When Clients Lie in Therapy
Most clients lie in therapy. They omit, they change stories, they minimize or dramatize, they fabricate, and I’m absolutely okay with it.
There are infinite reasons “why” people lie, but it typically can be summarized into this: lying is coping. It’s a primitive means of survival, a safeguard that protects our raw, vulnerable selves. Lying softens the reality; therefore, it softens us. We lie to protect ourselves; we lie to protect the rest of the world. We lie because, at the core of it all, we are afraid.
A good therapist does not judge a client’s symptoms, behaviors, or internal world. Rather, a good therapist is curious about all of it, curious about the person sitting across from them, and he or she conveys compassion and validation regularly.
However, saying “I won’t judge you,” even when repeated, is not always enough. For some clients, this does not magically facilitate trust and it doesn’t just trigger a green light for total, 100% honesty..
That’s why I’m okay with clients lying. It’s part of the process. Clearly, there is something even deeper going on, something warranting a need to lie. This need may be conscious, but it may be not. Either way, it’s another signal of distress, another puzzle piece to the person’s whole self. Therapy works with a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces- if the puzzle were solved, the person wouldn’t be in there.
I believe that all lies follow this simple principle: we lie to avoid some level of pain, whether it’s avoiding rejection, disappointment, or just the harsh reality of life, we lie as a temporary escape, to fall into a temporary narrative that there is a more favorable outcome for us or for the situation at hand.
When a client lies to me or to anyone else, he or she is trying to avoid some kind of pain, some kind of place he or she is not ready to visit. That’s okay.
It’s not my time or my journey- it’s theirs! I’m not even the one who has to go to those dark and scary places- they do!
It would be lovely to wave a magic therapy wand before an initial session that grants instant, total trust. Life and therapy alike do not work that way, and that’s why I’m okay working with partial trust.
Most clients enter into therapy with some kind of boundary injury or some kind of dysfunctional attachment to others. In a nutshell, they would endorse having some kind of “trust issues.” It would be naive, selfish, and possibly dangerous to simply expect someone to randomly trust me because I’m the “professional” person sitting across from them. Trust is earned, refined, and subjective. I’ve said this before, in therapy, it has to be okay if the trust doesn’t manifest wholly in the first, second, or even tenth session. That doesn’t negate the growth. And since so many of us have profound trust barriers- whether we realize it or not- the working through can be powerful, channeling us to tap into other areas in the meantime.
Clients lie because people lie. Many of us have been engrained with messages that the world is dangerous, harsh and untrustworthy, that people will hurt, reject, and destroy you. Trust issues manifest when enough repeated trauma or negativity instills the idea that people are unsafe. And with thoughts like these, it’s no wonder we feel more comfortable displaying facades rather than realities. It’s no wonder that we sometimes have no idea how to identify our true selves.
Good therapy increases honesty because good therapy focuses on tapping into your true self. It focuses on the wholeness- rather than the parts- of your identify and examines the patterns and actions you display. Good therapy increases your own sense of self and worthiness, and with that, there is typically less desire or even need to lie. You just feel comfortable enough with yourself to brave the complex, unknown emotions of others. You feel safe enough to be without needing some kind of reinforcement or external validation.
Inevitably, in therapy, a power differential exists. Clients will always have a greater understanding and knowledge of their own lives than I possibly can. They get to choose the stories they tell- they get to choose what they make of each hour. Changing or omitting stories provides a sense of control, and many clients enter therapy because they felt out of control! This is especially true when clients are mandated into therapy- they may not want to be there, they may have NO DESIRE to open their worlds up to me.
And that’s also okay. I’ll be here if they stay the same or if they take the leap to change. I will care about them just the same. Usually, they get tired of the lies organically. Usually, they quickly realize how much the lies stunt their progress.
Other clients will minimize symptoms and glorify successes. They will tell me “what I want to hear.” Maybe it’s because they want to be liked; maybe it’s because they enjoy the praise or the validation. Maybe it’s all of the above.
Again, usually those clients come to the realization, at some point, that they can sound like the best client in the world, but if they are really suffering, what good is it if their therapist thinks they’re doing well? Those clients also tend to grow tired of their same patterns. They grow tired of being someone they’re not and being reinforced for doing actions they aren’t actually doing.
A client does not owe me anything. Not even their truths. They owe it to themselves, and I can help with increasing that awareness, but I cannot expect or “want” it from them. It cannot be on me to “pull it out” of them.
All I can do is stay loving, consistent, and stable. All I can do is let my clients know that they are valued- no matter what story they are telling, no matter how honest it is- because we all deserve to feel valued. And, sometimes that alone drives us to our truest truths.