A common, oft-overlooked lie

There is a particular kind of lie we tell that I’d like to try and explain today; it pops up more frequently than you might think and it can seriously stall psychotherapy, and life.

Jonathan is very successful realtor who came to see me because of chronic depression, substance abuse, and self-loathing.  He despaired because he had been in treatment for many years and felt stalled.  He felt crippled by shyness, social anxiety, and loneliness (although he was very adept at handling all the social requirements of selling real estate).  He was very polite, sweet, and superficially responsive to treatment, but again seemed to despair of ever moving forward, ever feeling better.

One day a source of his ongoing problems revealed itself the most trivial of complaints.  He was describing his “depression” and listed his symptoms.  Among them was a lack of motivation to do his laundry and food shopping, something many of us suffer, depressed or not.  I sensed something in his tone and suggested he seemed to be having a tantrum.

He was surprised, but tried on the idea and realized that in fact he was.  His problem has a very simple solution here in New York City, but he couldn’t see it because in fact he didn’t want to solve it; he wanted to complain.  Otherwise, he would have come up with the solution that I did:  Fresh Direct.  As I said, he was a very successful businessman and certainly could afford it.

Jonathan didn’t think of this solution because just underneath his words was something quite different.   He was shouting “no” to his symptoms, to his priorities and feelings – the fact that he would rather not go shopping – to everything.  By the end of our session he realized that in fact he was in the same state as a small child who is told it’s time for bed and begins tantruming because he simply doesn’t want that to be true.

It’s not talked about much for some reason, but Jonathan illustrates here something that is quite common in life and in psychotherapy.

Hank’s girlfriend  struggled with, from all descriptions, borderline personality problems.  She was stuck and had been for decades, and Hank could not see why because she seemed so insightful.   “She gets so upset with herself” he would tell me, “admits that she gets irrational and messes up our relationship, and she’s even started therapy, but it just keeps happening; same arguments, same nuttiness.”  The answer was that his girlfriend’s protestations of having fouled up another moment in their relationship were in fact tantrums.  Like Jonathan, on the surface she wanted to work on herself; underneath was a different reality.  Out loud she said – and probably meant it in the moment – “I’m sorry I acted up, I don’t know why I get so crazy”; underneath she was shouting “I can’t do anything right, everything stinks, I quit, leave me alone”.

This is a child’s tantrum.  Children do not tantrum and then address their problems.  They scream at the universe in undifferentiated rage, demanding that it be different.  This is what Hank’s girlfriend was doing, and it’s what Jonathan was doing.

Jennifer was an attorney I saw for several years.  On the surface she functioned quite well.  Like Jonathan she struggled with a great deal of self-loathing, self-doubt, and despair, despite being quite the powerhouse at her job.  During our sessions she was frequently breezy in her dismissal of almost anything we talked about.  She might mention a problem but then would quickly laugh it off.  On the other hand, when I got her to stay with any topic for more than a few minutes, she would often weep rather persistently, sometimes intensely.  What was striking about her tears was the equal persistence with which she wiped them away.  I used to worry that she would scrape away a layer of skin with all of the wiping she did.

Gradually she, too, made a breakthrough in treatment when she realized that the wiping away of her tears was not just a physical behavior but a manifestation of her dismissal of – wiping away of – herself.  That persistent wiping of her tears was part of her more general style of wiping away her pain, of saying “no” to symptoms, her problems, in fact to herself and her life.  Jennifer came from a markedly neglectful family – they breezily dismissed her when she was a child and she continued as an adult doing it to herself, unconsciously.

Underneath Jennifer’s dismissal lay the tantrum.  She was disgusted with herself for needing anything from her boyfriend or boss or long ago from her feckless and neglectful parents; she raged at others (not out loud) for failing to provide for those needs she tried to deny; and all of this was pushed out of consciousness, in part by that breezy dismissal.  If you sat with her in session you might be able to sense all these dynamics, but it took a long time for Jennifer to see; because of these layers of lies, the surface of which was the dismissal of everything as trivial or “stupid” she dismissed any exploration of what she was doing in session, and in her life.

So at the same time she was trying to laugh off her feelings and complaints of being hurt by anyone, she would weep persistently, yet again at the same time would vigorously wipe away the tears and fall silent; our conversations would often stop dead once the tears came and she’d even look vacantly away from me at such times, as if her mind were miles away.  Then when she did talk it was again to change the subject, crack a joke, or otherwise trivialize what had just happened to her.  Meanwhile of course her therapy stalled.

(You may recognize in Jennifer’s breezy dismissals another frequent lie about which I’ve written before.  You can find it in the book I recently published, early on in the free sample they give you on Amazon.  Look for the cases of Bully and Sandra, although many others later in the book (in the parts you’ll have to buy as they come after the free sample portion) also illustrate it.)

James, too, was stalled in his treatment and often thought of quitting.  When he found himself enjoying Central Park one day during a break from work he immediately turned this pleasure into self-loathing.  A voice in his head shouted at him “you should have moved to Manhattan all those years ago, you shouldn’t be living where you are, you shouldn’t be working where you are, you never do anything right” and so on and on.  This was genuinely painful to him, but he only got past it when he realized that there was another voice underneath this one.  That voice, as he was able to learn from my confronting him a bit – well more than a bit – was saying “I can’t do anything right so I quit; everything stinks; I’m gonna get drunk”, which he often did.  He had to realize that this voice was present as well as the first one, that he was in the process screaming “no” at himself and at his problems, and thus that his constant self-flagellation was itself a stall.  Then his therapy moved again.

I’ve described often in these entries, in the book, and in the website how this realization – the exposing of the lie – starts the healing, the change.  Suddenly James sat up with some energy and direction, his natural intelligence finally able to mobilize; over the next weeks he began to make decisions and to look at his life more calmly and realistically.  Similarly, when Jonathan realized he was tantrumming – saying “no!” to everything and everyone – then his natural brains kicked in and he decided not to bother grocery shopping but to have Fresh Direct do the work for him.

James was earlier in the process than Jonathan and no easy solution was available to the obsessive self-loathing and tantrumming that happened in the park.  Instead, he began to remember where that voice came from, how persistent it had always been, and how uselessly destructive.  He found himself remembering his family shaming him as a young teen for going to movies alone; finally he began to notice, “how arbitrary and unwarranted a judgment they made and I accepted! I had friends and a social life, so why can’t I go alone if I want?  What’s wrong with that?”  He remembered how angry and hurt he’d been because of being made to feel like some kind of lowly reject for such a silly reason.  Of course it was this feeling that resurfaced that day in Central Park, as it did so often for him, but this time he caught it.  He caught the lie he was listening to, and gradually started saying “no” to it instead of to himself.   (Less consumed with self-loathing, with tantrumming on top of the self-loathing, and simply with tension, James’ love life unsurprisingly also improved shortly after these sessions.)

When each of these people was able to see that they were lying to themselves with this “no”, that on the surface they may have been thinking “I want to get better, I want to get better” but just beneath were screaming “no! I hate you all!”, that’s when they began to move.  When Jonathan saw that he was tantruming, it was he who came up with the idea ordering groceries.  When Jennifer saw that she was constantly turning away from the very problems she consulted me about, that’s when she began to actually discuss what hurts instead of going silent or complaining that the pain was pointless, irrational, “stupid”; that was when she began to make changes in her life, to handle her boyfriend and boss better instead of stewing in immobility waiting for them to change, to structure her time more realistically for herself.  And when James stopped stomping around and berating himself, that was when he began to actually consider what his real interests were, what he really wanted, what he needed, and whether he had in fact made a mistake in any of his life choices in the past.  And it was soon after this he cut back drastically on his alcohol consumption, began to address seriously his career path, and started setting limits with his very intrusive and negative siblings.

This tantrum – this “no” – is a lie because the person does not acknowledge they’re doing it.  When the lie is exposed, then the healing can begin.  Until then, the tantrummer seems to be making efforts to help himself but is really doing quite the opposite.

You can’t move forward until you catch where you’re lying to yourself.  And it’s only then that, like Jennifer and James, you can catch the lies you’ve been told and swallowed whole.

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