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Live Life Fully: How much does it cost to live a lie?

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lance Armstrong. Tiger Woods. Bernie Madoff. The list of fallen heroes goes on and on. And those are just the ones on the national scene.

How many of us -- and our friends, family members and colleagues -- experience the same thing on a smaller scale? And what toll does it take?

Having to live up to a certain image every day, especially if it's not authentic, can rob us of our life's energy. When you're on that treadmill, though, it can be very difficult to jump off.

"People lie to protect their self-image," says Robert Feldman, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. "Once they're in a lie, they're in it. They live in it, and they justify hurting others to protect the lie -- because they don't see any way out."

When the spotlight shines on cases like Armstrong's, principles of ethics and integrity arise. Timing and motives are questioned. We become indignant -- or, perhaps, develop a "there but for the grace of God go I" attitude, based on our own life experiences.

If we have a "villain scale" and the continuum runs from personal indiscretions on one end to Machiavellian schemes at the other extreme, where do we place those who have stumbled along the way?

Do extramarital affairs of public officials like Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford and Bill Clinton rank differently than the animal cruelty antics of Michael Vick? And when a number of people are adversely affected by actions of folks like Armstrong and Madoff, are they held to a stricter standard? Do ruined careers and reputations count for less than ruined fortunes?

While it's not up to each of us to establish justice, parents and teachers face the dilemma of how to portray such actions and their consequences to our children. The news media have a responsibility to accurately report. And the general populace has the freedom to form its own opinions. Then there's the cycle (no pun intended) of forgiveness and redemption.

I've been intrigued by the events surrounding the Armstrong episode, particularly since it encompasses both a sports hero and a medical icon. My husband, John, is a cyclist, and we've followed all the Tour de France races even to the extent of taping individual stages. I've probably seen more of the Pyrenees and Alps this way than I'll see in the conventional travel sense. We have Armstrong's book "It's Not About the Bike" on our bookshelf.

Wearing my other hat as a counselor, I've been deeply engaged in the psychological components and the human behavioral side of this drama from the repeated doping denials over the years to his confession in a recent Oprah Winfrey interview.

So how pervasive is lying as a part of our culture? "We all lie every day," Feldman observes. "We live in a culture where lying is quite acceptable."

An example by Feldman that stands out for me is that we encourage our children from an early age to feign appreciation for a gift they really don't like in order to spare a relative's feelings. Well, that's just good manners, right? And it may be splitting hairs to say the appreciation is for the gesture of the gift, not the gift itself. See how messy this stuff gets?

We often rationalize, "Everybody's doing it" or "It's for a good cause."

Body language is another indicator of genuineness. The body doesn't lie, and there's an entire area of study centered on physical cues that dispute verbal statements.

Armstrong often purses his lips before speaking, a clear indicator of anger and disdain. Even with some of these conflicting signals, I have to give him credit for the way he stated his apology as a "first step" and acknowledged this as a process, rather than using this one-time shot to merely say he's sorry -- thinking that would make everything all right.

He showed remorse when reflecting on his actions with respect to his kids and on the Livestrong Foundation, which has given so much encouragement to cancer patients and raised $470 million for cancer research.

Many of us could forgive these transgressions more quickly if it weren't for the fact that he acted as a bully (his own description) for so long, deliberately going on the attack for 13 years against his former teammates, their spouses, the investigators and anyone who questioned him. It spoke volumes to me when he didn't even know he had sued the team's massage therapist. He made an offhand comment that they had sued so many people it was hard to remember.

And we always need to look at the backdrop when analyzing someone's actions:

  • Armstrong and his mother (who had him at a young age) both grew up "tough" with their backs against the wall. Armstrong's biological father abandoned them when he was 2 years old.
  • He grew up as a "fighter" and one who was used to "controlling the outcome of every situation." (Whoa, what a rude awakening life has in store for any of us who adopt this attitude!)
  • "Winning at all costs" served him well in two areas of his life: in the fight against stage III cancer, and on the bike. He just didn't know when to turn off that fervor.
  • A four-step plan for fallen stars, developed by USA Today, is a handy reference for evaluation:

    1. Confession -- "I did it."

    2. Contrition -- "I'm sorry."

    3. Conversion -- "I won't do it again."

    4. Atonement -- "I will do this because I did that."

    What lessons can we all take away?

    Linda Arnold, M.A., MBA, is a certified wellness instructor, counselor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications firm with offices in West Virginia, Montana and Washington, D.C. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301 or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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