Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Universal Lies in Life and Therapy

What is a lie?  Speaking an untruth. “Did you eat the sandwich in the fridge?” “No.” [When you really did.] Simple. But there is a different kind of lie that is more common, even universal. A lie we don’t see in ourselves or even in others. What is this lie?


A defense. The British psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer once defined defenses as “the lies we tell ourselves to avoid pain.” Who has not used a defense? And who has not avoided pain? Again, simple, obvious. Now for the lie we usually miss.


In every supervision group, I hear a universal lie that patients tell and that therapists reinforce. This lie shows up when patients resist revealing their inner life to the therapist.


Imagine a patient who detaches and is unable to maintain emotionally close relationships. As a result, she is lonely, isolated, and depressed.


Th: What is the feeling toward your husband for having an affair?

Pt: I feel empty.


She just lied. Do we try to have a therapy with an empty woman? Or do we point out how she hides behind this façade of emptiness? Do we relate to her or her lie? Do we lie? Or do we tell the truth?


Every defense is a lie. I am in no position to judge. If my spouse had an affair, I might pretend to be an “empty” man as well to avoid my pain, grief, and rage. But the truth would be that I am FULL of feeling, not empty. Let’s suppose the therapist decides to tell the truth.


Th: You say you feel empty. But then you invite me to relate to an empty woman. Then we will have an empty relationship and an empty therapy. You put up a wall of emptiness between you and me. I wonder what feelings are coming here toward me that make you put up this façade of emptiness?


Ideally, the therapist, when faced with a lie, describes the lie. But it is hard to tell the truth, when we don’t want that truth to be there. We want a patient who is full of feelings. But we have an “empty” patient. Why? The patient, based on her past, has learned to lie about her feelings, to claim they no longer exist. Why do we lie about our feelings when relating to others?


Bowlby pointed out that children lie about their feelings to maintain an insecure attachment. These lies we tell ourselves as children are adaptive. They allow us to connect to the parent’s lie when we cannot connect to the truth together.


Parent: Beats a child.

Child: Cries.

Parent: Stop your crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.

Child: Stops crying.




Parent: Lie about your pain and the fact that I want to hurt you.

Child: Lies (stopping crying): I am not in pain. You are not hurting me. Will you love me now?




Parent: I relate to you in a destructive manner. But I want you to lie. Pretend that this is normal, good, and all that you deserve. If you tell the truth about what I do and how you feel, I will punish you. I will threaten you so you will submit to my lie.

Child: I need you for my survival. So I will lie to stay connected to you. I will embrace your lie instead of the truth.


But no matter how much we lie, reality and our feelings about it don’t go away. And these feelings get activated every time a patient begins a new relationship. And her age-old question returns, “Can you bear my feelings? Or do I need to lie about them to be with you?”


We invite the patient to form an emotionally close healing relationship. But the patient has learned that close relationships lead to pain. As Freud pointed out, to avoid these painful feelings from childhood, the patient will enact that past relationship. The patient will do to you what her caretakers did to her. If she had a distant, rejecting mother, she will be distant and rejecting with you.


Although some therapists think this is a problem, in fact, it is a gift. She tells you her history of suffering through her relational behavior. From this point of view, every defense against closeness with the therapist is an impaired attachment response from her past.


Going back to our patient, when she says she feels “empty”, she relates to you pathologically: as if there is no one for you to meet or relate to. She then expects you to accept an empty person and an empty relationship, as she had to do as a child. When you tell the truth about how she relates to you, you say to her what she could not say to her caretakers. And when you tell the truth, the patient may angrily threaten you with abandonment, just as her caretakers did to her in the past.


Th: When you say you feel empty, you invite me to relate to an empty woman. But then we will have an empty relationship and an empty therapy. You put up a wall of emptiness between you and me. I wonder what feelings are coming here toward me that make you put up this façade of emptiness?

Pt: I’m not sure I want to stay in this therapy. [Threat of abandonment]




Th: I will tell the truth about what you do in our relationship.

Pt: If you tell the truth, I will get angry and threaten you with abandonment. I try to scare you into believing my lie, rather than pointing it out. [At the same time, if you don’t tell me the truth, I can’t trust you to help me face it. Will you give in and embrace my lies, or will you embrace the truth no matter how much I threaten you?]


The therapist understands this threat for what it is: the patient’s history. She is just showing him the threats she received when she told the truth to her caretakers.


Pt: I’m not sure I want to stay in this therapy.

Th: It sounds like you have a reaction to what I said. What is the feeling here toward me?


The therapist calmly demonstrates that he is not afraid to tell her the truth nor of her anger when he does so. He faces the threat she received as a child but offers a new pathway: telling the truth and facing the truth of her feelings. He shows her that she cannot scare him into lying.


But this is not easy for therapists. Why? We have the same history. We also learned to give up our relationship to the truth in order to maintain a connection to a caretaker’s lies. When patients become angry with us and threaten us for having told the truth, our own past is evoked. So we join the lie to avoid losing the patient. We masochistically submit to the patient’s defenses today as we did to our caretaker’s defenses in the past.


But, if we keep telling the truth, the patient will keep offering new pieces in the mosaic of her suffering, so that we can continue our journey of healing.


Th: It sounds like you have a reaction to what I said. What is the feeling here toward me?

Pt: I don’t think I have a feeling. I mean I could throw something out, but it wouldn’t be real.

Th: You offer to throw out something that wouldn’t be real. So you invite me to relate to an imaginary person. Then we would have a fake relationship and a fake therapy. This is a barrier you put up between us that would prevent us from having any genuine relationship. What is the feeling here toward me that makes you put up this wall of fakeness?


The lies:

Parent’s lie: this insecure attachment is the same as a secure attachment.

Child’s lie: I agree.


Patient’s lie: This insecure attachment is the same as a therapeutic alliance.

Therapist’s lie: I agree. I will give to this relationship whatever you withhold, so we can pretend to have an emotionally close relationship rather than the distant, empty one you offer me.


Each time, the patient responds with another lie from the past: a caretaker’s impaired attachment response. Each time, the therapist tells the truth (“This is an impaired form of relating.”), something the child never could have said to her mother.


In the past, the patient (and therapist) received the message, “If you love me, love my lie. If you tell the truth, I will reject you as the messenger of the truth.” “You should feel ashamed of yourself!” (i.e., borrow my shame for relating to you in this pathological way). “You should feel guilty for hurting me” (i.e., hurting my façade of lies).”


Today, the therapist sends the message, “Because I love you, I will say the truth to you. If you shame me for telling you the truth, I will say the truth rather than borrow your shame. If you accuse me of hurting you, I will tell you the truth because I know the truth has never hurt you. The lies you tell yourself are causing your suffering. For truth is the food of our souls.”


In the end, we are all liars, trying to avoid our emotional pain. At the same time, we seek the truth by diving into our pain, the path of transformation. So when you are stuck with a highly resistant patient, dive. Ask yourself, “What lies is the patient telling me?” “What lies am I telling the patient?” “What lies am I telling myself?” She’s not empty. You’re not empty. We are always full of emotional life.



Against the idea of cure in therapy

How many of us have wanted to be ‘cured’, ‘enlightened’, ‘resolved’, ‘at peace with the past’, where we can finally, once and for all, say, “I’ve got the answer.” We have an image of some teacher, supervisor, maybe someone we have heard of, who has reached some extraordinary state of mind. My ideal was someone who always knew what to do and had the answers, was never flustered, anxious, or sad, just always at peace. And this ideal therapist, in my imagination, was never plagued by anxiety, sadness, anger, shame, or guilt. No, he had surpassed those miserable states and had reached the ‘promised land’. Oh, and did I mention that he always had a brilliant answer when people projected upon him? This was some ideal image I had.


I figured if I did enough therapy, analysis, and training, I would overcome these feelings (aka life itself). Each therapy I did was secretly another chance to find the magic answer and transcend the experience of being human. Yet no matter how fast I ran, that shadow was right behind me…my humanness.


I didn’t want therapy. I wanted magic. I didn’t want life. I wanted my fantasy. But life, myself, kept showing up instead of my fantasy. Go figure.


Being therapists, it’s easy for us to imagine we have some arcane knowledge other people don’t have. And once we have it, we often share it with others before letting it transform ourselves first. Before we get enlightened, we try to ‘enlighten’ others. How do we know if we aren’t passing on our undigested inner struggles? We don’t. We yearn to be the ‘cured’ one who ‘cures’, yet we may pass on to them our own unmetabolized pain. It is easier to run from our pain than to try to heal someone else’s. Yet whether this is even healing is a question we don’t ask.


I’m in no position to criticize, being a master avoider myself. We secretly hope that therapy will remove our capacity to experience the pain that life brings. We try to “transcend” those states through “cure”, “enlightenment”, meditation, therapy, encounter groups, crystals, drugs, you name it. “I haven’t reached enlightenment, but if you do this therapy, ritual, special new powerful technique, you will reach the promised land. If you don’t, repeat the ritual until the magic happens.” [If something doesn’t work, do more of it.]


Meanwhile the wind blows, the river flows, and the sun rises in the East, all unaware of this dramatic wonder of imagination. Life happens, your heart breaks, and the choice occurs again: false transcendence or diving into the real.


Pt: “I’m afraid I’m falling apart.”

Th: “Your façade is falling apart. Can we find out who you are underneath?”

Pt: “I feel like my heart is breaking.”

Th: “It already did. Could you let the tears heal it?”

Pt: “I feel like this pain is killing me.”

Th: “No. Your false self is dying. Could you let it die so we can find out who you really are?”

Pt: “When will this pain be over?”

Th: “When you stop resisting it. Could you let go, so your heart can be healed?”

Pt: “I feel like my dreams are shattered.”

Th: “They are. Can we hold the funeral?”


Can we let reality and our feelings about it pour through us? What if it is not our job or destiny to be purified, “permanently once and for all cured”? What if it is our job to be ourselves, to become at one with our inner lives again and again and again? What if it is our job to love others, ourselves, and our patients as we are? What if it is our job to take ourselves and everyone else off the merry go round torture machine of so-called “self-improvement”?


I know, I know. I can hear the voices now: “but what about ‘cure’? What about ‘insight’? What about ‘realization’?” Yes, patients improve and no longer have a diagnosis. Yes, we will all continue to see deeper into ourselves, others, and life itself. And yes, we will keep waking up from the self-induced anesthesia of our denial. But we will still have clay feet.


We will be here, not there in the exalted ‘not here’ space. We will be now, not in the future imaginary place. We will still be the real us, not the superhuman us. We will still be in reality, not fantasy.


Disappointing, I know. Reality always seems disappointing in comparison to fantasy, which being limitless, is infinitely exciting. But life does not need you to be unreal, not you. It has already accepted you as you are.


We engage in this perpetual home renovation project: “I will eternally seek the fabulous ‘not me’ and reject who I am and what I feel right now.” Our fundamental defense? Denial of the reality of me. Our fundamental addiction? Running away to the not me, the not now, the not here.


Realizing that, we can go to the next fantasy: “I’ll let go of self-rejection, engage in constant self-love, and then I’ll be realized.” Fellow clay-footed creature! What if we have to accept our self-rejection when it comes up? What if we have to accept our clay-footedness? What if we have to accept our repeated yearnings for messianic transformations into not us as part of being us?


We long to become not me through addictions like drugs, food, sex, religions, and therapy. But we have never met anyone who became not him. The only choice left is to take life and ourselves as we are, here and now.


Who are we? We are people who fantasize about becoming special, future versions of somebody else. We are people who reject ourselves as we are here and now. Love is not about setting aside our denial and fantasies, purifying ourselves. It’s about accepting these “impurities” as the reality of what is flowing through us in this moment. It’s about opening our hearts to ourselves and to one another. And doing so imperfectly. Humanly.