What Lies in the Shadow

Clients offer a lot of reasons for coming to therapy, but at the bottom of all of them is this: it’s hard to be yourself.  The world we live in can seem like a dangerous place, and there are plenty of forces out there that want you to be just a piece of yourself, or something you’re not at all.  And though many of us were lucky to be told to just be ourselves when we were young, many people have a difficult time letting that lesson really sink in.  The truth is, we’re all made up of disparate internal elements; our personalities are complex.  And the environments we live in tend to reward us most richly for showing parts of those personalities, while being neutral or even negative towards other personalities.  We learn, intelligently, to hide pieces of ourselves.

In my experience, therapy is, ultimately, the work of exploring these disowned parts.  Clients come to me because something feels off, off in a way that they can’t usually describe.  And over the course of our work together, my clients find that some part so well-hidden that often they themselves don’t know about it comes bubbling to the surface.  Of course, that usually happens after working together for quite a while.  In most cases, clients are aware that something is missing and we work together to find it.  And sometimes, my clients lie to me.

Lying to your therapist is really common in therapy.  To be perfectly honest, I still lie to my own therapist from time to time.  It’s a self preservation strategy: you’re sitting across from someone you only sort of know, and spilling your guts about parts of your life that feel uncomfortable or dangerous, about things you think you did wrong or challenges you don’t feel up to.  And because you learned from someone somewhere that you need to be competent, you lie a little - you don’t change the story so much that everything works out in the end, but just enough so that you don’t feel quite so vulnerable in the telling.

This is really ok.  If you’re like me, you’ve been told that honesty is always the best policy.  To that I say: maybe.  Honesty is often a good policy, but dealing in absolutes leads to nervous breakdowns.  It is my belief that it’s a lot easier, in the end, to live a life where you’re making more decisions than one where you’re behaving automatically.  So this means that it’s better to choose honesty over being honest, even if you choose honesty every time.  We’re rational creatures that live in a complex world, and anyone who tells you being totally upfront has never screwed them over either hasn’t been paying attention or is selling you something.

As a therapist, it’s my job to meet you where you are.  And for most of my clients, that eventually means meeting them at the place where they lie.  Some theories of therapy say that lying is a form of resistance within the client which the therapist needs to confront and uproot.  This has always felt too aggressive towards the client’s humanity to me.  There’s an instruction I like at the beginning of the textbook for Motivational Interviewing, a method of working with addiction in therapy, that says resistance in a client just means the therapist hasn’t earned their trust yet.  Makes sense to me!  If I fight my clients’s story, if I demand they show up differently, why would they ever be honest?  Eventually, though, if we work together, a client who’s lying will start saying, “you know what, what I just said wasn’t entirely true.”

That’s a crucial moment.  That’s the moment when a client starts to realize the various fictions they have unwittingly decided to tell the world.  As a therapist, I can sit there and think to myself “this person’s lying to me” session after session, and it won’t matter one bit.  It’s only when a client realizes that they’d rather show up as their whole self, even the parts they feel ashamed or scared or embarrassed of, that they will start to reintegrate these missing pieces.  For me, there’s no better feeling than when I see a client consciously decide to be their whole self.  Not because someone told them honesty is the best policy, not because someone told them honesty speeds up recovery, but because they want to welcome their whole being into relationship.

This signals a massive internal shift in any person.  For whatever reason, many of us are taught that parts of ourselves are unwelcome.  And because we can’t simply remove our unwelcome desires and feelings, we hide them from the world and ourselves instead.  We mash them down and create an internal other, an unwanted shadow of ourselves.  Whether it be a desire for violence, or passion, or greatness, we all have some piece that we learned at a young age was unwelcome.

The trouble is, we are able to hide these pieces from the world and ourselves but not able to remove them.  And from this hidden place, they come out.  Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, these unwanted pieces erupt unbidden from us and take us over, to the point where we aren’t even aware of their presence, just their aftermath.  But by bringing them into the light, we are able to know them and to welcome them, to satisfy them in ways that aren’t destructive to our lives and the lives of our loved ones.