Control Is an Illusion, Part 2: Privacy and Truth


Sydney, Saturday

“If only they had just told the truth.”  “I wish I had known.”

Both Clive and I have had experiences which caused us to say those words, and I’m sure everyone reading this has, too.

In my prior post, I wrote about integrating my belief that control is an illusion with my belief that we have free will and should strive to make choices that are true to ourselves, without trying to control the outcome.

One aspect of control I’ve been thinking about is the desire to control the truth, or more specifically, ‘who knows what’ in terms of important information.

Why am I writing about this now?  Recently I was on the wrong side of the equation, when I told my young adult son something I had withheld.  And my partner, Clive, was unable to speak the truth about his family until he was an independent adult, and even then he didn’t find it easy.

Different Levels of Relationships.

As people pass through our lives, we make decisions about what and how much personal information to share.

It’s in our closest, most intimate relationships where truth or lack of it is most important, and withholding it can hurt others the most.

The Privacy – Truth Spectrum

Privacy and truth are closely related for me, inversely proportional when considering how much truth is told:

1.    The privacy extreme:  say and disclose nothing, hide everything, especially if negative; e.g. affairs, alcoholism, poverty, abuse, illness not obviously seen.

2.    Only tell what you must, if it’s unavoidable and/or socially acceptable; e.g., divorce, wheelchair illness.  Keep a stiff upper lip, control emotions, hide real feelings, keep up appearances.

3.    Tell the truth, and just the right amount; e.g., answer young children truthfully but age-appropriately.  Be honest and truthful with everyone.

4.    Too much truth:  spill your guts on the grocery line or to strangers in airplane seats.

5.    Spiteful truth:  when told for no other reason than to hurt

6.    Negative truth, or using truth as a lever, for self-advantage or manipulation

Passionate about Privacy

It may seem incongruous for someone who has a blog, but privacy is important to me, as it is to Clive.  When it comes to personal information, I would tell anyone, “It’s your life and your business to share or not, as you see fit.”

Where it gets tricky is when others close to us are involved, as they often are.  Just because someone would like to know something doesn’t mean we need to tell, but when does our personal business and our truth become someone else’s business and their truth as well?

I realise there’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to this.  The difficulty is figuring out whose business it is, in any given situation.  As I struggle with mistakes I’ve made in this regard, it seems to me there’s a very fine line between privacy and truth.

When Does Privacy Become Dishonesty?


Because I’m passionate about privacy, my first thought is that withholding truth is not dishonest.  It’s being private, it’s exercising our right to be circumspect, and it’s making judgments that are ours to make about what information will be shared and with whom.

But then there’s that fine line between privacy and dishonesty:  when do we have an obligation to tell other people the truth, whether we want to or not?

I suggest two compelling times:

·        when it impacts the other person(s) in a significant way, such as telling a young person the identity of a birth parent

·        when not telling would allow a false assumption to continue

As for nosy questioning by others, I’m a big fan of, “I’d rather not say,” which in many circumstances is appropriate and honest.

Truth Control:  Good Intentions, Many Shades of Grey  

Why do people try to control the truth, and what other people know?  I can come up with these possible reasons:

·        it’s not other people’s business

·        to look good to the outside world, maintain an image

·        to avoid pity, gossip, or unwanted attention

·        not ready to go public, even within a family

·        genuine concern for others, such as not wanting children or elderly parents to worry, not wanting to burden others

·        shame and pride – to hide something embarrassing or socially unacceptable

·        belief that it’s in the best interest of others not to tell

·        to avoid real prejudices; e.g. not disclosing sexuality

·        fear of others’ reactions, opinions, or judgments

Well-intentioned or not, these reasons fly in the face of changing societal norms, which recognise that hiding the truth often causes more harm than good.

Changing Values about Truth

In recent decades there have been some fundamental changes in thinking about truth-telling, particularly around the subjects of children (Santa and the Easter Bunny notwithstanding) and death.

When my son was growing up, all the parenting books I read said, “Always reply truthfully, with just enough information to answer the question, in age-appropriate language.”

Adoption rules have changed significantly, moving from the old ‘keep everything secret’ approach to open, honest communication with many if not all adopted children today.  In past generations, young children were often temporarily removed from home when a parent died, while it’s now recommended we tell children the truth and allow them to say goodbye and attend funerals.

A Tale of Two Mothers

And When Did You Last See Your Father?  WF Yeames, 1878

And Wnen Did You Last See Your Father? WF Yeames, 1878, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Both Clive’s and my parents divorced, in an era when divorce was rare.  Our mothers, one in the U.S. and one in the UK, each had two children.

Clive’s mother remarried when he was very young, and in due course, she and her second husband moved with their family, which now had four children, from England to Australia.  My mother didn’t remarry, and raised me and my brother in the same house where she had lived with my father.  He and his new wife lived in the next town.

When my brother and I were growing up, our mother answered many questions about her life with my father.  She was devastated by the divorce, but had no problem with us looking through photo albums of their wedding.  As we got older, she talked philosophically about the divorce and what role she might have played in it.  We saw our father regularly, but it was Mom to whom we turned when we had questions.

Clive’s mother took the opposite approach.  She saw moving to Australia as a fresh start where no-one knew the family’s past, and felt this was best for everyone.  She never spoke of Clive’s father.  Clive never saw photographs of his birth parents together, before or after his birth, because she maintained a facade of all four children having the same father.

Err on the Side of Truth

I always appreciated my mother’s truth-telling, but it wasn’t until I met Clive that l fully understood how the opposite approach could cause long-lasting hurt.  Yet he’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever known.

Several months ago, when Clive was helping me with the monumental task of clearing my mother’s house due to her move to assisted living, I stepped out of the attic one night and found him holding an old photo album on his lap.  He said, “I know this process is very difficult for you, but I envy you, having all these pictures and information about your family.”

I gave him the biggest hug I could, while silently resolving to always err on the side of too much truth vs. too little truth in my relationships with my own family members.

I’m sure Clive’s mother believed she was doing the right thing in her efforts to control what other people saw and thought about her family.  But exercising that control impacted some of the people closest to her, until they were old enough to find and speak about the truth they missed in earlier years.

Timing Is Important, Too

Each of us has to determine our own ideal ‘balance point’ in terms of privacy and truth, and every situation is different.

At this point in my life, I’ve learned trying to control the truth usually leads to more hurt, not less.  I’ve also learned trying to control the timing of truth is most likely to backfire.

More to come.

Control Is an Illusion, Part 1:  But We Still Have Choices 

12 Responses

  1. I’ve been the victim of truth being with held myself. It isn’t a good feeling when it finally all comes out. I’ve always thought honesty was best, especially with yourself.

  2. I really identified with so much of this post…it was very well done and thought provoking. This part spoke directly to me….

    ” Each of us has to determine our own ideal ‘balance point’ in terms of privacy and truth, and every situation is different.
    At this point in my life, I’ve learned trying to control the truth usually leads to more hurt, not less. I’ve also learned trying to control the timing of truth is most likely to backfire.”

  3. Bonjour Carolyn,
    What a very though provoking post.
    You talk like a psychologist ! But, you & Clive have your life experiences behind all of this.I really do feel for you both.

    Yes; when one opens a blog, it is important to keep somethings in one’s “secret garden”, as I call it. You have to be your own judge, knowing when you feel more than uncomfotable about a subject.
    Telling everything, for good or bad is unwise, yet just talking about superficial matters will make a shallow blog.

    As with Life, choices are to be made.

    See you soon 😉

  4. All the thoughts, feelings and ideas that this post triggered speak to the power of your writing and the complexity and strength of your arguments. I feel sure your ideas will stir in me for a while before I am able to coherently talk about my personal reactions and conclusions to this wonderful post except to say that this is a topic I think a lot about and I so appreciate the depth you bring to it.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts and kind words, Linda, Elizabeth, Barbara, and Belette. I really appreciate your comments.

    Barbara, I love the term “secret garden” for one’s personal privacy. (As for talking like a psychologist, oh dear – I am just a regular person struggling along – not that psychologists aren’t regular people, but you know what I mean!)

  6. Wow! I’m blown away by this post. As with you and Clive, my parents were divorced. My mother was always REALLY honest, except when it came to saying things she thought would hurt my brother and I as we tried to figure out where our father had disappeared to. Only when we were adults did she even mention anything negative–she knew we’d be able to work things out for ourselves and she honestly wanted us to have a relationship with our father. That came at a sacrifice to herself, I’m sure, and I’ll always love, admire and respect her for that.

    And now I have to go and read more!

  7. Gabrielle, thanks so much for your comment. We are both so lucky with our mothers.

    Your kind words mean a lot to me, especially since you are a writer yourself 🙂

    Thanks again and cheers.

  8. Very thorough post! I’ve been dealing a lot lately with the issues of lying and deceit, and this article just solidifies my feelings. I like that you mention saying, “I’d rather not say.” Why lie if asked something point blank? Just tell the other person you aren’t comfortable disclosing that information. Problem solved!

  9. Sam, thank you! I appreciate your comment and wish you good luck with your situation.


  10. Thank you for your comments on my blog! What an interesting post here. I can relate on more than one level. My parents were divorced when I was 10 months old. I was raised by my father. We moved to Minnesota from Oklahoma for a ‘fresh start’ and my dad asked the 8 year old me to not tell anyone that my step mom was ‘step’ but to pretend she was my real mom. Of course this was wrong, but I am way past blaming him–he was doing the best he could with what he had at the time. There were a lot of negative issues with my parents’ divorce that had a big impact on my development. I dont think I ever really ‘found myself’ until I was 30. Until then I was stumbling along, insecure, irrational, difficult, and not able to truly bond with friends or partners. Interestingly, when I was about 30 is also when I decided I wanted to get divorced because I realised I was in a very wrong relationship.

    Since my divorce, when my daughter was about two years old, I have tried to follow option 3 as much as possible. I answer my daughter’s questions, age appropriately. I am now remarried to a divorced man, who has a very loving, close relationship with his four kids and a friendly relationship with his exwife. I have a very distant, almost acrimonious relationship with my exhusband and he rarely sees our daughter in spite of being two hours away. He loves her but he has his own issues and demons that get in his way. My greatest challenge at the moment is answering her questions about why her step dad is so involved in his childrens’ lives and hers and yet her own dad isn’t. The challenge is explaining that her dad ‘loves her very much but doesnt know how to be a dad’–it is important that she feels love, and not rejection from her dad, and important for her to see it is his problem, not hers.

    At the same time I am also trying to set a good example for her in other ways! Her step dad and I try to show all of our children a loving relationship so they have a model (of sorts!) to learn from. We will even allow some arguments in front of the kids–so long as we also show them the making up (or some of it!) because it is healthy to know that some arguments can be normal. But part of this ‘example setting’ is not going over too many details of the past, unless asked. We dont dwell on the past relationships. We answer questions, we try to take responsibility where we should but we also focus on moving on. When I take my daughter to northumberland to where her dad and I met, I want to show her were I did things before I met him, but if we stumble across things from my relationship with her dad, I will tell her.

    A long and rambling comment! Thanks again for getting in touch!

  11. Thanks for your comment, Michelle!

    You have an interesting story and it sounds like you and your hubby are doing a wonderful job with all your children.

    My late husband used to express the same frustration (and sadness) as you vis a vis his ex-wife’s lack of involvement with my stepson, when my stepson was growing up. She lived nearby, but almost never saw him. However, this changed when she got older. Our cynical view was that she realised she needed him, then, but our kinder view was that she had grown and matured herself, and was able to be a better mother, albeit to a young adult by that time. Regardless of the former, I know the latter is also true. It was a wonderful change and development for both of them.

    You never know what may happen.

    Cheers and thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

  12. Fantastic, Carolyn. This was just the perfect food for thought with me and what all has been going on. I love how you found a good balance in this post of what you disclosed as examples! Enough to truly be helpful, but not sharing too much. You really “walked your talk” in this post.

    I feel after reading this that enough truth has been shared with the people who need to know it with events that happened to me in January. It’s been one of those situations where though the things that happened were not directly to me, I have needed a support system for myself in it all. *I* needed some people to know what happened, even though the people involved may not have wanted people to know (you know, people who tend towards the #1 on the spectrum up there). Like you wrote, it is so tricky when others close to us are involved. I usually hover between the #2 and #3 on the spectrum on my blog with the exception of writing about my kids & that whole situation. I suppose some would say that someone who blogs is closing in on #4 up there, though, lol.

    Anyway, I am off to read the previous link, too. Thank you so much for sharing this. 🙂

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