butman

Before moving off the subject of truth, I thought it a good time to discuss moments when absolute honesty may not be the prudent choice. My friend introduced the concept of compassionate deception last year while discussing the challenges of caring for her mother. She explained, “Compassionate deception is when we give our Alzheimer ridden mother answers or explanations that may not be completely accurate but which cause her the least amount of anxiety, angst, fear, anger; and therefore, offer her more comfort and satisfaction. Basically, it is protecting someone from themselves and their own limitations.” As she described the practice, she saw my fascination and eagerness to adopt the concept and added this caveat, “You just have to be careful not to use it as an excuse to tell a bold-faced lie.” She must know me better than I thought!

No one can deny there are times when the truth is best left unsaid or at least tempered. For example, is there a husband alive who hasn’t been asked the dreaded, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” Depending on the situation, this is a perfect illustration of an occasion when compassionate deception might be a wise choice because if you haven’t figured it out by now, there is only one answer – and it’s not, “No, darling that outfit doesn’t make you look fat, but the extra ten pounds you’re carrying around does!” Compassionate deception calls for something like, “Honey, you would look good in anything you put on.” Notice how it avoids the question all together without actually answering it? Everyone wins. No harm, no foul.

Personally, I try not to ask this question for two reasons. First, if I have to ask, I already know the answer. Second, my husband is too literal. I learned my lesson a long time ago when I asked him if the pants I was wearing made my butt look big. Now, this was a really stupid thing to do as we were in a hotel about to leave for a party. There was no other outfit to change into. I thought I had trained him well. I thought he knew all the right responses. However, to my surprise he replied, “I wouldn’t worry about your butt, it’s your stomach that looks fat.” What was he doing? He was going off script! Was I prepared for this level of honestly? No, I just wanted the standard answer. It wasn’t Bob’s fault that he couldn’t assess the situation and somehow intuitively understand that honesty was the last thing I needed at that moment. I had no one to blame but myself, so I deserved to spend the entire night sucking in my gut so hard I could barely carry on a conversation. Of course, that was before the miracle of Spanx.

This is a harmless illustration, which I relate tongue-in-cheek; but there have been times when I’ve been asked for an honest answer, which I naively offered. I was not prepared for the backlash, which was swift and painful – as was my response to my husband I’m sure. I’m a little slow on the uptake but eventually, with the battle scars to prove it, learned the hard way to be wary when someone says, “Tell me the truth.” Now, images of Jack Nicholson immediately pop into my head. Can anyone forget his infamous testimony in A Few Good Men? “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!”

For the most part, I discovered many people only want to hear your “honest” opinion if it confirms their own. For that reason and for matters of self-preservation, I choose to implement compassionate deception - judiciously, of course, careful to remember my friend’s astute advice.  However, when it counts, the importance of speaking the truth can’t be overemphasized.

As difficult and uncomfortable as it often is, there are times when the truth is necessary no matter how painful or what the personal consequences might be for voicing it. Real relationships can’t exist without it. There are times (as my father-in-law pointed out) that it is best to choose to let the truth speak for itself. As Winston Churchill so eloquently stated, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is. “

The cost for choosing to speak the truth will never be as high as the cost for choosing to compromise your principles. It is precisely at those times when the truth is going to cost you that your character is revealed. When you choose to speak the truth, people may not agree with you, they may not like you, but they will never wonder who you are or what you stand for – an interesting concept to ponder given the current political climate.

Finally, even the “Does this make me look fat?” question demands the hard truth sometimes – Spanx can only do so much! Experience has taught me not to ask the question unless:

  1. I really do want an honest opinion.
  2. There are other options available.
  3. I am prepared to do something about it.