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.








2 responses to “The Universal Lies in Life and Therapy”

  1. Julie Avatar

    This is part of a poem I wrote shortly after starting therapy. This post reminded me of it:

    I can’t say how many times
    I’ve wanted to erase myself,
    So I could be something better,
    Something everyone expects me to be,
    Something much easier on others than what I really am.
    And nobody would have to be inconvenienced;
    Nobody would have to cry about my death,
    Because nobody would know
    How dead I was inside.
    Nobody would know the difference,
    Except for me, of course.
    But that would be OK.

    I will always be OK,
    No matter what I do.
    That’s a lie I’ve told so much
    That it has started to feel true.
    Because as long as I’m alive
    I’m still handling it fine, right?
    And all this pain I feel is only weather passing through.
    Because no matter what, no matter what,
    I mustn’t worry you.

  2. Fallynn C Cox Avatar

    Whoa, love this one also….Julie, what a beautiful poem. Jon what a TRUTH you told!

    Thank you

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