Recently, I read an article in Psychology Today, “Why You Lie to Your Therapist” (June 2019). The article is similar to an earlier article by Ryan Howes, PhD, “Why People Lie to Their Therapists” (Oct. 2018), but in interview form with Matt Blanchard, one of the researchers behind, “The Lying Lab” where studies have been conducted. With his colleague Melanie Love, Blanchard has authored a book called Lies and Secrets in Psychotherapy.
Apparently, lying (and hiding, for that matter), is a thing.
Even during therapy sessions, and even when there is a trusting, warm connection between client and therapist, lying happens often enough to warrant an entire arena of dedicated study. And according to the Lying Lab studies involving 547 patients, 93 percent of them recalled specific instances where they identified lying to to their therapists.
You can read about the reasons why clients lie to their therapists in the first article. My bet is that just about anyone who has ever been in therapy can relate to the primary reasons why people lie to their therapists:
- To avoid shame
- To control the focus of what is talked about (i.e. an external problem rather than an internal or threatening flaw)
- To avoid repercussions (particularly negative and painful ones)
- Lack of trust with the therapist
In this blog post, rather than covering the topic of lying again (the articles are well summarized, so why reinvent the wheel), I thought I’d write about what comes after either the client or therapist recognizes that a lie has been told.
“Um, I Wasn’t Exactly Honest”
As I client, you’re in an uncomfortable situation. You’re paying someone to listen to you talk about what is or has been going on in your thoughts and actions. You’re investing your time and money, and you’re engaging another person to enter into your reasons for doing so. They were important enough to call a therapist, make an appointment, and build a relationship.
So the moment you catch yourself suppressing, withholding, or embellishing the truth, or your therapist notices something about the way you just did one of the above, the last thing that any good therapist is going to do is to try to nail you with shame.
Instead, the research seems to indicate just the opposite. The research supports clients wanting their therapists to not only catch them, but to acknowledge not only the difficulty in being honest, but actually ask about what they just saw and heard in the client’s story.
When a client says, “Um, I wasn’t exactly honest when I told you about…”, just acknowledging how difficult that must have been to admit, and to have a discussion around what that was like holding onto that lie, can help address the underlying fear about what it would mean to tell the truth.
Because I understand that people have their reasons for lying, I’m not offended. Instead, I can ask directly, “I’m wondering what would make it easier for you to tell me what’s truly on your mind.” This is a more gentle way for me to say, “I think you just lied to me.” My thoughts are to fostering the next step into a client owning a dishonest moment and then choosing to change the direction into an honest one.
When I acknowledge the fear that I am seeing in my client’s expression and body language, I have a lot of empathy. It can be pretty scary to see your own crap for what it is. Worse, it can feel overwhelming to take the next step into doing something about your crap.
My approach involves asking you directly. “What do you think may happen if you told me what was really going on?” Often times, that’s just enough of a prompt to get the truth, “on the table” where we can look at it together. Underlying fears can be addressed. Concerns about what happens next can be talked about, and the client can name the actions, thoughts, and feelings to be sorted through.
More than identifying with a client’s culture, class, or by applying more skills to the moment, the Lying Lab findings all point to the therapist asking directly about the subject. Here are a few examples:
“Did you struggle with drinking last night? Did you drink one glass, or was it the whole bottle?”
“If you are feeling out of control and you aren’t sure if you can control those thoughts about hurting yourself, can we talk about what you think might happen if you tell me you’re feeling suicidal?”
“Did you think that thought, or did you actually say that aloud to your husband?”
Are these scary conversations? Hell yes! Are they helpful ones? Yes, they are if your reason to be in therapy was to get into the “what” and the “why” of YOU, and to allow you the opportunity to be the author of your “how” into something better.
Help Me Help You
The Lying Lab studies also revealed that a little over 72% of the respondents of the study reported lying about the psychotherapy itself, such as liking the feedback more than they did, or saying that the sessions are more helpful than they are.
Most therapists want to do a good job at the thing they love: helping others. When you are afraid to tell your therapist what you really feel about a session, it doesn’t honor your story, even if you are concerned you might hurt the therapist’s feelings.
I like to ask my clients a question at the end of a session, such as, “Was this what you thought this session would feel like? Was this helpful? What would you like more or less of next time?” And I ask them to write that feedback down — and watch them do it — as well as add the feedback in my client note.
If you’ve been thinking about trying therapy or returning to therapy to get deeper into resolving your personal issues, I hope you can hear that we understand that it’s not always easy to face those issues with honesty and transparency, even if when a strong connection is formed with a therapist. We get it, and we’re prepared.
I would not blame you if your first reaction to hearing that people lie to their therapists is, “Well, I would never do that.” Again, we understand that you are investing time, money, and effort in your own personal development and insight. We also just acknowledge that we’re all human. Lying and hiding happens in therapy. A good therapist knows how to ask and to seek when sensing that a subject is difficult to talk about.
Together, we’ll find you.