Lies, damn lies and what matters the most to people

For reasons that are obvious, I had been asked to speak about deception. I had been recruited for the job because of the lies I told and, interestingly, because the sponsors of the seminar realized that I had spent a lifetime – in both journalism and my mental health work now – needing to understand the motives of those working with me and identifying when individuals were lying. I declined the opportunity to help teach them how to better lie, which law enforcement officers can do in some circumstances with suspects, because I knew it just was not good karma for me to get involved in the making of better liars.

After going over the spectrum I’ve found for people’s motives - why they lie and why they tell the truth – I received an interesting question from a member of that group that had been assembled. One of the participants asked whether it was easier or harder for me to do my job when people were lying. I paused and thought about his question. The answer was clear as it was seemingly paradoxical.

Often, when people lie to me in my in work mental health, I said, we get to the truth a lot faster. My reply was something along the lines of this, “Once I know what people are lying to me about, whether it’s a lie meant for me or others or one they are telling themselves, I can usually better understand what scares them, what motivates them and areas that matter to them the most,” I said. “You can learn a lot about people by what they are willing to lie about.”

As I often tell my clients, there would be something wrong and beyond a little odd if they came in during their first session and told me that absolute truth, hiding nothing, lying about nothing and being open about everything. Even with people who have every motive not to lie (for example, their life is on the lie), we know that there are just some things that people don’t feel comfortable sharing. I often catch clients cold in their lies, call them on it in session, remind them that I am a forgiving chap and then seek to use it as a teachable moment because I find that people often lie about the things that matter to them most. If I can understand why they are lying, I can better understand how to help them.

As an aside, I’m not the best analyst of my own motives for lying. The looking glass distorts my understanding of myself in this area, but I can see the same things in my own lies that I see in those of others: pride, ego, a desire to not ask for help, fears, anxiety, and expediency and so on. Others have attributed my lies to personal gain, a notion that I don’t buy, and individuals have a wide variety of motives, ranging from avoidance, antisocial disregard for the rights of others in the name of their desires, sadism, attention, illnesses and a variety of reasons. I saw all this because I see both the lie and the reason for lying as important vehicles to getting to the truth and helping people faster.

I think my background makes it a little easier for people to share the truth, admit when they are lying and know that a pretty forgiving fellow. I have had suburban upper-middle class people tell me the truth about smoking crack when forty five minutes before they were telling me they did not have much of a drug problem. I have had people, crying, admitting to me that they encouraged inappropriate sexual advances from people who were sexually abusing them when ten minutes before that they had told me that they had not. I even had a client who was lying to me two weeks ago about “lying about everything.” She was down on herself and depressed, and couldn’t even be honest about how some of her complaints were real. It was a nice moment when she told me she lied about everything and my response was to chuckle and said, “Okay, now you are lying.”

In each of these cases, understanding the lie was key to understanding the person and understanding what they need to grow and what to do to help them. The suburban woman without the drug problem needed to admit to herself the problem. She said she needed me and others to believe she did not have a problem to reinforce her denial. Once she admitted she was an addict and let go off the cognitive dissonance that comes from being a relatively successful upper-middle class life and an addict, she was able to accept that she was self-medicating a mental health issue and plot a course to sobriety. The woman who admitted to encouraging sexual advances after the first time she was sexually abused by a relative was able to acknowledge the complex trauma of abuse and attack some of the deep shame she had felt for years and let go of some of the guilt she had been carrying silently. It allowed her to engage her sick relative, who was neither a sadist nor a pedophile but did sexually abuse her, in safe and productive ways that lead to great deal of healing for both them. The woman who lied about lying about everything came from a family that did not talk about feelings and she had begun to buy into the idea of those around her who preferred to dismiss her mental health variety problems (although she had known she was different in certain ways since a child, she had begun to dismiss her own symptoms and had internalized that it was all about laziness and lack of motivation).

Dr. Gregory House is probably the most complex antihero in the history of television, but there is some truth to the notion in his oft-repeated statement that “everybody lies.” But more important than just the notion itself is the undercurrent that isn’t often discussed on the show: that finding and understanding the lie is often to quickest path to a diagnosis and effective treatment. As Dr. House says, “It’s the basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what.” As he also says, “Truth begins in lies.”

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