Therapy is supposed to be a safe place; it is the one area where you know that you’re not being judged for your thoughts or behaviors.
Yet, for some mysterious reason, some of us lie to our therapists, or implicitly lie by not telling them the full truth about key issues in our lives.
The Main Reasons People Lie to Their Therapists
Here are a few things that clients have lied about in session with me:
- Having an affair, or continuing one, which they said they had cut off
- Drinking too much or abusing any substance, including prescription medications
- Abusive relationships, whichever side of giving or receiving abuse they are on
- Skipping work
- Treating children or other family members poorly, e.g. screaming at their kids
These are just some common examples. Often, clients will later admit that they have lied or stretched the truth, once they get to know me better, and feel more safe and secure in session. Sometimes they admit this within a couple of sessions, and in some cases, it takes years. And of course, there are undoubtedly many clients who lie to me and have never admitted it. So why do people lie to the very person whose job is to work with them — without judgment — to understand and change their behavior?
The primary reason that people lie to their therapists is because they feel deeply ashamed of their behavior. They want to show the therapist their best self, not the self they wish didn’t exist. They are filtering the report of how their week went, and recapping their life to the therapist without mentioning the low points, the points at which they wish they had acted differently.
This is called “impression management” — the urge to make yourself seem like the person that you wish that you were. It’s a natural and human impulse. Unfortunately, when you engage in impression management with your therapist, there are many downsides.
It’s Poor Use of Your (and Your Therapist’s) Time
First, when you lie to your therapist, you are diverting time and energy from the most important issues.
In the instance where a client was lying to me about her drug use, we were focusing on her friendships and family relationships. Those were important as well, but she was in danger of losing her job due to drug use and that was a much more pressing concern. Had we been able to discuss this earlier, she may have been able to get the treatment she needed to keep her job and get her drug problem under control.
If You Keep Your Guard Up, You Can’t Progress
Second, when you lie to your therapist, you are not allowing yourself to practice being authentic and vulnerable. You are keeping up the very same guard that you likely use with many other people in your life.
Ideally, therapy is a place where you learn how to be less guarded and more genuine. Lying to your therapist means that there is likely no place where you are fully yourself.
You’ll Never Feel True Acceptance
Third, when you lie to your therapist, you know that any positive feedback that you receive from the therapist is not rooted in a full knowledge of you as a human being.
Instead, since you are curating your image, you will assume that the therapist only appears to accept you or approve of you because of that carefully managed image. Therapy is a place where you learn that you are lovable and that you can be accepted despite your flaws; if you make it your habit to show few flaws, then you are cutting yourself off from this healing aspect of treatment.
Being Open Will Speed Up Your Therapy Outcomes
Lying to your therapist is understandable, and it does not make you a bad person in any way. It happens all the time, as my examples illuminate.
However, if you can open up fully to your therapist, and admit your flaws and missteps, then you will be making much better use of your sessions. You can work on authenticity, self-compassion, and self-acceptance, in addition to directly tackling the issues that you struggle with most deeply. Being honest is the best way to truly grow and achieve your goals in therapy — it’s not easy, but it’s what you’re there — and it’s fundamental to the process.