To Thine Own Self Be True

to thine own self be true
and it must follow, as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man
(Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet)


In other words, if you are honest with yourself, you won’t be able to lie to anybody else either.  Such simple words of wisdom, like Plato’s “Know thyself”: who could argue with them?  But they are so much easier said than done.

In Why We Lie psychologist Dorothy Rowe explains the many ways in which we lie to ourselves about ourselves and don’t even realise we’re doing it: denial in other words. “We might lie in order to protect our sense of being a person, but the consequences of our lying can be such that it would have been better to tell the truth in the first place.”

In the novel  Sister by Rosamund Lupton, the two sisters of the title, Tess and Beatrice, differ in many ways, including in their approach to truth.  For Beatrice, truth is the highest value, in spite of her extraordinary capacity for self-delusion.   Part of the book’s climax is her shattering understanding that Tess, her beloved sister, lives according to a very different value:  she puts love before truth. (I still haven’t stopped thinking about this idea.)

The Choice by the Arbinger Institute, states the simple choice that we all face on a moment-by-moment, day-to-day basis:  shall I be true to myself or not?  When we betray ourselves, we begin to see the world in a way that justifies our self-betrayal, seeing ourselves as more deserving, and others as less deserving, so our view of reality becomes distorted. We inflate others’ faults, and inflate our own virtues.  And then blame others for our misfortunes.

In Honor’s Shadow, Tisi is distressed by her husband, Don’s, betrayal of their marriage vows. Don blames Tisi for his behaviour, thus betraying himself by taking no responsibility; she has no time for him, he says, she is too busy with her career, and their two young children, he is neglected.  Tisi, fearing that Don may be right, casts around for someone else to blame.  She focusses her rage and hatred on Don’s lover Jackie.  And Jackie blames fate:  “It just happened, I never meant it to.” In this triangle, nobody is true to themselves; the blame and responsibility is tossed around like a hot potato … and it’s a game that can go on forever….

Tisi’s distress awakens an old wound of Honor’s, a painful self-betrayal that she has blamed on somebody else.  Madalena, Honor’s old love rival, has betrayed herself all her adult life,  in her desperate search for the security that she has always lacked.  But her life of comfort and luxury is under threat: somebody seems to think they know something about her past…..  As she attempts to find out who is threatening her, with the help of her new friend Bud, she begins to understand how comprehensively she has sold herself out….

For Honor, Madalena and Tisi to be true to themselves, they must revisit the moment when they made the choice not to be true to themselves.   There is no peace for them,  until they have reconciled and repaired these old betrayals.

2 thoughts on “To Thine Own Self Be True

  1. Well, that’s really set my thinking in a spin! Do we always know when we are deluding ourselves? What about the people who always blame themselves; maybe sometimes it really is someone else’s fault? How can we tell?

  2. It raises lots of questions, and gives an impossible answer! By definition, you don’t know when you’re deluding yourself, though a good friend may try to tell you… or you could, as we all do, talk things over with friends and hope to get a new perspective. The quotes I’ve used illustrate the point to look to yourself, take responsibility for your own actions, because that’s all you have control over….. And the blame game, whether you blame yourself or others, is pretty much always destructive (I think?) See, you’ve go me doing it now!

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