Lying in Therapy

Is it self-preservation or intentional manipulation?

Posted Feb 01, 2013

Why do people lie to their therapists?

It happens more often that we realize. Most of us, as diligent and attentive as we like to believe we are, will be blindsided when we discover, through direct admission or through psychic implosion, that we have been the recipient of one kind of lie or another.

Most of the lies that take place in therapist are lies of omission.

I know my wife told you that I made out with her sister. I was trying to forget about it!


I didn’t think it was relevant that I had a drug problem. That was two years ago!


Oops, did I forget to mention that I was having an affair?

I don’t mean to be flip and I get it, for the most part. I understand that people might be terribly self-conscious or ashamed of certain behaviors or thoughts and may secretly hope that by not divulging them, they are less “real” somehow. It’s not easy to admit when we behave in ways that are completely incompatible with our expectations, or how we envision ourselves. It’s hard to confess to actions that shatter our own moral code, or dishonor our values, or actions that are self-destructive or hurtful to others.

When I think about it, I can begin to understand why some people feel tempted, and even reassured, by partial disclosure. Seeking just enough information to get on track to be supported, they might think to themselves, “The rest, I can take care of myself. The secret is safe with me.”

It’s like the old joke about the doctor who tells his patient that masturbation can cause blindness. The patient responds, “Can I just do it until I need glasses?”

Or, in this case: Can I just tell you enough so you can still help me, without giving it all up?

The reasons people fail to disclose to their therapists are many, these are just a few:

1) They are ashamed or humiliated

2) They are afraid of something.

3) They have difficulty trusting people.

4) They are embarrassed.

5) They fear judgment.

6) Are ambivalent about the behavior in question.

7) They have no desire to change the behavior in question.

8) They fear chaos, retaliation, or some catastrophic consequence.

9) They are lying to themselves.

10) They are succumb to their irrational beliefs.

11) They believe that what they do not put into words is not really happening.

Think about it.

  • You tell me you are worried about your drinking. I ask you how many drinks you are having each night and you tell me 1, but you are actually drinking 3-4, and report that your antidepressant isn’t helping...How can I really help?
  • If I ask you whether you are eating well because it appears that you have rapidly lost weight and you tell me yes, you are eating but you fail to report that you are making yourself vomit after each meal…How can I really help?
  • If you tell me you are unhappy at home but fail to tell me you are having a relationship outside your marriage…How can I really help?

People in therapy lie about all kinds of things. It can feel like another form of self-preservation, but it is a huge impediment. It is at best, a distraction and at worst, a manipulative deception that will prolong your pain. Lies of omission will either drastically postpone valuable therapeutic work or it can totally derail the process.

You are wasting your time and your money if you lie to your therapist.

Ideally, your therapist is in a position to help you navigate the obstacles and find healthy solutions that are comfortable and achievable for you.If you feel judged, criticized or ridiculed, you are in the wrong place. Find a new therapist.

However, it IS the job of your therapist to hold a mirror up to you and your behavior and help you see how what you are doing may be hurting you or interfering with your progress in the long run. If you cannot tolerate that degree of self-reflection, then perhaps you are not ready for therapy, which is fundamentally based on trust.

Sometimes, people who fear being judged by others who care about them are, in fact, expressing judgment that is coming from deep within themselves.

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Copyright 2013 Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW