The Impact of Lies & Deception

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Miranda’s childhood familial environment of domestic violence, marital infidelity, control tactics and neglect contributed to her incurring complex trauma. Yet, in our therapy sessions, she is clear that out of all the injuries incurred, what hurt her the most were the constant lies and deception perpetrated by her malignant narcissistic father. It was his insidious, dishonest maneuvering that kept Miranda embroiled in a circuitous pattern of searching for ‘the truth’.

As an adult, Miranda’s state of anticipatory betrayal catalyzed volatile dynamics with men who expressed romantic interest. Expecting deception offered her a locus of control. She convinced herself that if she assumed duplicity was inevitable then she could either avoid it or at the very least when it transpired, she would not be as devastated. Hence, even when evidence was lacking she interrogated those she feared getting close to. Like a spy, on a mission she had a dossier on every man she dated. This made it impossible for safety and trust to ensue.

Indeed, it’s the activation incited by traumatic abuse that causes the victim to perceive threat even when it’s not there. This state of hyper-vigilance catalyzes the affect heuristic, in which the trauma victim’s emotional response alone determines how a choice is made or a problem is solved. Hence, if they are feeling deceived that is sufficient enough cause to either explode in a rage (fight) or bolt (flight). Until the confusion between intuition and being triggered is resolved, reactive traumatic responses will impede intimacy.

The collective experience of folks who have endured relational trauma rooted in narcissistic abuse is that of subjugation to extensive dishonesty. Consequently, they simply do not know what to believe. Hence, they dissociate from their emotional responses and blindly collude in the lies to mitigate their terror and not incur further wrath. Alternatively, rather than be blindsided by the onslaught of danger they convince themselves their visceral fear of its presence is proof of its existence.

Narcissistic abuse educator and coach Tracy Malone wrote, “Lies enable narcissists to present false images of themselves to potential targets. Those targets lose the ability to make safe and appropriate decisions. They enter into the relationships, unaware of the danger in store for them. Then, once the targets are hooked, narcissists continue to use lies, along with a sprinkling of truth, in a multitude of ways, to ensure that their targets keep “playing.” They lie through evasion and by withholding information. They lie as a form of gaslighting, in order to increase their control over their targets by making them constantly question themselves. They often repeatedly tell the ultimate lie, that they “love” their targets. And, they lie just for the fun of it.”

Furthermore, narcissists and garden variety abusers will also lie to procure sex. Known as rape by deception or rape by fraud, certain state penal codes stipulate that the use of deceit to obtain sexual consent is not just morally depraved, but unlawful. Being that the very nature of lies belies consent, it stands to reason that creating an illusory narrative, impersonation, or concealing critical information such as having an STD or being married, does not allow one to make an informed choice. This type of duplicity can beget extensive psychological damage.

Outside of the malignant realm of calculated lies we routinely encounter exaggerations, half-truths, omissions, and the absence of discernment. After all, one can only be as honest as one knows oneself. Moreover, we are all susceptible to mistake falsehoods for truth. Our daily digestion of alternative facts is illustrative of that reality.

These socially acceptable fibs can range from the benign (that dress looks great on you) to furtive manipulation (I’m sorry you’re so sensitive). Irrespective of the form, the withholding or twisting of truth impacts our consciousness.

As Russian revolutionary and politician Vladimir Lenin said, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

We desperately want to believe we possess unwavering certainty over what is real. Our reliance on primitive ego defenses such as confirmation bias assists us with that intention. By only considering that which supports what we want to believe our shared psychological need for safety and predictability is ensured, even if it contributes to believing that which may be egregiously false.

Psychologist R.D. Laing wrote in The Politics of Experience, “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

As Laing suggests, we fail to notice that which might disrupt our subjective reality. Choosing to believe that which conforms with our need for safety, implies that we don’t necessarily want the truth if it means shattering illusions and incurring the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. So, we lie to ourselves and accordingly, we lie to others. This proclivity to see what we want to see and what we’re told to see has direct bearing on the concretizing of our perceptions.

In particular, our inherent need to attach and trust predisposes us to perceive others as well meaning. Hence, we give others the benefit of the doubt. This is a healthy life-affirming perspective. Believing others are well intentioned, as opposed to assigning immediate blame makes room for enhanced well-being. It also expands one consciousness to be inclusive of sundry possibilities and truths.

However, when this charitable gesture is met with repetitious lies, continuing to offer the benefit of the doubt becomes destructive. To offset the pain of cognitive dissonance and shattered illusions we might buy into the lies and unwittingly enter into an emotionally abusive dynamic.

Even the collusion in seemingly benign lies has far-reaching implications. A research study conducted by Dr. Ashley E. Hardin, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, revealed that being subject to dishonesty affects “empathic accuracy,” meaning the ability to read another person’s emotions. Essentially, Hardin and her colleagues discovered that impaired empathic accuracy resulting from dishonesty can contribute to increased dehumanization of others.

Dr. Hardin elaborates, “Sometimes people will tell a white lie and think it’s not a big deal. But a decision to be dishonest in one moment will have implications for how you interact with people subsequently.”

Although seemingly trivial, the mitigation of truth even in established customary forms has damaging consequences. It interferes with emphatic abilities and establishes relational pretense and pseudo intimacy. This generates avoidant ways of being that impedes conflict resolution and mature intimacy.

In closing, it is apparent that our ability to handle the truth is influenced by survival fears and one’s moral compass. For a variety of reasons the deceiver and the deceived (due to primal ego defenses, self-delusion, human trust and naivety) are both participants of what psychiatrist and spiritual counselor M. Scott Peck described as difficulties with accepting responsibility, so as to avoid pain. Lying is simply easier than facing the consequences of being truthful.

Peck is also clear in emphasizing that the hallmark of evil is the lie. It is our collusion with lies that is our personal and collective downfall. Accordingly, Peck encourages us to question everything, heartening us to consider that, “The more honest one is, the easier it is to continue being honest, just as the more lies one had told, the more necessary it is to lie again. By their openness, people dedicated to the truth live in the open, and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become free from fear.”

Paradoxically, the choice to live as honestly as is humanly possible awakens us to that which is false within ourselves and in others. It requires us to examine our deepest motivations and strive towards self-actualization. This means questioning motives, convention and widely accepted beliefs, even if it means incurring loss or condemnation or arouses social rejection and stigma.

Ultimately if we desire to attain a modicum of authenticity and integrity, and want to realize true intimacy, then defying lies and standing in one’s truth is an unquestionable necessity. We owe that to ourselves and we owe that to each other.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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