I’d been working for the multinational software company for about six months when the senior manager explained to me – with a hefty dash of pride – the specifics of the clever international corporate structure designed to minimise the company’s global tax liabilities. Fresh from a few years working in the public sector, I was a bit shocked. I said that, while it might be legal, I thought it was unethical. I vividly remember the look of scorn on his face as he told me to stop being so naive.
Fast forward to today: that company is on a short list of large corporations coming under scrutiny by an international task force trying to figure out whether it’s possible to reform tax laws so that the hugely profitable tech multinationals pay their share of tax. It seems the companies haven’t done anything (or perhaps not much) that is illegal. Nonetheless, there now seems to be consensus within the international community that it’s not fair or serving the public interest for corporations to avoid paying tax on the scale the big tech companies have done. Even in a world that generally tolerates and often rewards corporations that behave like sociopaths, the biggest tech companies seem to have overstepped an invisible line.
But 15 years ago, instead of backing myself, I doubted my gut instinct. Instead of deciding that I didn’t belong in a place where the managers thought tax evasion on a global scale was “just the way business is done”, I decided that I needed to keep that job. Instead of leaving, I chose to stay. And so I chose to be more careful about sharing my opinions. But because it didn’t feel safe to speak the truth about what I saw, I became more guarded and more secretive. Over time, the split between who I was at work and outside of work became more pronounced. The separation took more energy to sustain. In the end, it required more energy than I had left to give.
I’ve done a lot of work in the past few years to enhance my ability to tell the truth (as I see it). Starting this blog was a big step toward facing my fears of being seen speaking publicly about what I truly believe. And I’ve gradually dropped most of the old relationships I had with people who aren’t committed to the kind of radical honesty that I now hold as a clear intention for my life.
Or at least, I thought I had let go of those people. It turns out that a couple of individuals in my life at the moment seem to have a relationship with the truth that’s like the one I had for so many years. They seem to struggle to be completely honest with themselves and others about what they actually need and want. And it seems they’re not interested in dropping the stories they’ve invented to rationalise the gap between self-deception and what’s real.
At first I wondered how I let them get close to me. Did I simply not see them clearly? Was I completely fooled by their smooth exterior? Was I (still) that naive?
But then I realised that I always saw what I now can’t ignore. My body was setting off alarm bells all along. What happened is simple: I spent months ignoring the signals from my body and my heart about what wasn’t ringing true for me in our interactions.
I realised this week that it hasn’t felt safe to speak the truth, as I see it, for a very long time. It hasn’t even felt safe to acknowledge the truth – to feel it or hear it or see it clearly. And actually speaking what I believe to be true to someone who might believe differently has felt like I might actually die, at any moment.
So I haven’t done it.
In the past, I cowered and colluded and made myself a small target. I sat at board room tables and laughed at sexist jokes and nodded at dumb ideas and almost never called bullshit on muddled thinking and poor decisions. I silenced myself. Granted, there were some external authority figures who were happier with my silence and discouraged me from speaking up… but I have to take responsibility for the fact I imposed it on myself far more effectively than they could ever have done.
More recently, I simply stayed silent and suppressed what I knew to be true. To do that, I kept the feelings and the words stuffed in my belly. This week I realised I’ve been using my diaphragm as a lid to stop the truth from rising up into my throat, where I could speak it aloud. No wonder my solar plexus twists into a knot and I stop breathing at the first sign of any potential confrontation. And no wonder that by the time I was 35, I was wearing a hard plastic mouthguard to bed each night because I was grinding my teeth in my sleep. All the words I’d never spoken were trying to get out.
But it was only this week, when I took the first tentative steps towards acting with greater honesty, that I realised how dangerous it felt to speak up. It felt deeply threatening. In fact, my whole body literally started shaking when I uttered a short sentence about something I saw happening in front of me.
And that’s when I recognised some of the fearful stories I’d constructed from past experiences of the world we live in. Stories like: the bad people always win. They always have more power. The darkness always triumphs. Speaking the truth can get you killed. Better not to speak up. Better to stay silent. Better to just ignore it and let it slide.
The thing is, our fearful stories almost always become true. Because we make them true when we repeat them over time. With our fears, we shape our world.
But there is no real safety in silence. Cowering in the face of subtle bullying or refusing to face my own shadowy demons or deciding not to call out a lie when I see one only weakens me. And when I’m weakened, I’m a magnet for anyone who would like to deceive or exploit or manipulate me. In seeking to make myself a smaller target, I actually become a bigger one.
And there is power in truth-telling. This week, when I was able to form the words to express what I was seeing and feeling, a couple of situations shifted dramatically. When I was clear about what I won’t tolerate and could calmly state what I need, I stopped feeling like a victim and started taking responsibility for my own well-being. With a few words, I was able to start re-shaping my world.
I want to be clear about something: I don’t tell the whole truth all the time. I still get scared and go quiet and hold back out of fear of hurting other people or because I’m worried they will somehow hurt me. I don’t believe that I alone can see “the truth” or that my version of the truth is absolute and/or universal. And I’m not seeking to hold others to an impossibly high standard that I can’t even meet myself.
But I am finally prepared to insist that everyone I allow to be close to me holds for themselves an intention around truth-telling that is similar to my own. What I intend is to see what’s not serving me or the ones I love as clearly as possible. And to tell the truth as it appears to me (with due regard for the wellbeing of others) as quickly and as often as possible.
So I keep doing my ‘homework’ to clear more of the old fearful stories that distort my vision and to send myself compassion for being held hostage by them for so long. This feels like the most useful work I can do for myself and the most valuable thing I can bring to the world.