“How do you know when your clients are lying? Their lips are moving!” a mentor once quipped to me. I believe clients’ lies have as much to say about therapists as they do about the people under our care.
As a therapist, it’s tempting to invest a lot of energy into divining whether a client is lying to you. Knowing the truth is important for many reasons. In addiction treatment, lying about a relapse delays more intensive treatments that could mean the difference between life and death. In my home state of Georgia, counselors are “mandated reporters” of child abuse, meaning that if I even suspect, given what a client is saying, that a child is being abused or neglected, I have to report my suspicions to the state. While I might be protected legally from “getting it wrong” based on a client’s deception, the child and family under investigation will suffer tremendously from a false accusation.
Why Clients Lie
There are probably as many reasons for lying in therapy as there are clients. During my time as a provider for clients mandated to treatment due to multiple DUIs (Driving Under the Influence), many of the people I saw were still smarting from convictions they felt unjust. From their perspective, an officer of the court rather than a mental health provider had diagnosed them and set their treatment plan. So on top of all the denial that comes with substance abuse and addiction, I had to contend with a stream of clients convinced, and trying to convince me, that two trumped-up DUIs do not an alcoholic make. Failing to listen was anti-therapeutic, but buying into their story only fueled denial. It took me a while to develop a stance that allowed me to support clients and still help them see what they did that led them to this point.
Even for the clients who aren’t court mandated, the power differential between counselor and client can motivate deception. When a client has a need to feel in control and in charge, and when a therapist feels the need to be the expert and the top dog in the session, a power struggle ensues. The strongest weapon in the client’s arsenal is his greater knowledge of his life and circumstances. The act of “pulling one over on the therapist” helps clients believe they can retain their secrets and therefore their power. While many experienced clinicians may differ with me on this point, I feel the therapist that sets himself up as the all-seeing, all-knowing expert is mostly to blame. Scenarios like these remind me that I am my client’s servant, not their master, and when I take this stance, I protect my own ego while removing one motivation for clients to lie.
Lying is a way of life for many clients. Long before they enter therapy, they may be exposed to family secrets and patterns of deception that go back for generations. Never was it more true that children “do what I do, not what I say.” When they see their parents and siblings lying to get their way, they learn not only strategies, but rationalizations for their lies. I have little doubt that the secrets many families keep would tear them apart if the truth ever came to light. We deceive ourselves when we tow the party line and assert that “honesty is the best policy” in all circumstances. Sometimes, and for some clients, covering up a damning truth is a matter of survival.
The most compliant clients may lie, and for the “best” of reasons. After a counselor has invested mightily in a client, and even though the client appreciates the therapist’s engagement, progress may still be slow to non-existent. Rather than acknowledge the “failure”, the client may overstate progress or minimize setbacks to maintain the story of a therapeutic partnership that is working. On the other hand, hearkening back to my mandated DUI clients, I suspect many of them put on their “game faces” and planned what to say to demonstrate that they are making acceptable progress and are thus ready to graduate from treatment. For both populations, a convenient and flattering lie is easier than facing the truth that there is no progress.
Handling the Truth — In and Out of Session
In the face of repeated lies, therapists can fall into a stance where every statement is questionable and questioned. During my training, I became curious after discussing what my clients had told me in session with supervisors who clicked their tongues and assured me that I was being played. Uncomfortable with this brisk dismissal, I investigated on my own and discovered that as often as not, the client was actually telling the truth! And in the cases where the client wasn’t entirely correct, I sometimes found what they said to be an accurate understanding given their limited knowledge or viewpoint.
In Aesop’s fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the villagers rush to the boy’s aid three times before branding him a liar. I’m concerned that when our clients cry “wolf!”, we might not look for a wolf even the first time. And when we confuse our judgements of a client’s veracity for objective reality, we set up a powerful confirmation bias that makes us sure we’re right even when we’re dead wrong! It is my belief that scrutinizing the truth-value of each and every thing that comes out of a client’s mouth is poisonous to the therapeutic relationship. Therefore, unless I know for an absolute fact that what the client is saying has nothing at all to do with reality, I grant his viewpoint default truth for the span of the session. I’d much rather be fooled than to build a wall between myself and a client who needs my help.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by