Tales from the therapist's couch: The hidden cost of those little 'white' lies

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A young boy enters a room where his parents have been arguing. The mood is tight and full of pain. "What is the matter?" he asks. "Nothing, dear," is the weary response. "Nothing." Few of us, I suspect, could say, hand on heart, that we never lie. In fact, most of us have probably been brought up to practise the "white" lie, the socially legitimate form of deceit that we use under the banner of protecting someone we care for from a truth we think will be hurtful. The mother above wanted to protect her son from knowing that there was conflict in the marriage. But would her response have really protected him? Mightn't being left with the chasm between her words of denial and the mood of what was really going on have had a worse effect upon her son than the truth?

A young boy enters a room where his parents have been arguing. The mood is tight and full of pain. "What is the matter?" he asks. "Nothing, dear," is the weary response. "Nothing." Few of us, I suspect, could say, hand on heart, that we never lie. In fact, most of us have probably been brought up to practise the "white" lie, the socially legitimate form of deceit that we use under the banner of protecting someone we care for from a truth we think will be hurtful. The mother above wanted to protect her son from knowing that there was conflict in the marriage. But would her response have really protected him? Mightn't being left with the chasm between her words of denial and the mood of what was really going on have had a worse effect upon her son than the truth?

If hers was a "white" lie there must, by implication, be other shades of untruth. The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas differentiates between premeditated and unpremeditated lying. I have found it a useful distinction in my work, as our language offers no way of grading the various forms of deceit. Innocent or premeditated, lies of omission or commission, impulsive or compulsive. Different sorts of lies originate from different needs, leaving in their trail very different aftermaths. Imagine, for example, the following fictional yet familiar scenarios.

Many years ago I worked with a self-confessed compulsive liar. He had suffered terribly in his childhood from physical and verbal abuse, and learnt early on what no one should ever have to learn: the need to protect and hide what felt true, because what felt true was always and everywhere unacceptable. So the lie quickly became his suit of armour, something that offered a degree of self-protection.

Over the years lying became second nature. He lied about most things, seemingly without rhyme or reason, and during analytic sessions got us both into muddles in his struggle to remember not only whom he had told what but, poignantly, where the lie ended and the truth began. I remember his panic about a largely fictitious CV that he had forgotten to copy. When called for an interview he feared he would forget who he had pretended to be.

The reason this man came to see me had, he initially thought, nothing to do with his need to tell lies. He had wanted to know why he could never maintain a relationship for more than a few months. But the lies were inseparable from his difficulty with intimacy. How could he form a meaningful relationship when he was never truly himself? It is perhaps inevitable that I experienced this strange lack of intimacy myself. During the months we worked together, it often felt as if he was never fully present in the room. From its genesis as a protective layer, the lie had become a prison, cutting him off from both himself and the world around him.

If the compulsive liar often leaves an emotional muddle in his or her wake, the lie that is premeditated comes from a strangely disassociated coldness. It can have a more devastating effect upon the recipient than upon the liar.

Imagine this. A woman comes to see me, deeply distressed because unable to control a suspicion that her husband is having an affair. He is, she says, the kindest, most thoughtful man she could hope for, yet she is unable to rid herself of her terrible thoughts. She is sure her fears are due to her father having left her mother for another woman when they were about her age.

We talk for many months, but instead of the jealousy abating it seems to get worse. Dreams of her husband being with someone else invade her nights, suspicions mar her days. Full of self-loathing, she begs her husband to forgive her, saying she feels she is going mad and deserves to be left if she doesn't pull herself together.

Then one day, purely by chance, she finds out that her suspicions are true. Although shocked and wounded, she is also, at last, able to exorcise the haunting. She knows now that her feeling of madness had been her struggle to reject her knowledge of what was happening. She knows she can trust her intuitive sense of truth more than words.

At one level, this is a far cry from the man's compulsive confusion and the mother's protective response to her son's question. But at another, they are part of the same phenomenon that exists every time a lie is uttered. The lie always creates a blockage in intimacy, because we are essentially relational. And whether we like it or not, we affect each other as much by the shadow of what is left unsaid as by what is selected and spoken.

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the clinical material above refers to specific individual cases

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