Secrets and Lies in Therapy

I am often surprised by how many clients there are who tell me that they have lied to past therapists. Clients usually tell me this as if they are confessing to a past sin. Then it is their turn to be surprised by what I tell them.

I tell them that if they need to lie to me in therapy, that’s OK with me.

I suggest that they try to be aware of what they are doing and to be intentional about it. I also suggest that they consider telling me that they have lied during a session or not been completely truthful even if they don’t want to tell me what the lie was about. And I suggest that if they feel the need to lie in response to a question I ask, they try saying “I don’t want to talk about that” instead.

Clients often say in response that they don’t want to be dishonest, that they want me to know the truth about them so I can help them. I appreciate their ability to even discuss the issue of dishonesty in therapy.

From my perspective, if clients choose to lie to me, they are doing so in an effort to protect themselves in some way. Perhaps they never had anyone they could really trust as a child. Maybe they were punished or hurt in the past when others found out something about them. Possibly, they are ashamed of an aspect of themselves and would rather make up a story that is more pleasing to them (or, they imagine, to me). People have good reasons for doing the things they do.

In any case, I just assume that clients are telling me the truth and I work with what they tell me. In my opinion, if clients are lying to me then it points to a major challenge they face in their lives. For whatever reason, they feel like they can’t be honest about who they are. Sometimes, the lying happens outside of therapy also. Some people have felt judged and mistreated by past therapists, which is what led them to lie in the first place, leaving a wound that needs to be healed.

Lying is just one of many behaviors that interrupts people’s contact with each other. As such, it’s just another issue to explore with curiosity in therapy. I think one of the ways therapy is valuable is that it allows for clients to experiment with relating to someone else (the therapist) in different ways. One of those ways is lying.

Does lying complicate the therapy? Yes. For example, if a client is talking about difficulty in a current relationship but lies about his sexual orientation because he feels bad about being gay, then that issue — which may be the key issue — can’t be explored in therapy. If a client reports everything is “fine” when she feels like her life is falling apart, she may not get the support she needs. Essentially, when clients lie in therapy, the dishonesty in the therapy relationship is the main issue that is being worked on. That’s fine with me, but it may not meet the client’s goals.

If you find that you can’t be honest with your therapist, consider the following questions:

  • What do you think would happen if you were honest with your therapist?
  • How honest are you able to be in your other relationships? How are those relationships affected by your honesty or dishonesty?
  • How do you feel about your dishonesty in therapy?
  • How is lying a way you protect yourself, in therapy and elsewhere?
  • Is there a small truth you could tell instead of the lie? For instance, you could try, “It’s hard for me to talk about some things with you,” or “You know, there are some important issues I haven’t been able to tell you about yet,” or “At some point, I’d like to be able to be more authentic with you, but I can’t talk about this now.”

It is a powerful, healing experience to be accepted just as you are, to have someone see all your flaws and pains and fears and still care about you. If you can be honest with your therapist, you may be able to have this kind of experience.

And if you are my client and you decide to lie to me, I accept your need to do that and I still care about you. Maybe some day when I’ve earned your trust you can try relating to me in a different way that allows you to be fully seen and cared for as you are.

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