Friday, November 20, 2020

The Case of the Unhappy Liar

Here is an intriguing case presentation, one that is not very easy to understand. As often happens with these letters we do not have enough information to do more than speculate about what is happening, in this case, to a young woman.

We do know that she is undergoing therapy, and we can conclude fairly that the therapy is not doing her any real good. It is confusing issues and making it impossible for her to deal with her problem.

She writes to New York Magazine advice columnist Ask Polly to ask for help, and, aside from her usual psychobabble, Polly does offer one constructive piece of advice. She recommends that the woman consult with a psychiatrist about the possibility of taking medication. 

I have no expertise on the matter of medication, but surely a competent psychiatrist will be of more help than the therapist the woman is now consulting.

Polly also notes that the woman is being honest about being a liar. This is a clever twist. I have nothing against it. And yet, telling the truth about being a liar does not repair the relationships you have damaged by being faithlesss.

For my part I would emphasize three points. First, the woman has decided that she is a lying liar. She lies all the time. She lies to everyone. And, as a result, as Polly herself points out, she can barely sustain relationships and is undermining her work performance.

Second, Polly will naturally say that this woman has a problem with shame. It is the go-to explanation given by people who do not understand shame. In truth, the woman is insufficiently ashamed of her behavior. She has spent time in therapy trying to explain away her serial derelictions. The more she does so the more she is masking her shame, and not changing her behavior. She ought to have spent her time learning how to follow rules.

Third, there are lies and there are lies. When you tell your boss that you have completed an assignment, but have not completed it, you are lying. When you promise to show up for an appointment and fail to do so, you are not lying. You have gone back on your word and are thus unreliable and faithless.

From which I would add a point that I have made before, here and elsewhere. If you say that you will do something and do not do it you will have a serious psychological problem-- you will not know whether you are the person who vowed to come to the party or the person who blew off the commitment. Thus, you will not really know who you are.

So, here is the letter:

I feel like an awful shell of a person because I often base my worth on the perception others have of me. That’s not to say I’m extremely social, shallow, or reliant on popularity; I’m simply a friendly introvert who wants people to like me. And throughout my whole life, I’ve lied to avoid disapproval.

Of course, once you are caught in a lie you will gain disapproval. If you really don't want to elicit disapproval stop lying. One suspects that this absurd explanation was offered by her therapist. It sounds like a piece of pseudo-insight that accomplishes nothing.

It all goes back to her childhood anxiety. She continues

When I was a child, I had paralyzing anxiety. I was afraid of everything — dogs, cats, the pool, socializing at family parties, getting sick, you name it. I often thought I had illnesses I did not have. For example, when I was 10 or so, I read a book about a little girl who had leukemia, and for the next five years, I was convinced I had it too. When I was 14, I saw a movie in health class about HIV and I was sure I had that, too. You can probably imagine the anxiety this caused me on a daily basis. I have loving, well-meaning parents, but they didn’t always know how to handle my reactions to my fear. I was hushed when I cried too loudly, and I was told on a few occasions that I “always have to ruin everything.” I truly didn’t do any of this for attention. My fear was just bigger than I was. Though my anxiety is very much under control now and therapy has become a regular part of my life, the shame I felt as a child lives with me to this day.

Rather than blame it on childhood antecedents, we should note that the shame one feels today generally comes about through something that one has done today. Duh?

The best way not to feel shame would be for her to learn to be good to her word. Generally, she must learn to act as though her word is her bond. And that means, in matters small and large. In learning how to develop this good social habit, she should start small, perhaps with vows she makes to herself.

One suspects that a good cognitive therapist would recommend this approach. The woman’s therapist seems not to know about it. 

Strangely, the letter writer is a true feminist, but, dare we say, it has not done very much for her moral character. If she thinks that this has made her strong and empowered, she is deluding herself. Better yet, rather than be good to her word, she has learned how to tell stories, to get out of commitments. This tells us, starkly, that storytelling, as a therapeutic mode, is designed to cover up moral dereliction.

I avoid situations in which I might be exposed to criticism, and as much as I believe in being assertive (I’m an opinionated, outspoken feminist), I too often aim to please others instead. I’m now 29, and I feel like I can’t stop myself. I rarely consider my own feelings about what I want, and I regularly lie. I don’t tell elaborate stories in order to impress; I tell casual fibs that build up and cause more conflict than they do peace. For example, on multiple occasions I have made plans for the same day with more than one friend. Not wanting to let anyone down and have them think less of me, I wait until the last minute to make up an excuse as to why I cannot hang out with one of them. This creates so much stress, and when I do it, I feel silly — why can’t I just avoid trouble by telling one friend I’m busy from the very start?

So, in other occasions, our committed feminist does tell lies to her boss. This is genuinely bad practice.

Even worse, my lying has affected my work performance. I have a friendly boss who is only a little older than I am, but she is much more organized and high-strung. She gets frustrated by having to explain processes to me more than once or twice. This makes me hesitate to ask for help or an extension. Twice over the last eight months, I’ve let small lies about my tasks ruin her impression of me as a worker. I have a different work style than others (my brain functions best in the evening as opposed to the morning), I have ADHD, and I procrastinate like my life depends on it. I worry that I’m just a lazy, dull person, but deep down, I know that this isn’t the job for me. I need to find some meaning in what I do, otherwise it’s hard to care enough to give it my all. My job is technical and systems-based, but I’m a creative, sensitive person who would excel in an environment where I can help others. But I feel selfish for complaining while so many people are unemployed right now.

One solution to the problem is to stop complaining. The other is to recognize that all the blather about meaningful work is just a way of rationalizing failure. She ought to learn that bad habits on the job do not just go away when one finds a new job-- distributing alms to the poor.

I’ve been caught in lies at my job, and I feel childish and dumb, but I don’t want my boss to be annoyed that I haven’t begun the assignment that was due a day ago. Instead of emailing her with an apology and the truth, I tell her I’ve completed it. When she finds out I haven’t or that I did so after having told her I did, I realize that the lie made things much worse than the truth would have. It’s mortifying, too. Each time I’ve been confronted, I’ve cried while I came up with more excuses. Though I’m looking into applying for grad school, I’m worried I’ll lose my job. Then I worry I’ll never be able to thrive in this world. I have always considered myself to be an intelligent person who means no harm, but a smart, kind person wouldn’t act this way.

When I look at my life, all I see is a desperately unfulfilled woman who digs holes for herself by being dishonest with the people around her. I lie, but for what? It’s like I never learn. I feel deeply sad, pathetic, and ashamed of my dishonesty. In all of my attempts not to disappoint others, I’ve disappointed myself most of all.

Unhappy Liar

Would she feel better if she were a happy liar? Again, it’s not about dishonesty but about faithlessness and irresponsibility. These are not the same thing as bearing false witness, telling a story that does not correspond to the facts as she knows them.

As I said, she does not feel sufficiently ashamed of herself to work on how to keep her word. And she is probably being ill served by her therapist. 


Anonymous said...

Medication could reduce the anxiety she claims to feel but it won't end her habit. She has no idea how to function without lying. Logically she knows it's going to backfire but the alternative of not lying seems even worse. She needs someone to coach her through the tedious work of practicing not lying to see that it won't have the catastrophic result she fears. She'd have to do this a thousand times and she would slip many times. I get bored even thinking about it, but I'm not a therapist.

JPL17 said...

“Again, it’s not about dishonesty but about faithlessness and irresponsibility …. [S]he does not feel sufficiently ashamed of herself to work on how to keep her word.”

Stuart, this is an extremely important point. However, I think that if she developed a habit of truthfulness, might it not also help her develop a habit of keeping her word?

I ask this because it seems she lies to her friends in a misguided attempt to avoid the shame of admitting to them that she has no excuse when she lets them down. This suggests to me that she’s experienced shame in the past, finds it unpleasant, and is capable of experiencing it again. Therefore, if she developed a habit of always telling her friends the truth, even if it causes her shame, she might learn that the only way to avoid shame in front of her friends is to keep her word to them, since she’s no longer allowed to lie to avoid shame.

I guess this kind of self-control mechanism might in itself reflect a lack of character. But then, someone with bad character who wants to develop good character has to start somewhere, right?

DocVinny said...

Wanna know how to fix this? STOP. DOING. THAT. You're going to get your butt fired, and I can predict with something approaching absolute certainty that finding a fulfilling job that turns you on is not going to be waiting for you when you get fired from this job for poor performance.

If you truly have ADHD and need to be on something then make an appointment and take care of it. Or don't and learn to function without it. But DO SOMETHING to change your behavior. Your therapist isn't helping you, and neither is writing to a newspaper advice column.