There are times when the truth hurts, and the kindest thing we can do is be honest. Sometimes, people take that to mean that brutal honesty is the way to go. In most cases, that is the furthest thing from the truth! When you are being honest as a way to prevent things like false hope, enabling addictions, etc., there is no reason for to be brutal. The common metaphor we hear explaining this is that it is kinder to rip the band-aid off quickly, rather than slowly peeling it away and prolonging the pain. Quickly pulling the band-aid off is being “cruel to be kind.” Using this metaphor, brutal honesty would be calling the person a sissy, smacking the wound and telling them that they deserved the injury because they were too stupid to pay attention. See the difference?
The case of False Hope
There you are, you’ve rehearsed this breakup speech countless times. “I’m sticking to my guns. I deserve to be free of this, and they deserve to have a better fit” you tell yourself bravely. But then something happens after the dreaded, “We need to talk,” or “We need to see other people.” Your significant other becomes visibly upset, but you expected this . . . so why are the words, “Let’s just take a break and see where things are at in a few weeks” coming out of your face? You know you don’t want this relationship anymore and that you’re starting to resent your potential ex when you’re around them, or on the way to see them, or after having seen them. You know there is no hope for the relationship, yet there you are . . . prolonging their suffering via false hope, and your own via being dishonest about what you are actually thinking and feeling.
But I don’t hate them, I don’t want to hurt them . . .
Of course, you don’t! So why are you pulling the band-aid off so slowly? You are torturing both of you; only they don’t know it yet.
Being direct and clear isn’t actually “cruel,” it’s honest. And it’s not a specific line to shoot for in terms of directness; it’s a range, and you just want to be in the “assertive” neck of the woods in terms of how direct you are. So, in this example, it’s being tactful and honest to be kind. Cruel is really not a good word. We should probably do away with that little saying.
I don’t want to feel like I am a bad person for hurting them . . .
Again, of course, you don’t! But the deception is just delaying the pain, and making more severe–it won’t magically be easier [to end things] in a few weeks or months. And if y’all are going to get back together, you’ll do that based on other things–not faking a relationship that isn’t working.
And you’re not a bad or mean person for doing what is right for you. Do you really think they want you to be suffering in a relationship with them? If they do, then that’s a very good reason to get quickly!
Here again, you are not being bad or mean, you are being tactful and honest.
Regarding not enabling addictions
Now we begin to get into areas where a little more assertive intensity may be appropriate. If a loved one is slowly killing themselves with alcohol or drugs, then being brutally honest can be an option, but it is best to seek the guidance of a professional. Very often this takes the form of an intervention. In my opinion, these interventions often don’t work because the addict shuts down because of how brutal the honesty is, or because there is not a professional leading the intervention. Common examples of the ‘brutal’ honesty of dealing with an addict involve telling them what you are scared of: Finding them dead from an OD or alcohol poisoning, having to identify their body in the morgue, etc. And these things are more visually intense than brutally hurtful.
So really, we still come back to tactful but direct . . . it’s just that the directness may be a bit less filtered and clear in terms of consequences of the continued addiction. Hurtful brutality would be telling the addict that they are stupid and deserve whatever happens to them. It’s more of a judgment of the person than a description of the behavior.