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Go Easy on the Liar Label: Try Creating Safety First
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
Think about the teenage girl who tells her Mom that there won’t be alcohol and other drugs at a party she plans to attend, knowing full well that it’s not true.
Think about the 38-year-old man who neglects to tell his therapist about his cocaine habit, despite the fact that his wife threatened divorce if he didn’t go to counseling to work on, guess what? His cocaine use.
Yes, people with drug problems often lie about their behavior. Sometimes they tell bold-faced lies. Sometimes they commit lies of omission – deliberately leaving out part of the truth. Most of us know people, or have heard of people, in the grip of addiction who will lie and do anything to get their hands on drugs. People with drug problems are often characterized as manipulative liars. However, it is important to think critically about this: How much does lying stem from within the individual who drinks or uses drugs? How much can be attributed to how we respond to people who drink and use drugs?
How much does lying stem from within the individual who drinks or uses drugs? How much can be attributed to how we respond to people who drink and use drugs?-Robert Schwebel
Before concluding that all people who use drugs are liars, and especially before concluding that someone you love or someone you counsel who uses drugs is a liar, think carefully about attaching this label. How will it affect the conversation? What good does it do? Perhaps there is a more helpful way to look at things.
First, consider that lying involves an interaction: One person lies to another person. Why? Generally, people lie in anticipation of the responses of others; either to avoid negative judgments or consequences of some sort, or to project a positive image, or get something they want. The teenage girl lied to get what she wanted (party) and the husband who likes cocaine lied to avoid what he feared (divorce).
Most people value honesty in relationships, especially in loving and family relationships, so there is surely a moral dimension in the matter of lying. However, to simply describe lying as a moral failure would be way too simplistic. Remember, it is an interaction – a two-way street. The progression from being a person who tells lies (all of us) to being someone who could appropriately be labeled a liar is paved by numerous interactions.
…people often behave in ways that promote lying. You could say they create an environment in which other people are afraid to tell the truth.-Robert Schwebel
With little or no awareness of their impact, people often behave in ways that promote lying. You could say they create an environment in which other people are afraid to tell the truth. For example, people fear that they will be put-down, unfairly criticized, harshly judged, or punished. And, good grief, we know this culture hits hard on people who have issues with alcohol or other drugs.
This isn’t all about blaming the “other guy” – the one who is deceived. After all, people who use drugs may be strongly inclined to hide their behavior from family members and friends because of their own embarrassment or sense of personal shame. They have internal feelings that motivate lying; feelings that could be compounded by a sense of powerlessness about stopping their problematic behavior. Also, they may read the situation wrong – anticipating judgment or punishment when none would actually occur.
The interactive nature of lying does not excuse or justify lies, or put the responsibility on others. However, it does partially explain why people lie. It also provides the beacon of hope that we can do something about it…and create environments that promote honesty. Let’s think about what this means.
With friends and in family life, common sense dictates that two of the important characteristics of a climate of safety include:
- Respectful and supportive relationships in which people feel safe enough to talk openly and honestly, without fear of being judged, put down, or treated in a punitive manner.
- Reasonable standards (and with children, age appropriate), not overly demanding or insisting on perfection.
Our commitment to these characteristics gets tested, however, when children or people we love do things that we don’t like or don’t approve of. How do we react if they tell us the truth? What if they have, or might have, a drug problem? If we want to foster honesty, then we must ask ourselves some challenging questions such as these:
- When we hear or see behavior we don’t like, can we remain calm and discuss matters?
- Is there room for appropriate dialogue and disagreement?
- Can we form our own opinions and establish our own limits, yet listen to an opposing point of view with an open mind?
- Can we accept problems and setbacks as an inevitable part of life (even when we might be scared or shocked)?
- Can we support people in learning from their experiences and take a non-punitive, non-condemning approach?
If we can create a supportive, accepting, and caring environment with people we love, then we increase the chances for honest discourse.
Counselors working with clients with drug problems also face the challenge of creating a safe environment; one that promotes open and honest disclosure. This is made more difficult by the expectation of many clients (often born from previous experience) that counselors will judge them and try to dictate or control their behavior. Much can be done to counter these negative expectations.
Counselors can proactively establish a climate of honesty. They can warmly welcome clients; respectfully listen to them; reassure them (and show by their actions) that they won’t be labeling them or passing judgments about their drug use, and won’t try to control or dictate their behavior. They can help clients better understand themselves, including their reasons for using drugs and the harm from it. They can support clients in considering and expanding their behavioral options, and empower them to make their own decisions, including drugs. Ultimately, counselors can help clients succeed in life on their own terms.
…this is NOT what you would traditionally see in drug treatment – a field that stands on a foundation of seeing drug clients as moral failures.-Robert Schwebel
Unfortunately, this is NOT what you would traditionally see in drug treatment – a field that stands on a foundation of seeing drug clients as moral failures. Counseling professionals have done their share of passing judgments and attempting to impose their own solutions, which may be one of the reasons that clients have lied as much as they have in the past. However, it is very important to note that counselors who have been liberated from such views have been astounded at the honesty of their clients who use drugs.
We can all do our best to create a climate of honesty, although nothing guarantees success. People who use drugs bring their own personality and personal history to the interaction. I’m certainly not recommending blind trust. We should remain vigilant to the possibility of being fed lies and deceived. Usually there are signals that can be detected if we pay attention. Even when we sense or uncover lies, we have a choice: We can choose to criticize and label someone a liar or work to create conditions that would promote honesty. Family members or counselors can ask this important question: What do we need to do to make it safe enough for you to tell me the truth?
We can choose to criticize and label someone a liar or work to create conditions that would promote honesty.-Robert Schwebel
Think about why people lie about their drug use. Are they embarrassed? Do they fear we would be judgmental? Do they fear we will harshly criticize them? Do they fear we will punish or impose harsh consequences? Let them speak out about what they need from us. Give them what you can freely give. If they want something you cannot give, for example some sort of impunity, then maybe you can negotiate an agreement about how to proceed.
Give truth a chance.