Why ‘what they don’t know’ hurts everyone

Remember what it feels like to get away with something? To fool someone with a well-crafted lie? To take from another without notice or punishment? Is it a mixture of guilt and power? Perhaps it is a feeling of relief that you escaped the immediate consequences mixed with anxiety of a future reckoning.

I once lied to a police officer while wearing rollerblades. My friend and I were about 10 and found a glass light cover at the neighborhood school. We had our hockey sticks and agreed the best course was to treat the glass object like a hockey puck. It skidded noisily across the asphalt and then shattered. Glinting bits of glass danced across the pavement. We continued to play and broke the larger shards into smaller and smaller pieces.

Blading down the school corridors toward home, a stern-looking police officer appeared before us. He explained that someone in the neighborhood saw us destroying property. My friend nervously explained that he had seen two other kids who looked like us… The officer cut him off and turned to me.

“I want to hear from this kid. What were you doing!?” I swallowed hard and looked at the officer’s gun. Then I opened my mouth and somehow altered the fabric of reality with my lies. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something about finding and playing with some already broken glass.

The policeman asked that we stop trashing the school, warned us to stay out of trouble, and sent us on our way. We made solemn commitments to be good boys and raced home as quickly as our rollerblades would take us.

This post is an exploration of the hidden offenses we commit against those around us. It is about what my friend and I said and felt about the policeman who kindly released us.

The research on hidden offenses

The research on the feelings of offenders toward their victims is unsettling.

  • If one partner lies to another, the liar will begin to distrust the person he or she lied to.1
  • People who have a wandering romantic eye tend to be angry and antagonistic toward their current partners.2

It makes sense that we would mistreat those whom we dislike, but the opposite also appears to be true. We grow to dislike those we mistreat. According to these studies, distrust and anger toward our victims deepen even when they are unaware of the offense.

Why ‘what they don’t know’ hurts everyone

I was recently talking to a couple who runs addiction recovery groups. Some of participants in their 12-step programs have successfully hidden their vices and betrayals from family members for decades. The program administrator told me, “All these guys are mad at their wives, and they don’t know the real reason why. Their spouses are trying to figure out why their husbands are so angry with them.”

Why do those who engage in deceptive behaviors distance themselves from and punish others? There are a few theories, but the offender’s thinking goes something like this:

  • I wouldn’t have done this to her if she weren’t so terrible to me. She is a threat.
  • She must be a bad person, or I would not have acted like that. So, I’m still a good person.
  • I had to protect myself at her expense. She is less important than I am.
  • I wish her actions had not put me in this position. My behavior is her fault.
  • I must hide who I am so that I can avoid the consequences. So, I will distance myself from her.

These rationalizations create separation from and belittle the people we should be holding fast to. Destructive actions toward others lead to damning thoughts that lead to more dehumanizing behavior. And so contempt and maltreatment reinforce each another in a vicious cycle. 

Imagine for a moment what the impact of a public deception might be. One dark secret could hamper your relationships with everyone around you. Because of their reality-distorting effects, deception and hypocrisy are red-tinted glasses. Instead of seeing the good in people, you see threats, inferiors, and imagined offenses. The whole world takes on an angry red hue.

How can we overcome the damage of secret offenses?

The first law of holes states: “if you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, stop digging.” You
cannot recover from bad behavior if it persists – even if no one else knows about it. So, set aside your frauds, you backbiting, and your secret betrayals. When you stop deceiving those around you, your anger and resentment will diminish.

If bad behavior toward others leads to contempt, then generosity can lead to forgiveness and even fondness. You will see those who once were enemies as worthy of affection. You will find unknown reservoirs of compassion and understanding. So, take off your red-tinted glasses and discover a world uncorrupted by the false realities of your deceit.

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