Lies, and how psychotherapy works

I have been writing about lying as a way to understand what goes wrong in our lives.  Again, I know it is a harsh word and I have reasons for using it.  You can read those reasons in my book which is aptly titled “Stop Lying”; for the moment, let me just remind you that I am referring to unconscious lying.  Here’s a case example of what would seem to have nothing to do with lies, and what would seem on the surface to be perhaps beyond any help I could offer.  It seems that the woman I will discuss had every reason to despair and sometimes I felt, too, that there was nothing I could offer as balm – nothing that was not a platitude, facile, or otherwise mostly useless, and certainly not worth the high price of sessions.

Jenny came to see me with a long history of depression, anger, episodes of despair, and most immediately indecision about moving forward with a long-term relationship.  She obsessed about this last issue and eventually it became clear that there was little connection between her and her boyfriend, that the relationship was in fact over almost as soon as it started.  She recalled enjoying moments with this man, but for the most part knew even as they began that the two had little in common, that there was little real connection, and that the occasional fun was largely that of having a new group of friends with whom to enjoy outings during her college years.

Unfortunately, the despair that Jenny harbored was so great that she could not conceive of life without this man, annoying as he could be at many times, and as lonely as she actually felt with him because their banter and ideas of fun didn’t match up and he seemed to understand so little about her.  Gradually, however, she made the painful decision to end the relationship.  After a period of back and forth with it, she stuck to her decision and the two were permanently over.


Now came the big work.  What was the despair?  She finally realized that it was not being separate from this nice man, nor even losing some of the constant contact she had with their circle of friends.  In fact, she began to see that more than a few of these people were not particularly reliable, were in fact rather mean.  So why had she stayed with them so long?

Jenny’s family background was nothing short of horrific.  One parent was mentally ill, another had been murdered, she had grown up with very rejecting relatives, and in her adult life the family was marginal at best.  She had regular contact with her extended family, her siblings, and her surviving parent, and if I were to describe here in detail what happened during these family gatherings, I know you would agree that there was little reason for her to continue attending, except for that basic need for family we all seem to have.

During many of our sessions, I struggled with my own feelings of helplessness.  Jenny was very angry, articulate about how hopeless everything was, and while unfailingly polite also very bitter about how little I could offer, how little everyone had to offer.  At moments, she of course understood that even people with lots to offer her are limited, including me, but it did not help.

Then, gradually, she began to reveal that in fact she actively avoided feeling better.  She began telling me about how when she started to enjoy herself, her friends, her colleagues, an outing, she would get anxious, sometimes almost panicked.  She would then “pull into myself again” and almost flee into despair.

So here is a lie – quite a common on in psychotherapy.  It often goes by the name “resistance”, and you can read more about that on the main website and especially here.  The lie is:  “Help me, doc, I want to feel better”.  More often than you might think the truth is actually:  “Don’t disturb the fragile equilibrium I’ve got going, doc, however much I say it’s uncomfortable or not working”.   And why?  The reasons are different for everyone.

One day Jenny described this realization that she fled from feeling better in particularly vivid detail.  As she did two key lies emerged.  What she ended up saying was:  1) if she begins to enjoy her life, she is betraying the memory of her dead parent, the horror of what was done to that person, and the other betrayals and outrageous behaviors, past and present, that she had witnessed in (and survived from) her family; I call this a “lie” because in her calmer moments Jenny knew it was false.  2) If she acknowledged all of this, and in particular if she ever dared to confront anyone in her family with any of it, she would be ridiculed, scolded, shunned, and – most crucially – she would believe that they are right to do so because of course there is really nothing wrong with her family; she is just a whiny difficult girl who is miserably unhappy for no reason.  Again in her clearer moments, Jenny knew better but could not hold on to that point of view.

Why didn’t I say all this at the start of our work together?  Jenny herself complained to me that I must have known such feelings were operating, and I did.  Here is a fourth – again, unconscious – lie.  I showed Jenny some of my notes from our earlier sessions and she saw that I had said those things; she wasn’t ready at the time to hear them.  By the way, this is why psychology can sound so asinine on talk shows.  Put into words, the insights one gains in therapy sound very obvious to outsiders.  You may find it all sounds so obvious, that of course many of us have had people in our lives, including our families, who when we speak up make us feel like idiots or worse, especially if we dare to point out the Emperor is naked; and of course she was experiencing a kind of survivor guilt and felt she was abandoning her dead parent if she moved on with her life; we’ve seen this dynamic discussed often in popular (self-help) and professional literature, in movies, plays, television shows.  But – and it’s a big but – when one is going through such things one’s self, one can only see a truth when one is ready.  I believe this is why in AA it is common to say “denial ain’t a river in Egypt”, meaning that you can read about it, discuss it, write papers about it, but when you catch it in yourself it is astounding and new – as if you had never even begun to understand the concept before.

So here we see illustrated three fundamental truths about psychotherapy.  First, the goal is awareness, to uncover the unconscious lies.  Second, the process butts up against resistance and therefore can’t be done at a pace faster than the psyche can tolerate.  Third, uncovering lies must happen before other interventions can work.  Jenny had read about survivor guilt, about resistance, about depression, about what one book calls “the joy of suffering”.  But it is only when she broke through her resistance, when her unconscious lies were exposed to her, that she could take in any of that learning and begin to feel better.

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