Understanding Lying and Secret-Keeping in Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy clients lie—and so do their therapists.

Posted Aug 16, 2019

If you are in therapy: Do you lie or keep secrets? (You probably do). If you are a therapist: Can you detect when a client is keeping a secret or telling a lie? (You probably think you can, but the strong likelihood is that you cannot).

Despite what The Eagles sang—“You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes”—psychotherapy clients can and usually do hide their lying quite effectively.

Research shows that Freud too was wrong in believing that clients inevitably reveal their secrets and that their betrayal “oozes out of … every pore.” Unlike The Washington Post, therapists do not have fact-checkers at their disposal and their clients are really good at keeping secrets and lying. If they don’t want you to know something about them, you won’t.

Yes, it’s mostly about shame, but as we’ll see, keeping secrets and telling lies in therapy can be motivated by all sorts of things, including the possibility that clients won’t tell you some stuff because they really don’t want to stop certain behaviors that, while admittedly dysfunctional, just feel too good. Think certain sexual behaviors (e.g., affairs), think drugs, think disordered eating behavior.

Let’s back up for a second and look at the bigger picture. Lying has become a hot topic. Lies and liars are making headlines daily, especially in the political realm. Alternative facts anyone? In the spring of 2017, the cover of Time magazine read “Is Truth Dead?” In fact, however, it’s not so easy to define what lying actually is—and there are those who contend that what our most famous current politician frequently engages in is not actually lying but rather a lack of interest in the truth.

In great measure, lying is hard to define because there are so many varieties of lies: white lies, partial (half) truths, exaggeration, minimization, concealment, evasion, and overt dishonesty (blatant egregious falsehoods). It’s tempting to think of a lie as simply the opposite of truth. As my 10-year-old granddaughter, Ava, suggests, “a lie is something someone says that is not the truth; for example, if people say they’ve done things, but haven’t.” Her 8-year-old sister, Zoe, essentially agrees with this position: "Lying is doing something or saying something that isn’t actually true but you pretend it’s true—like saying that one of your friends is the son of Beyoncé.”

But while some lies, like representing oneself as the child of a major celebrity, are pretty easy to detect and categorize as simply untrue, the objective truth can often be hard to establish—especially in a postmodern age given to assuming and even privileging divergent perspectives on reality. There’s a great 2018 New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress in which a person being sworn in for court testimony is asked the following: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even though nobody has any idea what that is anymore?”

More generally, lies are hard to precisely define and identify because, with rare exception (i.e., blatant distortions of agreed-upon facts) they exist on a continuum with truth-telling. Details are inevitably left out of narratives, memories are faulty, and so-called white lies are embedded in the fabric of most cultures and considered necessary and appropriate.

Furthermore, truth is always filtered through personal histories, needs, and biases. All of which plays out constantly in therapy. As Jane Austen wrote over 200 years ago in Emma: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”

OK, back to therapy. From its inception, psychotherapy has always been considered a place where hard truths can and should be disclosed. Freud’s “fundamental rule” was that clients should try their damnedest to say whatever was on their minds without holding back. To his eventual credit, he realized that this was near impossible.

But since then, in virtually all brands of therapy, clients are encouraged to tell the truth, therapists are trained to deal with inevitable resistances to client truth-telling, and the outcome of the work is often dependent upon the joint efforts of both to make better sense of previously withheld or distorted information.

Thus, in the psychotherapist’s office, as in every other interpersonal situation, the pull for full and honest disclosure is often at odds with powerful human needs to avoid or minimize shame and to affirm or aggrandize our sense of self. Yes, we all try to protect our fragile sense of self. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that even in that therapeutic space of near-absolute confidentiality, clients lie and keep secrets.

And yet—perhaps out of naïve hope or expectation, or perhaps out of overconfidence or even narcissism—therapists want and/or expect this space to be different. We want our clients to trust us enough to tell us their truths, to believe we are trustworthy and safe, and that their most profound, intimate, and shameful disclosures will be honored and respected. And to a great extent, many clients do trust us and disclose a great deal to us, including parts of their lives that are typically viewed as intimate, immoral, illegal, or just difficult to acknowledge and talk about (e.g., the experience of being abused).

But much is also left out, fudged, or distorted. Client dishonesty, as we discovered in our research and reported in our book Secrets and Lies in Psychotherapy, is nearly universal.

Stay tuned for the next post, on the nature of and motives for client secrets and lies.