Shrink Rap: Why Lie to Your Therapist?
Originally published in Coast Magazine, October 2008
You might think it would be foolish and counter-productive to
deliberately lie about or passively omit important information to
your psychotherapist. After all, you're in treatment to look honestly
at yourself in the service of gaining self-awareness, insight, and
change. Forming a trusting relationship with your therapist based
on truthfulness is an essential ingredient in this process. But this
doesn't mean that you won't ever lie. In fact, it is highly likely that
you will. Here are some reasons why:
Wanting to present yourself in an overly-favorable light so you will be
approved of by your therapist. If you are struggling to feel good about
yourself, you're going to find it challenging to share embarrassing or
painful aspects of your life. So you will lie in attempt to create a
positive self-image to your therapist and, in doing so, preserve that
image for yourself. Until you are sure you aren't going to be viewed
negatively because of what you share, you may consciously or unconsciously
avoid telling those stories and incidents you imagine will compromise
your self-image in your therapist's eyes.
Fear of being judged. Therapists have their own beliefs about your
behavior and sometimes let their judgments be known. If you tell me you're
going to "party at the river with a keg of beer and do lots of shooters"
and I know you're an alcohol abuser and also taking medication, I will
tell you not to be driving your car or your boat. If you take my concern
and advice as a judgment, you may think twice about telling me the next
time you're planning a river party. In addition, it takes time to learn
that it isn't my job (and not in your interest) for me to agree with
all your thoughts and feelings. Until you understand this, you may take it
as a judgment when I don't make sense of things the same way that you do.
Not knowing something is important; denial. A month after you begin
therapy, you tell me you've been having an affair for a year. When I
ask why you didn't tell me this before now, you respond that you "didn't
know it mattered." You gave me a history of your troubled marriage but
it didn't strike you that currently being involved in an affair might be
relevant to your problems! Sometimes, patients don't have the insight to
know what is relevant and what isn't. More often, they simply deny that
it is important to tell me something because they are not yet wanting
to confront it. Because verbalizing something makes it more "real,"
they omit telling me until they are ready to make it real to themselves.
- Lying is a part of personality style or coping mechanism. Patients who
have been heavily abused, traumatized, or lived a life of coping through
lying, such as drug addicts and sociopaths, will lie to a therapist just
as they do to everyone else in their lives. It may take a long time—if ever—for them to learn to trust a therapist enough
to tell the truth.
- Transference issues. This means that patients unconsciously react
to the therapist in the same way they have toward someone else in their
life, usually a parent or significant authority figure. For example, a
patient who had a critical and rejecting father may be hear my feedback
in the same critical and rejecting way. They may have no idea that they
are "transferring" this old reaction of the parent onto me. As part of
this transference, they may lie to me as a means to escape further shame
or rejection, just as they lied to their parent. My job is to help them
see this transference and how they need not respond to me and others in
the same unconscious way.