The secret damage of lying
Is it me?
Today, I asked my Facebook friends to help me get a handle on whether I could trust the gut feeling I had that someone was lying to me. The thread ended up amusing me a lot more than I’d expected, but there was also something non-trivially healing about hearing a chorus of voices come back to me confirming that I wasn’t imagining things.
I’ll spare you the “he said she said” detail of the event; suffice to say I was messaging with a dear friend and in one of her messages she used one particular phrase, and when I read it I experienced a strong ripple of unpleasant surprise and anxiety. The tone I read into it was hostility. I went back to her to say that I wasn’t expecting her to be angry, and the reply came “I’m not angry at all”.
Lying and attachment trauma
Once upon a time, this would have felt very complicated and confusing, and I would have experienced strong anxiety, powerlessness, and impotent anger. Like many attachment-traumatised people, it’s a really familiar experience for me to be highly disturbed when what my gut is telling me is directly contradicted by what a loved one tells me.
Fragmentation into “parts”
I can almost feel the psychic fragmentation happening as parts of me separate themselves out – the part who knows what she knows and has appropriate feelings about it, the part who needs to please and appease, the part who wants to be open-minded and willing to be wrong, similar to the part who knows she can sometimes see and feel things that aren’t there (anymore). Until relatively recently, the Pleaser Appeaser would win.
Today I got the best out of the online community, and posted the phrase sent to me and asked for an assessment of the writer’s probable mood. I can’t repeat most of the replies, so let’s just say that there was a pretty clear consensus that the phrase read as an angry one.
And of course, my friend may have been angry but entirely unaware of it. Or genuinely not angry and the tone was not the one intended. Of course.
Lying to children
Nevertheless, I’ve been reflecting on and off all day, about the damage done by lying. I don’t really mean my friend’s possible lie. I’m thinking more about the kinds of attachment ruptures to do with the sensing and denial of truth when we’re younger and when the person lying is also the person we depend on, the one we love, the one who knows better.
And not that it feels like it at the time, but I’ve come to see the dilemma of the child in that moment as the dilemma of a child having to choose between two relationships: the relationship with their caregiver and the relationship with themselves.
“If I believe you, that means my sense of the truth must have been wrong; ergo, I can’t trust myself” (and eventually “I will no longer listen to myself/I will no longer even HEAR myself”).
The worst damage of lying to a child – who is an acutely sensitive little radar for the subtleties of mood – is not that you might damage the trust between you and them. It’s not even that you damage their ability to trust others now and in the future. The secret damage of lying to a child is that you damage their relationship with their own gut knowing of reality; you actually interrupt their ability to know themselves, and the world, and you leave them prey not only to intense confusion, especially interpersonal confusion but also unable to sufficiently police their own boundaries and ensure their own emotional safety because the detection of behavioural red-flags is usually overridden; like a smoke-alarm that we’ve so long assumed was malfunctioning that we don’t leave the building when it’s on fire.
These children often grow up into adults dissociated from their physical bodies, regularly unaware of, or unhealthily capable of enduring or ignoring physical pain, confused about who they “really” are, what they really think, or even LIKE. Any internal information about the state of the organism is treated with mistrust and disbelief or just simply never consciously received.
And the worst damage of lying to an adult who was an attachment-traumatised child is that you reintroduce the self-doubt and confusion that most of them have worked so hard to uninstall.
Whilst today’s experience was a relatively trivial one, it reminded me of the preciousness of honesty about the big things and the small, and especially about subtle perceptions of mood that are so easy to deny because we have no direct access to the other person’s subjective experience. The relationships I’ve come to treasure are relationships with people who, when I check whether my sense of their mood is accurate, will tell me the truth no matter how inconvenient or awkward it is.
A few years ago, a client told me she thought I was angry with her in a particular moment in a previous session. We explored the experience from lots of different angles, but before the end of the session, I realised it was essential that I tell her the truth, because I had been angry at that moment.
Reconnecting to ourselves
I don’t think it’s enough to stop at the (always rich) explorations of “and what was that like for you?”, “and what if I said I had been…?”, “and what if I said I wasn’t….?”, and “and is that a familiar experience to you?”. We have a window of opportunity to assist our clients to reforge the relationship between them and themselves, to discover they are trust-worthy to themselves. I think these moments call for the highest ethical standards of congruence, authenticity and judicious self-disclosure.
Poetically put, and paraphrasing Khaled Hosseini, I’ve believed for a long time that lying is stealing a person’s access to reality; but these days I’ve also realised that it risks vandalising their relationship with themselves.