If you’ve ever been to therapy, you might know the feeling: your therapist asks you a question and, despite your best intentions of telling the truth, a lie slips out. You panic. Can your therapist tell you’re lying? What if you decide that you want to tell the truth later? Is therapy worth it if you can’t be honest with your therapist?
First of all, you’re not alone—plenty of people lie to their therapists. In one study, 93% of respondents said they lied at least once during therapy. Lies included a whole range of topics, from pretending to like their therapist’s comments to lying about why they were late or missed sessions and pretending to find therapy effective. People even lied about romantic feelings toward their therapist or about ending therapy when they wanted to switch therapists or move on.
Long story short, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t lie to our therapists. But what counts as a lie, really, and what can we do if one (or more) has already slipped out?
Well, it’s in the name: white lies are lies. We usually tell them to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, but you don’t need to worry about that in therapy; your sessions are for you, not your therapist.
White lies in therapy are often about how beneficial the sessions are (when they’re not), how helpful a technique or method is (when it isn’t), or some other issue pertaining to your therapist when you’re trying not to hurt their feelings. If you feel like telling a white lie, consider opening up instead—that way, your therapist will have more information in order to be able to help you.
Just because lying in therapy is common doesn’t make it right, unfortunately. But remember that therapy is all about you and your growth and support. No shame here; the goal is to get you comfortable enough to have a healthy therapeutic relationship and pave the way for progress.
Your therapist is smart, but they’re not a mind-reader. They’re human, just like you. Can you tell when some people are lying? Sure. Other times, do people manage to fib to your face? Absolutely.
Unfortunately, while therapists might suspect that they can tell when patients are being less than truthful, research shows this is not the case. In one study, 73% of respondents reported that the truth about their lies had never been acknowledged in therapy. Only 3.5% of patients owned up to the lies voluntarily and in only another 9% percent of cases, the therapists uncovered the untruth.
No judgment or guilt, just practice some curiosity around why you feel the need to lie.
You are the one who is in control in your therapy sessions—you get to decide what you feel safe and comfortable sharing and whether or not you want to withhold something to discuss later on. You’re the one who decides if enough trust and rapport have been established between you and your therapist for you to share what’s on your mind.
If you're feeling pressured, is it something your therapist is doing that you could talk to them about? Have you been pressured in the past in another relationship and now your sessions are triggering?
Your therapist may judge you—but not in the way that you think. Humans are equipped with the ability to judge: to gain or perceive information and to draw hypotheses or conclusions. Your therapist may be judging you, but they are your biggest advocate. They will share with you the things you may not have even realized you needed to hear.
It's totally valid to feel a little afraid of opening up with your therapist and feeling judged in return, but your therapist is there to support you—it's different than other relationships in your life.
Shame is such a powerful and toxic emotion. If left unaddressed, it can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, depression, worry, and social isolation. If you feel shame, therapy is exactly the place that can support you by providing the opportunity to express emotions that might not feel safe to express otherwise and the ability to recognize patterns in behavior and relationships over time.
Therapy provides a space to be seen and heard by another and to feel less alone in your experience—no shame, no guilt. And if you feel these emotions, that's also something you can explore with your therapist.
Remember that developing a good relationship with your therapist or coach will take time, but there are a few ways to tell if your therapist is a good match for you: you should have a sense that your therapist is listening and developing cumulative knowledge of what you’re sharing, you should never feel dismissed or shamed for anything that you share with your therapist, and you should feel comfortable asking anything that comes to mind.
If so, take some time to reflect on why you think the therapeutic relationship isn’t working. Then, there are typically two stages of the conversation: the first part, where you talk about your concerns or what’s not working and then, if necessary, the relationship-ending part. It takes courage to have a conversation like this, but you’ll be better off in the long run.
We shouldn't expect ourselves to walk into therapy and share everything immediately—and strengthening that vulnerability muscle is difficult, but the more you do it, the more natural it will begin to feel.
When that day comes, you will begin to experience the cumulative benefit of how that ability impacts your personal and professional relationships. Beauty lies within honest vulnerability. We just need to practice building enough strength and courage to let it out every now and then, until letting our vulnerabilities show isn’t so scary.
If you continue to withhold or bend the truth with your therapist, what does that mean for your growth? What would be possible for you if you could share the truth? What could you work through, what goals could you achieve, how could you heal, what progress could you make?
In addition to personal growth, open and honest communication with your therapist can lead to more authentic relationships across the board. Therapy is a “parallel process,” meaning that what you learn in therapy, you practice in life.
When you practice open communication with your therapist in a safe, accepting space, you’ll be more likely to practice these skills with other people in your life. Help your therapist help you by letting them know what you like, what you hate, and what you feel is missing from your work together.
Everyone deserves to get mental health support. By examining the ways you might lie to your therapist, why you might feel the need to lie, and what the impact of lying might be to your growth, you can start getting the support you need from your therapist about your truth.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.