by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on May 9, 2011

I have been thinking about lying, and particularly, about lying on the couch, and the possibilities of why, anyone undergoing psychoanalysis or psychotherapy might be moved to not tell the truth. Therapy is, after all, a way of understanding oneself and ones’ personal history or personal truths. So at first blush, it makes no sense at all to think about lying in this context. Or does it?

I believe it was Freud who considered lying as the first act of privacy. Think of it: that moment when we first discover, as children, that adults cannot read our minds. In that moment, we are in fact separate from them, and have our own individual thoughts, which are not immediately known to an other. WOW. As children, this must feel like magic; as if we have discovered our personal invisibility cape, which protects us from discovery and affords us some room to move, to be, well, private in our thoughts. I imagine that for some, if not all children, the first lie must feel like an omnipotent act. An act that provides immediate separateness through the establishment of an invisible boundary. So far so good. Thought of in this way, lying can be seen as a necessary developmental accomplishment. A personal achievement, which helps to establish necessary boundaries with which to navigate the interpersonal world.

But what happens when lying becomes an ongoing way of negotiating our relationship with others and the world? Here I think, we are seeking relational short cuts. The liar enters relationships with a need for control, and this leads him/her to manipulate others toward a particular understanding or experience. Ever wonder why you feel a little crazy when you discover you have been lied to? Such manipulation often interrupts the natural flow of possibilities between people, and  through the lie, such possibilities are lost, creating instead repetitive interactions that follow a predictable pattern. Lying shuts down personal vulnerability and replaces it with predictability. Thus, the person who lies habitually reinforces a state of isolation by disallowing the possibility to be known, again and again, replacing it with a rehearsed version of an acceptable persona.

So what is at the heart of lying? Fear. Often a fear that began and was nurtured in childhood, and holds relational memories of the self as wounded and vulnerable, as well as experiences that rendered the self as bad, and unacceptable to loved ones. As adults, this translates into a fear of being fully known by another through the many interpersonal possibilities that arise within relationships.  It translates into a fear that our unconscious will betray us within the matrix of relationality. That we will become known for exactly who we are.  Yikes!  And then there is shame. Shame envelops the liar in a labyrinth of secrets and silences, which serve to further isolate them from any chance of intimacy, and the complexity of authentic human interaction. Shame reinforces the pain of childhood experiences and forecloses connection.

So why lie on the couch? The opportunity to look at oneself within the context of an authentic relationship can be fraught, even when that relationship is a therapeutic one. Any discussion of lying necessarily involves addressing the truth, not as an ‘objective truth”, but as a personal narrative which defines who we are. Often our truth can be terrifying, re-awakening self states that hold pain, hurts, and the “not me” parts that do not fit in with who we want to be, and are thus temporarily (magically?) exiled through the lie. Speaking our truth(s) to another brings past and present into the room and makes it possible to address it interpersonally, and as experienced by both participants. Giving voice to our truth makes us vulnerable to another in the same experiential way that precipitated lying to begin with. And therein lies the rub: while lying begins as an act of privacy, it continues as a protective interpersonal maneuver, and the experience that it attempts to occlude has to be negotiated and addressed relationally. In vivo.

Lying can be done with words or with silence. We lie because self- experience can be too shameful, painful, frightening, overwhelming and unbearable to be spoken and dealt with, too potentially traumatizing to relive, even through the spoken word. Lying gives the illusion of safety, but at a price: it robs us of a part of our history, and a part of ourselves. It makes authentic relationships difficult if not impossible. Lying simplifies the story and reduces the meaning and complexity of human experience. Bringing lies into the open re-activates all of the feelings that necessitated them initially – perhaps this is why lying occurs on the couch as well as off the couch.

In the consulting room, we are always in interaction with many truths and un-truths about remembered and lived experience. What we can count on, as therapists, is our experience of the other and the various and multiple ways in which we relate to each other and each others’ emotional and cognitive states regarding particular events.  I think of these moments as relational experiential truths: they are felt even before they are fully understood and put into words. The truth that we seek to encounter and make available in treatment, is one in which there is the space and room to consider many possibilities, including the ones that may lead to a lie or omission, and make choices that free our patients to become real and in sync with who they are and how they want to live. This is necessarily an ongoing process that is mutually negotiated.

The essence of the psychotherapeutic relationship and its potential for cure lies in our ability to continually refine and redefine the personal truths that are spoken, experienced and lived at any one moment. Psychoanalysts and psychotherapists are knowledgeable travelers in the terrain of conscious and unconscious experience, and most of us are committed to going the hard way with our patients, the way that is feared and perhaps not yet known, but moves within the possibilities of human relationship and connection.


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