“It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what.”
If you’ve watched the TV series “House,” a modern-day homage to Sherlock Holmes, you might recognize Dr. Gregory House’s frequent insistence that all people lie.
Plenty of people make a dedicated effort to practice total honesty, but nearly everyone lies on occasion. Perhaps you recall a recent lie or two of your own:
- Maybe you told your grandma you were “Great! Doing really well,” when you were actually feeling pretty rotten.
- Or you insisted to your partner, “Pizza sounds excellent,” when you really wanted Indian food.
What about during therapy sessions?
If you sometimes find yourself offering a version of events that doesn’t quite match up to reality, you’re in good company: One 2015 study of 547 adults in therapy found that over 93% reported some type of dishonesty.
Yet lying in therapy, however common, can undermine the therapeutic relationship and ultimately get in the way of your progress. Taking some time to investigate your reasons for lying can help you avoid future dishonesty and improve your chances of success in therapy.
Before exploring the many reasons why complete honesty in therapy can feel so difficult, it may help to understand the various forms deception can take.
What counts as a lie?
Common types of dishonesty in therapy include:
- Outright lies. Whoppers, falsehoods, fibs — these stories have very little (if any) truth to them.
- Secrets or lies of omission. Maybe you don’t actually lie, but you convince yourself certain details don’t really matter.
- Minimizing facts. You mention your intrusive thoughts but don’t say how much they affect your daily life. Or you open up about your partner’s affair but fail to mention that the cheating happened more than once.
- Half-truths. You might say you drink socially, which is true. But you avoid sharing the fact that you also drink by yourself.
- Exaggerations. Maybe you over-emphasize certain details, like how often your partner comes home late or the number of times your best friend has canceled plans.
- White lies. Most people assume white lies are harmless, since they’re usually motivated by the desire to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. All the same, they can conceal facts that might be important in therapy.
Dishonesty in therapy happens for many of the reasons it happens in daily life: to protect yourself or someone you love, avoid embarrassment or criticism, or leave a good impression.
- feel ashamed of your habits, emotions, fantasies, relationships, or sexual behaviors
- don’t want your therapist to know about your substance use
- feel uncertain you can trust them with your experiences of trauma or abuse
- don’t want to explain how severe your symptoms really are
- feel afraid of sharing suicidal thoughts
- lie compulsively
- want them to like you and accept you as a good person
People frequently lie under pressure, though this pressure can come from any number of sources.
In therapy, you might feel anxious or stressed when it comes to unpacking intimate (and often deeply distressing) details about your personal life. Lying, then, offers a shield for your vulnerabilities.
A note on involuntary hospitalization
People often lie to avoid potential repercussions in treatment.
- worry that sharing thoughts of suicide will lead your therapist to “commit” you or force you into the hospital
- have some concerns around being forced to take medication you don’t want
- worry your therapist will report your substance use or make you go to rehab
It may help to know that in most cases, your therapist can’t make you do anything. They might refer you to a psychiatrist who recommends medication, but you typically have the option to refuse.
They won’t recommend hospitalization for nonsuicidal self-harm or thoughts of suicide when you have no plan to act on those thoughts.
Therapist-client confidentiality protects the things you share in therapy. So, unless your substance use puts someone else (like your children) in danger, they’ll keep that information private.
You might also gloss over things you don’t particularly want to talk about, perhaps to focus on the things you consider more important.
Maybe dodging a question about your relationship with your parents won’t entirely derail therapy for anxiety and depression, but it could stall your progress. It may be worth exploring why you prefer to avoid those particular topics, and therapy offers a safe space to do just that.
What’s more, even though a strained relationship with your parents may not seem relevant, it could absolutely have something to do with the things you do want help with.
Maybe a half-truth slipped out during a session and you chose not to correct it. Or you’ve admitted to yourself you’ve held back more than a few major pieces of information about your mental and emotional health.
These tips can help you move forward productively.
Admit the lie
It might feel a little scary, but it’s wise to tell your therapist you’ve been keeping things back.
Try not to worry about them getting angry. That’s not what therapy is about, and it’s far more likely they’ll use your disclosure as an opportunity to dig a little deeper into your reasons for lying.
Do you feel guilty or embarrassed about something? Afraid of judgment? Maybe you just don’t feel comfortable opening up in the way therapy requires.
This knowledge can help your therapist work with you to find helpful solutions.
Let them know when you’re having a hard time
Most people find therapy at least a little challenging. After all, it does involve exposing your vulnerabilities and fears.
You might feel tempted to lie if you don’t want your therapist to know just how much you’re struggling. But remember, a more accurate picture of what you’re experiencin can help them better support you.
Instead, try something like:
- “I’m feeling pretty bad right now, but I’d like to talk about X today.”
- “I don’t feel ready to talk about that yet. Maybe next week?”
- “Last week was rough. Could we talk about some new coping strategies?”
Your therapist might suggest exploring why you have a hard time with a specific topic, rather than delving into the topic itself. This might yield some deeper insight into your distress and prepare you to tackle the issue later.
Remember they aren’t there to judge you
Your therapist’s job (the one you pay them for) is to help you navigate the challenges you’re experiencing. They’ll have a much harder time offering this support when you’re less than honest (or outright dishonest) about those difficulties.
Say you neglect to mention the moment last night where you lost your temper and yelled at your kids.
You don’t want them to think you’re a bad parent. But remember, they’re human, just like you. They’ve probably lost their temper at one time or another, with a partner, their kids, or another loved one.
Telling them what happened can benefit you by demonstrating just how much stress you’re under. From there, you can begin exploring coping skills and other useful strategies to avoid losing your temper in the future.
Don’t give up
No matter how frustrated you are with what seems like a lack of progress, remembering what you want to get out of therapy can help you recommit to sticking with it.
If it seems therapy isn’t working, you might say to your therapist, “I feel so much better now and don’t need any more sessions, thanks!” This leaves you pretty much back where you started from.
If you instead explain that you don’t think their current approach is helping much, you can work together to explore more effective options.
What if your therapist recommends a new technique?
Enthusiastically agreeing you’re absolutely ready to try exposure therapy when you’re internally terrified can backfire.
If you’re certain it’s not going to work, you might find it impossible to relax enough to give it a try.
Here, too, it’s best to be truthful: “I don’t feel ready, but I’m willing to give it a try if we can start slow.”
Facing your fear might feel horrible at first — until you start to realize it’s really working.
Know when it’s time to move on
It’s tough to make progress in therapy without a good therapeutic relationship, and trust is a key component of this relationship.
If you can’t bring yourself to open up to your therapist, it’s possible you don’t feel safe or comfortable with them.
Maybe you’ve noticed some subtle shift in tone or body language that suggests judgment or criticism. Or perhaps they remind you, just a little, of someone you dislike or distrust.
Talking through these concerns with your therapist can help, but it’s always OK to consider finding a new therapist.
You won’t get much out of therapy if you can’t share your experiences truthfully. The right therapist for you is someone you can communicate with honestly and openly.
Your therapist can’t read your mind, so they may not always know for certain when you lie.
That said, plenty of cues in your speech and body language can alert your therapist to dishonesty.
They might notice things like unnecessary or embellished details, or changes in your story from session to session. If you get defensive or nervous when answering questions untruthfully, or redirect questions you’d rather not answer, they’ve probably picked up on that, too.
Maybe your facial expressions don’t match your words or tone. After being let go from your job, for example, you might say how excited you are for the opportunity to explore a new career. But you can’t say this while looking them in the eyes, and the anxiety and disappointment you really feel show up on your face and in your voice.
In short, if you have a habit of getting creative with the truth, your therapist probably has at least some inkling of what’s going on.
Most people lie in therapy at some point, but misleading your therapist only hurts you in the end. Owning up to your falsehoods, on the other hand, can create the opportunity for real progress.
Your therapist can better support you when they have a more complete understanding of the challenges you’re facing — and they’ll offer this support with compassion, not judgment.