Self-deception in psychotherapy

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Self-deception in psychotherapy

Author: Rimantas Kočiūnas (Lithuania)

The tendency for self-deception is inherent in human nature, as it has a profound psychological meaning. It helps to take for real what one only wishes or imagines, thus contributing to internal equilibrium (albeit seeming) in complex life situations. Human consciousness is extremely sophisticated in creating “images of reality”, which match reality only partially or do not match at all. In perspective, this leads to complications in life, but at the same time, through simplification and deformation of reality, brings temporary peace of mind. In this way, self-deception is a universal remedy when encountering unpleasant, unacceptable, and sometimes brutal aspects of everyday life.

The theory of existential therapy, primarily that of Emmy van Deurzen, connects the concept of self-deception to those aspects of our everyday experience, which in analytical paradigm are identified with the concept of the unconscious, although it is obvious that these two concepts cannot be considered synonyms meaning unconscious phenomena. In existential therapy, the question of self-deception is most often considered in the context of the inauthentic way of being and is theoretically associated with one of the most important concepts in the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre known as “bad faith” (“mauvaise foi” in French). Emmy van Deurzen and Martin Adams (2011), identifying self-deception as inauthenticity, write: “It happens when we deny that something is true, when it is, or pretend that something is true, when it isn’t. It often means that we do not act when we know we should, or we pretend that there is nothing we can do about a situation, when there is something we can do” (van Deurzen, p.92).

Prior to considering the question of self-deception in the context of psychotherapy, let me briefly discuss philosophical understanding of the concept. The aforementioned famous French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre described the concept of self-deception in his main work “Being and Nothingness” (2000) as well as in his artistic works, especially in “Nausea”. Jean-Paul Sartre writes: “The same is said about personality, that it stays in the self-deception or that she is lying to herself … The essence of lie supposes that in reality the one self-deceiving wholly masters the truth that he hides” (Sartre 2000, p. 83). In this way, he defines self-deception as the “urge to hide the unpleasant truth or present a pleasant misconception as true”. In addition, we are talking about a certain inner agreement with oneself: “The one who is being deceived and the one who deceives is the same person; this means that as a deceiver, I must know the truth that is being hidden from me, since at the same time I am the one being deceived” (Sartre 2000, p. 84). In general it can be noted that, due to this complex and paradoxical interaction with oneself at the “stage” of reality and truth, we make life for oneself more comfortable, enjoyable and acceptable. Trying to answer the question “What should be an individual in his being, if he agrees to stay in self-deception?” Sartre (2000) gives the example of a young woman who came to her first date. She agrees to go with the man whom she sees for the first time, but whom she likes a lot. She is well aware about what intentions regarding her this man may be harbouring. But she does not want to hear in his speech anything that may be hidden beyond the words, except their literal meaning. When he tells her: “I admire you”, she ignores possible sexual implications of the phrase. She thinks that the man telling these words is sincere and respects her. But then he takes her hand, and the woman does not take it away, she does not even notice this. Her body and soul have separated. Her hand remains passive in the warm hands of the partner. She does not agree, and does not resist, as if she were a mindless object. A young woman has fallen into self-deception, yielding to the flattering charm and pleasant bodily sensations, removing all risks of such incidental acquaintance from the sphere of her consciousness (Sartre, pp. 89-90).

As we can see from this example, the perceived reality is distorted by self-deception. One aspect of this reality is considered as the only possible, while other aspects become invisible and are ignored. As a consequence, many things in life happen as if by themselves, and then we say (and we do hear this often from clients): “It somehow happened. But I do not know how.”


From the point of view of Jean-Paul Sartre, the said woman avoids recognizing her freedom and the possibility of conscious choice, and thus ignores her responsibility. Sartre (2000) writes that “[they] start self-deception, as if falling asleep, stay in self-deception, as in a dream. Once this way of being is realised, the way out is as difficult as waking up; for self-deception is the same way of being in the world as being awake or being asleep, which by themselves tend to continue uninterrupted” (Sartre, p.102).

Van Deurzen and Kenward (2005) give the following phenomenological description of the state of self-deception as the way of being: “To be in self-deception means to live in such a way as if you were in complete powerlessness or were completely free, ignoring the limiting factors of life or seeing the limits for any action in them. In self-deception an individual prefers to be something to nothing, or vice-versa, denies responsibility for own actions and choices. In self-deception an individual creates an image of himself, on the basis of the image that others have about him” (van Deurzen, p.14).

Falling into the net of self-deception and staying in it, for human beings, appears to be almost inevitable, as if resembling some kind of game, since it is often particularly difficult to be ready to meet one’s own freedom, and even more so the necessity to take responsibility for one’s choices. One of the goals of human life, and particularly in psychotherapy, is to live more openly and truthfully, to seek greater awareness of choices both available and made in life, to resist temptations of telling false stories about oneself; nonetheless, most people follow the opposite way, spending most of their lives under the influence of impulses, wandering in the labyrinths of deception and self-deception, “composing” self-portraits to show to others. Therefore, the classic authors in philosophy, most notably Martin Heidegger, Martin Buber, Jean Paul Sartre, argued that individuals live most part of their life inauthentically, choosing not genuine, false selves.

How can the issue of self-deception be considered in the context of psychotherapy? First of all, of course, it may seem interesting to explore the role of self-deception in those difficulties and problems of clients that prompt them to seek psychotherapy. This would suggest analysis of distortions in client’s understanding of his/her own problems; therapy also would aim at bringing out the illusory nature of the client’s desires in general and his/her wishes regarding therapy; it would be essential to clarify the client’s views about possible therapeutic changes and the outcome of psychotherapy; also the role of self-deception in the therapeutic relationship both of the client and the psychotherapist should be thoroughly discussed. Thus self-deception in psychotherapy may be related to very different aspects of the psychotherapeutic process. It seems worthwhile to focus here on two aspects: the mutual expectations of clients and therapists in relation to each other, and psychotherapists perspective on themselves.

Many difficulties in the process of psychotherapy arise because one of its participants, but more often both of them, may be dissatisfied with the actions of the partner. The therapist may feel discomfort because the client behaves in an unusual way that is embarrassing to the therapist, but the therapist does not want to or is afraid to admit not only to the client, but also to himself. The client, in turn, may feel disappointed, because the therapist does not meet his expectations. In this way, both participants of therapy are in need of agreement about their own expectations, and none of them should be left with a feeling of inferiority (Kottler, 2002). Commencing therapy with certain preconceived views regarding each other that are based on stereotypes and clichés, we at once give start to this “self-deception dream”, since we see events through the distorting lenses of our expectations.

As a rule, clients come to therapy having certain ideas about psychotherapy and psychotherapists. Only a part of these ideas are more or less conscious.

Clients always have some fantasies about what is psychotherapy, what are psychotherapists and what they do, what is his, client’s, role. Even if people claim knowing nothing at all, they still have some ideas, most often very vague and deformed. It would be appropriate to suggest that these ideas, naturally, contain certain expectations that become fertile ground for self-deception. The factor adding to this is rather low psychological culture in the society as a whole, including myths about psychotherapy created by popular literature, movies, and psychotherapists themselves. Mythologized ideas about the nature and ways of therapy may leave a significant imprint on potential clients’ understanding and attitudes. For instance, in the Soviet 80-ties, most people believed that the primary methods of psychotherapy were suggestion and hypnosis. So clients often asked, “Can you do hypnosis?” Nowadays there are clients who, under the influence of Hollywood movies, expect to see a couch in the therapist’s office, since, in their opinion, psychotherapy is identified with psychoanalysis. Mismatch of expectations regarding the course of psychotherapy (the therapist offers advice, prompts answers to questions in life and suggests ways to solve problems) and the reality found in the office of the therapist (the client is required to be active, open, to cooperate and to work himself) often manifests in the resistance of the client to actions of the therapist, up to total disappointment that may lead to terminating therapy. On the one hand, the client feels the need for assistance and understands that change is inevitable; on the other, he is not willing to pay for these changes, so he would not admit being the author of his difficulties, would avoid tormenting situations of multiple choice, would flee from even greater pain these choices may entail for some time, would refrain from investing any efforts with no certain guarantee of success, and finally, any money.

Clients not only bring their own views on psychotherapy and on how it should proceed, but also their expectations regarding the psychotherapist and help provided by him.

Here are some examples of the most common clients’ self-deceptions regarding psychotherapists:

  • The therapist must guess what exactly the client wants from the nature of his complaints. Clients are annoyed by the slow wit of the therapist, as he keeps endlessly asking and ascertaining what exactly the client wishes to get here, instead of helping at once.
  • The therapist must be patient, considerate, empathic, understanding at all times during therapy. At the first sight, such expectations seem fair, but is there any therapist who would be able to meet them to the extent required by the client? Such expectations do not take into account life realities of therapists, their different moods or working potential, their variable energy level. Deceiving themselves regarding expected qualities of psychotherapists, clients may feel dissatisfied. On the one hand, it is pleasant when a client is concerned about the therapist (“You look tired”); on the other hand, disapproval may be traced in such attention. The therapist has no right to be sometimes tired or look distracted having slept too little the previous night. By the way, some psychotherapists do not allow themselves to be natural: they demonstrate care and involvement in spite of their real situation and possibilities. Their work may become a torture, which inevitably would be accompanied by lie.
  • Psychotherapists must have answers to all questions. One client briefly formulated her position at the very first meeting: “I came for a diagnosis and prescription.” As a rule, people view psychotherapists as experts: they come to get advice, sympathy or support, to get rid of unpleasant symptoms and conditions. Clients are often unhappy if therapists ask questions instead of answering them. In their view, therapists must give answers, otherwise they seem not competent enough.
  • A therapist, being professionally trained and competent, must take full responsibility for both the organization of the process of therapy and for its outcome. For some clients, it is often more acceptable and convenient to remain an object of professional actions of the therapist, although in this case the very nature of therapeutic relationship is ignored, and hence, the necessity to share responsibility for what happens during therapy.
  • We know that the success of psychotherapeutic work depends not only on the therapist’s belief that he is able to help, but on the client’s faith that psychotherapy is worthwhile. The result is produced when these two beliefs mutually reinforce each other. Existential therapy maintains that it is the effort of the client that is most therapeutic, and the therapist’s role is to help him find what kind of effort is required.
  • The therapist must help in a way that makes the process of therapeutic change and the process of solving the difficulties as painless as possible for the client. Clients tend to challenge one of unpleasant truths of psychotherapy: not only suffering is inevitable in its course, but it may happen that at certain moments pain may become even stronger than it was before therapy. It is not every session that the client leaves the therapist’s office calm and content, let alone joyful. The process of therapy usually centres on the most painful areas of client’s experience; some of these might have been inaccessible for years.

This list of possible misconceptions about the nature of psychotherapy and the work of a therapist is far from complete. There is a risk, especially for beginning therapists, to respond to such self-deceptions, thereby transforming the space of psychotherapy into the place for handy advice and consolation.

Self-deception of clients seems more or less natural and sometimes almost rightful when compared to possible self-deceptions of psychotherapists about clients, about themselves as professionals and the very process of psychotherapy. Some of these self-deceptions are based on our natural human tendency to distort or ignore the reality, as described above; others are related to lack of professionalism and competence; while some may even exist in disguise of some psychological theory or methodology, as if depriving self-deception of its self-deception status.

Obviously, therapists must have their own views as to what clients expect from them. Besides, therapists do not always care to inquire about their clients’ expectations; meanwhile, this would help therapists avoid illusory misconceptions. In any case and as a rule, the expectations of clients and those of therapists match only partially.

Most often therapists feel that clients expect them to demonstrate good command of psychotherapeutic skills, which means support, easing of unpleasant conditions, explanation of confusing and complicated experiences, advice regarding actions in difficult situations, etc. And in many respects therapists try to conform to standards assumed by clients: they listen attentively, ask questions, respond to clients’ statements and try to understand them, offer support, attempt to help them open up, to express feelings, to clarify complex aspects of their life experience. Yet at the same time a therapist may behave naturally, that is, may be considerate, caring, sensitive, building an unrestrained atmosphere by his personality and his way of being. Thus he responds to the expectations of his client not just as a professional, but rather out of natural human consideration. Still, sometimes it may happen that the therapist desires to “appear” as such in front of the client, settling down into the mode of “a true therapist,” who peers at the client as a magician seeing and knowing and understanding everything, never makes mistakes and is ready to explain and provide decisions about anything. Such image may entirely meet expectations of some clients who are in need of the therapist as a figure of a mythologized almighty healer.

Jean-Paul Sartre (2002) once wrote that “there is a dance of a grocer, of a tailor, of an appraiser, by which they are trying to convince their customers that they represent nothing but a grocer, the tailor, the appraiser. A grocer, who is engaged in dreaming, may offend the customer, since the latter does not perceive him as a grocer. Decency requires that he sticks to his functions” (Sartre, p. 94). Applied to psychotherapy, this example sounds like a reminder that sometimes clients would like us to be “respectable” psychotherapists and conform to the image entrenched in the consciousness of the masses. In other words, putting forward their expectations clients often help therapists to fall into self-deception about their role in therapy. Notably, psychotherapists, while engaging in personification of certain mythologized images, deceive clients, because they refuse to be natural and hide their real selves. Then, is there any chance that the client might be helped to be more himself/herself and to live more authentically through such therapy?

A few books on the “client-side” experience in psychotherapy published recently, as well as research of clients’ perceptions of helping factors in therapy, demonstrate clearly that in fact expectations of clients towards therapists most often are very simple and concrete. Ernesto Spinelli (2007) points out two main expectations appearing also as the main therapeutic factors from the clients’ standpoint: 1) the therapist’s ability to provide the client with a possibility to experience what it means to speak and to be silent in the presence of another interested person, and 2) the ability to provide the client with a possibility to get experience of being listened to and heard. That is, first of all clients rather expect from therapists humanly attitude than professional “tricks”. It seems that therapists might be offering clients something complex, but forgetting those simple things that most clients need.

Psychotherapists equally have their own expectations about what a “good” client should represent. According to Kottler (2002), “they are bright, lively, interesting people. […] They have no serious health problems, or personality disorders, their symptoms are easy to deal with in therapy. These people feature a strong motivation to achieve therapeutic changes, but at the same time, they have the ability to wait for the results patiently. They show a good ability for self-analysis, developed abstract thinking, they know how to function in a situation of uncertainty. […] They demonstrate highly developed social interaction skills and sense of responsibility. These clients come to sessions on time, pay the bills on time and are willing to pay for the sessions cancelled on their own initiative. In between the sessions, they use their right to call a therapist at home or recourse to his assistance only when absolutely necessary. These individuals behave appropriately and respectfully vis-à-vis the therapist. And finally, they are always grateful to us for the assistance rendered” (Kottler, p.187). The picture is remarkable, but there is still one question remaining: why would they, being so perfect, need help from a therapist? I am sure that any therapist can find at least some elements of this image in in his dreams. It has a lot of room for professional self-deception. We, psychotherapists, must admit that such expectations attempt to cover our professional arrogance, narcissism, inadequate confidence in our own significance. And this exactly makes psychotherapists vulnerable when real clients are nowhere near this ideal. Therapists attempt to help people in their suffering, so it seems natural to expect recognition and gratitude in return. When, on the contrary, a client shows hostility, disrespect or indifference, it may be difficult to stay indifferent. Psychoanalysts have a term ‘narcissistic vulnerability’ which defines this problem very accurately. The degree of its intensity is usually related to professional maturity of the therapist. Moreover, any expectations of the therapist towards the client undermine the very goal of psychotherapy – to help the client to be himself to a greater extent, instead of meeting someone else’s expectations.

Therapists’ expectations regarding clients are also related to some distortions of therapists’ perception of themselves. This is an interesting case of self-deception: therapists credit themselves with qualities that are more relevant to desires and fantasies rather than to reality. Some therapists tend to fall into illusions of own perfection (because clients often see us as ideal men and women, model fathers and mothers, perfect partners, etc.), omnipotence (in fact, we help all who come to see us, even if by a tiny bit!), invulnerability (the therapist must have a strong personality!). Some therapists feel that they can be 100% objective, unbiased, yet that much is just completely unrealistic, because we are not outside observers of therapy, but personally involved participants of the process. In the newspapers, on TV, on the Internet one can often find comments by therapists on topics of mental health, but also their “authoritative” opinions on the state of society, politics, politicians, etc. Therapists sometimes tend to take on the role reaching far beyond the limits of their professional field. In fact, the role of psychotherapy in public life is very limited, and such claims by psychotherapists resemble rather a self-deception regarding their weight in society. One American therapist has commented that we, therapists, should not pretend to have a status of God, we do not qualify even for his distant relatives. Psychotherapists are at their best in the cosy settings of their offices.

It is unlikely for somebody to provide answers or recipes on how to avoid self-deception, how to stay completely aware of oneself, of one’s clients and the surrounding world as a whole. At the same time, this question might be flashing constantly in the focus of our attention, so that we stay watchful for those ever present traps of self-deception. Well, from time to time, it is makes sense even to grab oneself by the ear to pull ourselves out of a deceptive dream. And then we can recall the phrase by Aleksandr Alekseychik that “some clients happen to undergo therapy without regaining consciousness, while some therapists manage to do therapy without ever having one.”


  1. Van Deurzen E., Adams M. (2011) Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage.
  2. van Deurzen E., Kenward R. (2005) Dictionary of Existential Psychotherapy and Counselling London: Sage.
  3. Коттлер Дж. Совершенный психотерапевт. Работа с трудными клиентами. Спб: Питер, 2002 (J. Kottler, Compasionate Therapy: Working with Difficult Clients).
  4. Сартр Ж.П. Бытие и Ничто. Опыт феноменологической онтологии. М.: Республика, 2000 (J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness).
  5. Spinelli E. (2007) Practising Existential Therapy: The Relational World. London: Sage.


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