A few weeks ago, I wrote an article called “Why Would You Lie to Your Therapist?” that appears to have hit a nerve with clients and therapists alike.
The article questioned why when you’re paying good money for a therapist you would spend any time lying to them. It was an honest question that psychotherapists sometimes grapple with, especially after seeing a client for awhile and then finding out some really big or important piece of information the client hadn’t previously mentioned. (In many cases, the word “lie” may be implying intent where none exists. Omitting certain information, or simply being unaware of its importance, does not mean a person is intentionally untruthful.)
The responses to that article were both amazing and insightful, providing a plethora of reasons people don’t always fully disclose everything to their therapist. I want to thank my readers for the enlightening conversation. After analyzing the responses, I’ve compiled a list of the ten most common reasons people are not always truthful with their therapists.
- 1. Painful or embarrassing information. Perhaps the most frequently cited reason also is the most obvious: Discussing an issue that is extremely emotionally painful, embarrassing, or shameful is just plain difficult to talk to anyone about. Humans are not intrinsically good at talking about embarrassing things about ourselves or about the way we feel or behave. We hide our shame and our pain from others, and it takes time and effort to go against years of doing so just because we start a psychotherapy relationship.
2. Didn’t know it was important; denial. Another common theme was that it’s not really a lie if a person doesn’t know the information is important or valuable to their progress in therapy. An issue the client believes is irrelevant to therapy may, in fact, be very relevant and important when it’s finally revealed. This may be due to the client’s lack of insight, but it also can be part of the problem itself denial, delusional or false beliefs, or a cognitive distortion, where our minds have convinced us a particular thought is true when it’s not. The person seeking therapy simply may not know or recognize what the “truth” really is, or may not be ready for such a truth to be revealed to them.
3. My therapist will judge me. I caught a lot of flak for suggesting that therapists somehow were above judging their clients. Perhaps I was lost in my idealistic world of therapy professionals, but I still believe that good professionals try not to judge their clients. The fact is, judgment does happen, and sometimes therapists don’t always handle their judgmental attitudes or beliefs in a positive, therapeutic manner.
Some therapists do judge clients for what they tell them in therapy, or dismiss their concerns or emotional responses, and that’s a reason many people hold back in baring their souls in psychotherapy. Some therapists don’t listen when that’s their primary responsibility. Such therapist behavior can lead a person to feeling a lot worse about themselves, when therapy is intended to help a person feel better about themselves. A client often will clam up and stop being truthful (“Everything’s fine!”) because they’ve learned their current therapist simply isn’t going to help them.
4. My therapist will report me. Another common fear was of therapists’ status in most states as “mandated reporters.” If people are in danger of harming themselves, others, a senior citizen or a child, therapists must report such behaviors (and, left more to the therapist’s discretion, thoughts) to the appropriate state agency. Such reports then may become part of a central database, meaning clients could be branded for life with a tag such as “suicide risk” or “child abuser” regardless of whether it is a permanent condition. Although such concerns are relatively rare in the context of most people’s reasons for seeking out psychotherapy, it is a legitimate concern.
5. Trust and rapport with your therapist. The therapy process makes for a complex relationship, and one that takes both parties’ time, effort and energy to build. Without a strong rapport and solid trust, people often feel defensive and on guard in psychotherapy and may not share all that they could or should. Trust must be earned, a process that takes time and patience. Clients might withhold information until they felt that trust was in place. If a person doesn’t trust his or her therapist, they’re not going to be willing to share everything with him or her.
6. Lying as coping mechanism. Often, people learn to lie skillfully in order to avoid continued abuse or trauma. Undoing the common use of that coping mechanism will take time, even with a skilled and trusted therapist.
7. It just takes time. Many people pointed out that building that trust and rapport with one’s therapist just takes time. As human, social beings, we’ve learned to wear certain masks that aren’t always easy to let drop just because we should. The therapeutic process is a messy and complex one. Both therapist and client must take the time and make the effort to dig out the truth.
For some people, trust and rapport may not be enough. It may take a long time to be able to talk to a therapist about years of struggle with an experience. There are layers and layers of “truth” and a psychotherapeutic relationship can be both dynamic and complex.